BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/29/2021

Thiel: Hop’s one chance as Zags, Pac-12 thrive

Many in college-hoops PNW are having big fun with NCAA tourney results. Except for UW fans. Their coach, Mike Hopkins, has one chance for redemption: The transfer portal.

Damaged by the transfer portal, coach Mike Hopkins has to turn it in his favor. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

In terms of near-flawless basketball efficiency, unbeaten Gonzaga looks a lot like a junior varsity version of the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs — fundamentals that can crack iron.

The star of the rest of the NCAA men’s tournament field has been the Pac-12 Conference.  It has three teams in the Elite Eight. A pandemic was more likely.

If the bracket ministers hadn’t screwed up and put Oregon in the same region as USC, where the Ducks Sunday night were eliminated by the Trojans 82-68, the round of eight might have had another Left Coaster. The Atlantic Coast Conference, which believes it has eminent domain in college basketball, is renting a trailer this tourney, with no place to park.

USC joins UCLA — together in the round for the first time in hoops history — and Oregon State Monday and Tuesday in pursuing Gonzaga for berths in the Final Four. The mind reels.

Especially if you’re a University of Washington fan.

The Huskies are stuck at the back end of the college hoops spectrum. Whatever collection of technology, tools and teams that gets that cargo ship unstuck in the Suez Canal, it should return to the U.S. for a similar job in Seattle hoops.

The Huskies’ fourth season under coach Mike Hopkins was a 5-21 stinker so foul that the team is generating news to compete with the actual tourney games — five players have bailed in the past 10 days, entering the NCAA’s transfer portal.

That probably isn’t a single-team, single-season record for the relatively new mechanism (the NCAA rules change begun in October 2018), but someone really should measure the cumulative length of the race-start skidmarks on Montlake Boulevard, just for perspective.

RaeQuan Battle was latest Husky to enter the transfer portal, joining Erik Stevenson, Marcus Tsohonis, Nate Pryor and J’Raan Brooks. Because of the portal, the size of the bailout is unprecedented in UW history.

Then again, entering the portal does not preclude a return. And it’s also possible that Hopkins is dry-eyed about the departures. He’s not going anywhere, so he may have subtly nudged the departing players, in order to seek others willing to commit to his bedrock 2-3 zone defense.

Hopkins is a two-time Pac-12 coach of the year who, with two subsequent bad seasons, has nearly burned up re-entering the college-sports atmosphere. But to fire him runs against not only common sense, the athletic department budget, reeling under lost revenues from the pandemic shutdown, can’t deal with it. His contract buyout is $12 million.

It’s true that the college tradition has boosters picking up the tab. But amid a host of urgent local and national financial crises needing philanthropy, can even crazy rich guys justify throwing money at a UW hoops coach to go away? Again?

Especially one that may have a way to get unstuck.

For whom the portal taketh away, the portal giveth.

According to an ESPN report, as of Thursday morning, there were 855 names in the transfer portal with two weekends left in the season. That’s about double the number from the same time a year ago.

Like it or not, the hoops world has changed.

The reality is college scholarship players are no longer chattel. Bowing to outside pressure, the NCAA was forced to give players some leverage. Pending likely changes coming out of Congress this year, players will gain more.

What Hopkins has to do is change with the times and avoid becoming a knucklehead. Like Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.

In an interview on an ESPN radio show last week, Gard characterized players who opt for the transfer portal as little more than cowards who are running from seasonal adversity.

“Do we place blame on everybody else, or do we have to look in the mirror and improve ourselves?” Gard said. “It’s part of the era we’re in. Is it good? In small instances, yeah, if there are situations where the player or student-athlete feels the change is in his or her best interest.

“My fear, and I think a lot of coaches fear, what are we teaching these young men and women where, any time there’s a little sliver of adversity, we go to where we think the grass is greener? We just turn and change courses.”

Gard had the audacity to analogize between the choices made in the entertainment business he’s in, and the hard choices made in family life.

