By Todd Milles
The News Tribune
SEATTLE — New Washington Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins joked that if you cut him open, Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense would “come out in my blood.”
And he is hoping to install one of college basketball’s most successful defenses as the lifeline for the Huskies in the Pac-12.
Not surprisingly, Hopkins, 48, said UW will shift away from its longstanding man-to-man defense under former coach Lorenzo Romar and utilize the 2-3 zone as its base defense moving forward.
“People think the defense is like Little League baseball,” Hopkins said. “But for the most part, there’s a lot of little intricacies. There’s a lot of thought process. It’s good in a lot of ways because it’s against the grain.”
While a player, then a longtime assistant under coach Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Hopkins has spent the better part of 25 years understanding why that program’s 2-3 zone has been so ingenious.
On the surface, compared to high-energy man-to-man defense, the 2-3 zone almost seems like a working contradiction: An inert attack designed to fluster ball-handlers.
But Hopkins warns it is much more forceful than that, with so many more variations to it.
“The ball gets into the high post, and a lot of teams collapse,” Hopkins said “We go out.”
At Syracuse, the 2-3 zone was run to near-perfection. At the UW, it is still a novelty, at least with the players.
“I’ve never really played for a zone-heavy team,” Huskies forward Matisse Thybulle said. “And especially with this zone, a lot of it is backward from what you learned with a traditional zone. Everything I had learned up to this, I had to throw out the window to take this new stuff on.”
What made players more willing to accept this new style, and change, was the fact the Huskies were one of the worst defenses in the conference last season.
They gave up 81.1 points per game, second-worst in the Pac-12 behind Arizona State. Teams shot 46.6 percent from the floor against them, and an astounding 39.9-percent from the 3-point area, which was worst in the league.
“Anything that helps us win, you know,” said UW junior point guard David Crisp. “He’s been on winning programs, so he knows what it takes. He knows what it looks like. I am just following his lead.”
Hopkins admits there’s been a huge learning curve with his players understanding this new defense.
“There’s a lot of different training,” Hopkins said. “They have 18, 19 years of habits going back … but (they) are getting it, and they are working hard at it. It’s not easy. But I think as we move forward, we’ll keep getting better and better at it.”
Crisp now point man
The last time Crisp was a team’s full-time point guard, it was for Brewster Academy in New Hampshire in 2015.
Now after sitting behind NBA-bound Dejounte Murray (2015-16) and Markelle Fultz (last season) the past two seasons, Crisp is back to running the show.
And he said he’s prepared himself for that.
“Physically, I’ve been getting in great shape,” said Crisp, who spent three seasons at Clover Park High School, winning the Class 2A title in 2011. “Being a point guard … you’ve got to be willing to play 40 minutes fully and effectively.”
Dickerson’s new physique
Every effective zone defense needs leaping, fearless rim protectors, and a remade Noah Dickerson looks to fill that role.
The junior from Atlanta, Ga., looks much more svelte than last season, and comes into this season at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds.
He attribute the change more to how much he ate rather than what he eats.
And under the watchful eye of new strength and conditioning director Todd Tuetken, Dickerson has increased his agility and burst.
”My body feels amazing,” Dickerson said. “I’m a lot leaner. I can jump a lot higher. I can run a lot faster.”
Hopkins continues to rave about the four incoming freshmen — Nahziah Carter, Michael Carter III, Jaylen Nowell and Hameir Wright — who all could make an immediate impact. The one to really watch out for is Nahziah Carter, the newphew of Jay Z, who has explosive athleticism. He dunked for the first time in eighth grade. “I was 12 or 13,” he said. … The Huskies got another oral commitment Tuesday from an East Coast product for the 2018 recruiting class — 6-11 power forward Nate Roberts, who chose the UW over Syracuse and Nebraska. Roberts is at the Brewster Academy.
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