BY Art Thiel 11:35PM 01/13/2018

Thiel: Stanford better, but Huskies gaining

A bigger Stanford team prevailed 73-64 over Washington Saturday, but the Huskies are playing well above the forecasts. Now if coach Mike Hopkins doesn’t screw up . . .

Mike Hopkins took some blame for a couple of decisions Saturday, but the Huskies coach has his team playing far above expectations. / YouTube

The Huskies Saturday night saw a good Pac-12 Conference team worthy of an NCAA basketball tournament berth. But they weren’t looking in a mirror. They were looking at Stanford. Or more precisely, they were looking up at Stanford.

Bigger, stronger, faster.

But not all that much in any category.

Given the distance first-year coach Mike Hopkins had to travel — much further than the mileage between his old job at Syracuse and Seattle — to get the Huskies where they are (3-2 in conference, 13-5 overall), he and his players can be proud that year-to-year progress was apparent to even grade-school Huskies fans.

After dispatching Cal Thursday 66-56, the Huskies, free of seniors and big men who can score, were on a 15-2 run against the suddenly nervous Cardinal (4-1, 10-8), who already were nursing welts from having had 12 shots swatted back into their grills.

The deficit was down to 62-60 inside four minutes, and Hec Ed’s 8,256 customers were nearing a state of ecstasy. Then, of all people, Hopkins screwed up.

At least that’s his contention.

On consecutive Stanford possessions, he called for traps on the ball. The Cardinal responded well, whipping the ball to open shooters Daejon Davis and Dorian Pickens.

Up to that point, Stanford hit just two of nine beyond the arc. Suddenly, it was four for 11, the two three-balls boosting the lead to 68-60, and the Huskies were toast.

“I thought those were the two back-breakers, which were both on me,” Hopkins said in the wake of the 73-64 defeat, raising his hand as if he had fouled. “Those are the calls where sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

“Sometimes aggressive can get you beat, and sometimes you want to be unpredictable.”

Sometimes? No. The Huskies have no time to not be aggressive. They’re too short, too skinny, too young to be anything but full tilt. We shall politely disagree with Hopkins. When the primary weapons are energy and athleticism, the throttle must be open.

To get as close as they did to Stanford, they had to do numerous things well. They cut their turnovers from 20 Thursday to 10 Saturday, they forced Stanford into 18 turnovers (10 steals) and the 12 blocks will leave emotional scars. The fabled 2-3 zone Hopkins brought from Syracuse had numerous moments where it did what it was supposed to do: Neutralize the talent/height disparity.

But it also left the Huskies out of position to rebound, as is often the case with zones. Stanford killed the Huskies on the boards, 48-28, producing a 13-2 advantage on second-chance points.

The Huskies’ two big men didn’t do a lot. Noah Dickerson, a 6-8 forward, played just 19 minutes and had eight points and seven rebounds. Sam Timmins, a 6-11 center, played 23 minutes and had two free throws and five boards.

That kind of production means the little guys have to carry the freight. Not much was delivered, especially behind the arc — a dismal 5 of 22.

“Our best offensive team is our smallest team,” Hopkins said. “I wouldn’t say our smallest team is our worst defensive team . . . ”

But it is. And sometimes, like Saturday, it included four freshmen at once.

But none of the foregoing should be considered disappointing. In fact, the positives should be encouraging, considering that the the previous Huskies team under coach Lorenzo Romar won two conference games total and finished with a 13-game losing streak.

With a single recruiting class patched with the holdovers, Hopkins has created from the ashes a respectable team. Not an NCAA tournament team, but hey, respectable is good, especially in a basketball conference where the biggest headlines are reserved for international shoplifting, federal wire fraud and a dysfunctional father.

Hopkins is a 12-points-a-night big man from the tourney, but whatever else ails the Huskies seems fixable in-season. Like shooting.

“Sometimes we can get too stagnant,” he said. “Sometimes you can hold the ball too much. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve got some good offensive players. We have to shoot better.

“If we make the extra pass, we got a shot.”

That’s a fairly modest to-do list, especially considering the smoking pile that was left with the departure of Romar and his prized recruiting class. Several incoming freshmen scattered, including the 6-3 Davis, the former Garfield High School star who has started since the beginning and had an impressive 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Had Davis stayed, it would have given the Huskies a big boost. On the other hand, if Hopkins hadn’t made a couple of rookie mistakes Saturday, Stanford might have lost.

It’s a year of training wheels for everyone. The Huskies are farther down the road than anyone expected.


  • Get ’em dawgies

    Yes – it’s a joy to watch the Dawgs playing much more disciplined, intelligent ball. That zone has given us a chance this year. And on offense – happy to see much better decision making going on – no longer is it open gym (love you Coach Romar – but the last few years weren’t pretty…)

    • art thiel

      If Thybulle and a few others made the extra pass to a better shot, the first half would have looked a lot better. But that’s teachable.

  • 1coolguy

    One of the biggest downsides of LR’s tenure is that with the Sonics leaving halfway through his years as HC., with a good, solid men’s BB team he could have had sellouts every night, as the “go to” BB team in Seattle. He not only never figured out how to coach in the one-and-done era, he never, ever produced a team that knew a lick about how to play defense, which is much more difficult to learn and play than offense. Hopkins has an opportunity to make the men’s BB team a very good ticket and in an area pushing 4 million,
    a consistent 10,000 seat arena sellout is very possible. Once he gets close to the HS coaches here, Roy, etc, and picks up their players, this program can be a solid winner in another 1-2 seasons.

    • art thiel

      The program’s potential has always been there, and Romar hit it early on with the great local talents. But he rarely got the most out of his NBA caliber players. Hopkins’ 2-3 zone, applied intensely, will keep UW games where man-to-man won’t. Stanford really struggled against it in the second half.

  • Theyfinallyfiredcable

    Really impressed with this team ; the 2-3 zone keeps them in games , but as you said Art they don’t get boards as easily and that has hurt them some this year .

    The last 2 games vs. Cougs and Stanford , seems there’s no real offensive game plan . The inside game is mostly non-existent with the occasional exception of Crisp or Nowell driving the lane for a layup . Other than that it’s a plethora of 3’s and a prayer . I’d love to see Timmons develop a low post game and be more of an offensive threat . But hey , they’re playing great considering all the turnover ..

    Weren’t they picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 this year ? Thought I saw that in the paper ..

    • art thiel

      They were picked 11th by Pac-12 media. There is no inside game because Timmons has none. This is a motion offense that needs to make an extra passfor the 15 footer instead of settling for a deep shot.

  • Husky73

    The Pac 12 has not seen that zone. It keeps “3 happy” teams in check. However, the Huskies’ weakness is the 3. They play hard and Hopkins is a plethora of sweat and encouragement on the sidelines. So far, so good for Jen Cohen.