UW men’s basketball looks toward bright future

With a strong foundation laid by the departing senior class, optimism is high on Montlake.

  • Monday, March 25, 2019 9:04pm
  • Sports

By Lauren Kirschman

The News Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After Washington’s loss to North Carolina, Matisse Thybulle said he couldn’t believe how fast four years went by, or how fast his senior season came to end.

But as he headed to the bench late in the lopsided defeat, all he could think about was how far the program had come.

In two years, the Huskies went from 9-22 to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Fans have head coach Mike Hopkins to thank, along with a group of four seniors who stayed with the program when he was hired to replace Lorenzo Romar.

“We were pretty proud to lay down the foundation that we did,” Thybulle said.

Now, Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green and Noah Dickerson will leave the program in what they called more than capable hands. Even as they sat dejected after falling to the Tar Heels, the seniors still expressed excitement for the Huskies’ future.

“We had so much talent on this team that didn’t even have a chance to get on the court because of the seniors,” Thybulle said. “Now that they’re going to have an opportunity, UW is going to look different next year and it’s going to be an exciting team.”

Exactly how different UW will be has yet to be decided. The Huskies will definitely be without three starters in Thybulle, Crisp and Dickerson. But they could still lose a fourth in sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. In the coming weeks, Nowell will decide whether or not to declare for the NBA Draft.

Sophomore guard Nahziah Carter and freshman guard Jamal Bey will be two key building blocks of the new-look Huskies. After averaging 8.1 points this season coming off the bench, Carter reached double figures in each of UW’s NCAA Tournament games.

“It’s a big foundation,” Carter said of the seniors’ impact. “9-22 is terrible. We won 27 games this year. Coach Hopkins done what he’s promised with the program and his recruits have lived up to their potential as well. We won a lot of games and we hope to win a lot more from here.”

It took until late in the season for Bey to find his confidence, but he saw his minutes increase down the stretch and into the postseason. In the Huskies’ last three games, he averaged 5.0 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field.

“He doesn’t hesitate anymore,” Green said. “Before he would hesitate a bit on certain shots. Now, he’s in attack mode at all times and that’s a good thing.”

Along with Carter and Bey, the Huskies will also return sophomore starting forward Hameir Wright, who averaged 2.8 points and 2.3 rebounds this season. Junior forward Sam Timmins will also be back. He showed marked improvement this season and provided valuable minutes off the bench.

“We helped them get to the tournament for their first time,” Green said. “Even though it was our first time, it was their first time, too. It showed the type of intensity that comes with playing and getting to where you need to get to to play in the tournament.

“I feel like now they know what it takes to blow through the Pac-12, win every game, come into the tournament and play hard. They gained that experience more than we did when we were younger, when we were freshmen and sophomores. I’m actually very excited to see them play.”

Four members of UW’s 2018 recruiting class — Bryan Penn-Johnson, Elijah Hardy, Nate Roberts and Riley Sorn — didn’t see the floor often or at all this season.

A four-star center, the 7-foot Penn-Johnson was considered by 247sports.com to be the No. 1 player in Utah and the No. 21 center his class. He played sparingly in the first five games of the season before injuring his foot and never returning.

Hardy played a total of 18 minutes in 11 games this season. The three-star guard broke his hand against Auburn in November and returned against Washington State in January. Neither Roberts nor Sorn, both three-star centers, played.

The 2018 class was ranked No. 41 in the country and No. 8 in the Pac-12, but UW’s current 2019 class is ranked 21st nationally and fourth in the conference. It’s led by five-star center Isaiah Stewart, who committed to the Huskies in January and picked them over Duke, Michigan State, Syracuse and Kentucky.

UW will play half the season without Quade Green but come the start of the winter quarter, it will have the services of the five-star point guard who transferred from Kentucky. The Huskies also signed four-star guard RaeQuan Battle out of Marysville Pilchuck High School and three-star guard Marcus Tsohonis.

If there is one piece missing from the 2019 class, it takes the form of five-star Federal Way forward Jaden McDaniels.

McDaniels is considered the No. 1 power forward in the country and the No. 1 player in Washington. He lists UW among his finalists along with San Diego State, Texas, Kentucky and UCLA. Both McDaniels and Stewart were named McDonald’s All-America this season.

The incoming recruits, along with the Huskies’ returning players, will be tasked with continuing UW’s growth. After the loss to North Carolina, Hopkins touched on what it would take to do just that.

“We’re trying to build a program and when you’re building a program, you get a lot through experience,” Hopkins said. “And to be able to win a game and to feel it, sometimes you walk out on that court, on that stage, it’s pretty big. I’ve seen it a lot, but our guys haven’t.

“I’ve learned so many things. But the most important was for our guys to understand what it takes to get to this level and then what it’s going to take to win a national championship. And there’s nothing like experience. And this experience is going to elevate and push us forward.”

Minutes after the Huskies’ loss, as if channeling Hopkins’ words, Bey said he was already itching to start the climb back to the NCAA Tournament.

“Honestly,” he said, “it makes me want to get in the gym now.”

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