“You have some adversity or some conflict in your life at home, you can’t go to the transfer portal,” he said. “If you have something with your kids go wrong, or your job, you gonna just transfer jobs all the time? Or you gonna trade in one of your kids on the portal?”

Gard is among the entrenched and entitled NCAA figures who profited enormously from the status quo, which was based on unpaid athletes, who had little choice about terms, conditions and health risks, producing massive sums of money for their coaches and schools.

If a student seeks a better athletic opportunity at another school, with the chance to potentially monetize it, Gard has no business guilt-tripping him with an inane child-giveaway metaphor, or insinuating voids in his character.

Whatever private misgivings Hopkins may have, there is no indication he’s a Gard-level Neanderthal when it comes to a systems change.

In fact, he’s already hired the former leading scorer in the Western Athletic Conference.

Garfield High grad Terrell Brown Jr. led the Seattle U Redhawks with 20.2 ppg in 2019-20, and was good enough to become a graduate transfer for Pac-12 Arizona, where he was a part-time starter averaging 26 minutes a game. Because the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility for the class of players who lost a season to COVID-19, Brown has agreed to spend that year at UW.

Hopkins also has recruited one of the state’s top prepsters, 6-10 Jackson Grant of Olympia High, who is said to have a 3-point shot. Also entering next fall is  a 6-8 forward from Nigeria, Samuel Ariyibi (video here).

None of these guys will be confused with Zag-to-be Hunter Sallis, a 6-5 guard from Omaha who is said to be the No. 2 prep guard in the country and the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga’s history. He announced his decision Friday, as if the Bulldogs needed more momentum entering the weekend.

But Hopkins isn’t in position to compete with Gonzaga; he’s got to be better than his past two years.

The way to get there is to not just accept how players’ rights have changed college basketball. He needs to embrace the transfer portal in a way that excites him that there’s 855 college players out there to be re-recruited, most of whom aren’t ex-Huskies.

Besides Gonzaga, he’s not going to be able to compete with, say, Auburn, which has the alum with basketball’s biggest platform: Charles Barkley. During one of the CBS studio shows between tournament games, the Chuckster said this on national TV to players in the transfer portal:

“If you want to get a quality education and be coached by a great coach, come on down to Auburn.”

But Hopkins sure as hell better out-recruit Greg Gard. And he better start making Bill Walton the best friend Huskies basketball ever has had.

For Huskies fans who don’t like the annual roster flushes abetted by the transfer portal,  don’t let a sliver of adversity make you run for greener grass. There isn’t any. Best get used to it.

 


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YourThoughts

  • Alan Harrison

    I think Hop’s biggest issue these days is not Gonzaga or Oregon, both of whom will get superior recruits for awhile. It’s UCLA and Wazzu, both of whom recruit for defense, grit, and a chip on the shoulder first, second, and third. The UW offense still has a hangover of trying to look good for the NBA, it appears, IMHO.

    • art thiel

      Hop wants defense first too, but the guys he brought in didn’t. I must admit I don’t understand that disconnect.

      • LarryLurex70

        Easy: kids today don’t think playing a hardcore style of defense is fun. Other than what they see clips of on YouTube from decades ago, it’s foreign to them. Whereas, I loved watching Georgetown as an ‘80’s teen, and Arkansas in the ‘90’s. I think one of the main/many problems with basketball today – not just at the collegiate level – is the reliance on the 3-ball. Thanks in large part to Stephen Curry, seemingly everybody wants/is expected to go for the home run now, whether or not their team actually needs it at the time. You cannot ever get me to agree that there’s an actual strategy to shooting from between the 3pt. line and center court. But, that’s what players want to do nowadays rather than play defense.

        I wish the coaches in my age range could get these kids to understand that as impressive as the Showtime Lakers were on offense, their philosophy started with defense, and that you cannot win without it. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for a coach like Tim Grgurich to watch the game of basketball today.

        • art thiel

          You forgot to tell everyone to get off your lawn.

          Curry is a symptom, not a cause. The cause was the acceptance of analytics that proved good 3pt shooting was more efficient ball. Coaches recruited to that proficiency, and players became better at it, from farther away. It’s a lot easier to find great shooters than the next Hakeem Olajuwon.

          As far as defense, you can’t watch this tourney and tell me defense is not being taught and executed at the highest level. It is flat not true that most of today’s kids don’t play D.

          There’s always been guys in college and the NBA who slack off, but most teams most of the time succeed through defense, as you said. I don’t like the distortion of the game toward the 3 either, but I also don’t like the change to the home run/strikeout offense in baseball.

          Data rules.

        • jafabian

          IIRC Matisse Thybulle was a heck of a defender back in the day.

  • jafabian

    College Basketball is becoming more and more problematic. The best freshman play only to position themselves for the NBA draft. California will allow them to be paid for sports participation, they can control their likeness and now the transfer portal. Picture if the NBA allowed players to leave a team after an under performing season.

    Coach Hop has even lost his top recruiter in Cameron Dollar. Basketball at UW, both men and women, is at a low point right now. A quick turnaround is not in the near future. The men’s team could really use Brandon Roy on the coaching staff. Auburn has used Charles Barkley to help recruit. BRoy would be the same kind of shot in the arm. They need it.

    • art thiel

      The business of college basketball is annually saved by the spectacle of the tourney. Aside from a few hotspots, fewer fans care about the regular season. And wait until you see what hits the NCAA this year on the NIL business.

      As far as Roy, I just don’t see him as an asset, and Hop might see him as a threat.

      • jafabian

        At this point I don’t know how they can attract more recruits. Coach Hop will have to coach his tail FB then. But he had to this season and look what happened. Next season doesn’t look good.

    • Husky73

      Based on the talent gap between Washington and the rest of the Pac 12 (and the nation), losing “their top recruiter” is a plus— an opportunity to vastly improve.

      • art thiel

        Someone had to be scapegoated.

      • jafabian

        Once upon a time Coach Dollar was considered to be one of the top assistant coaches in the West. A top evaluator of talent and able to coach today’s players. Based on his experience at Seattle U and this past season at UW as well as the kind of players that enter the NBA it seems to me that today’s young players have all the skills but very little basketball smarts. They’ll practice their 3 point shot for hours but don’t spend much watching videos studying their opponents. It’s more important to get on SportsCenter than it is to get the win. They expect others to make that happen. The Huskies have the talent to win. I won’t point the finger at the coaching staff when Husky basketball history has consistently been inconsistent.

        • Husky73

          “The Huskies have the talent to win”…..not this year.

  • Husky73

    Gard is not altogether wrong, though he could have produced a better analogy. The transfer portal is like free agency in baseball. It is best utilized for a specific need– not to build a team. Hopkins has not built a core of three and four year players to establish a culture and hierarchy. Once that is done, a targeted transfer fills a position of need. Right now (not including recruits and incoming transfers), the Huskies have four scholarship players. That is no way to build a railroad, or a college basketball team.

    • art thiel

      Hopkins has little choice. He needs talented players. Roles are secondary. The portal is primarily for players to get to a better situation, not a tool for coaches to craft teams.

  • woofer

    “For whom the portal taketh away, the portal giveth.”

    Enjoyed the catechism on the sacred rite of entering the Transfer Portal. It truly is a passage to a mystical new world of infinite possibility. But surely there must be a secret password to get in. How can the Big Hop hope to bound in a single leap through the Transfer Portal without getting his legs tangled up around his neck unless he knows the secret password? Is prayer the answer?

    Midnight finally arrived and the Beavs’ golden carriage turned back into a pumpkin. They are used to it. But it was a nice dance for a perennial wallflower. Somewhere Dee Andros, the eternal pumpkin prototype, is smiling.

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    • art thiel

      Hopkins’ job depends on figuring out the mystery.

      I enjoyed the Beavers’ story. The epitome of hoops madness, led by a good man.

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