SEATTLE (AP) — For the past four seasons, Mike Hopkins has tried to rediscover the formula that made his first couple of teams at Washington so successful.
He tried to win with freshmen stars. He tried to win with a mix of freshmen and mid-career transfers.
And now in what could be his last chance with the Huskies, Hopkins has put together a team loaded with experience hoping that Washington can be a surprise contender in the final season of the Pac-12 Conference in its current form.
“I think we’ve always had really good players,” Hopkins said. “I don’t think we’ve had a great combination of complementary talent, and I believe that this is one of the best rosters that we’ve had since the year we won it four years ago.”
Without it being explicitly said, there is significant pressure on Washington to win this season for Hopkins. His future was in the balance after last season where the Huskies went 16-16 and missed the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season.
But Hopkins now has a more manageable buyout in his contract and will be working for a new athletic director. It’s a recipe that could lead to change if the Huskies stumble.
Fortunately for Hopkins, his roster has the potential to be sneaky good. Washington brings back all-league performer Keion Brooks Jr., all-defensive standout Braxton Meah and talented young guard Koren Johnson.
It’s the pieces that Washington added around those three that will determine the success of the season. Former Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler highlights the group of newcomers for the Huskies. He’ll be joined by guard Paul Mulcahy (Rutgers), forward Moses Wood (Portland), guard Anthony Holland (Fresno State), forward Wilhelm Breidenbach (Nebraska) and freshman Wesley Yates III.
“The biggest thing is building camaraderie off the court, like getting to know who you’re playing with, getting to know who’s your roommate, getting to know who’s the guy next to you in the locker room,” Wheeler said. “Because if you can build trust with them off the court, that irons out a lot of stuff on the court.”
BROOKS IS BACK
Getting Brooks to return for another year was a major win for Hopkins and helped lead to the arrival of Wheeler, his former teammate at Kentucky. Brooks averaged 17.7 points and 6.7 rebounds last season for Washington, but was one of only two players to average in double figures.
MY NAME IS
Washington’s cast of new arrivals all come with significant experience. Wheeler is the most notable, having started 86 games in the SEC, first at Georgia and the past two seasons at Kentucky. Wheeler averaged 10.1 points and 6.9 assists two seasons ago for the Wildcats before his role was reduced last season.
Mulcahy started 60 games and averaged 32 minutes for Rutgers over the past two seasons. Wood averaged a career-best 15.3 points per game last season for Portland and was an all-West Coast Conference selection.
Those three players, along with Brooks and Holland, have all appeared in more than 100 college games.
The biggest change for Hopkins will be moving away from the zone defense that’s been the hallmark of his teams. The Huskies intend to still use the zone at times, but will be primarily a man-to-man defense.
“With that, there’s a lot of learning. We’re getting better, but a long way to go,” Hopkins said.
Washington’s non-conference schedule is highlighted by a visit from No. 11 Gonzaga on Dec. 9. The Huskies also face Colorado State, Xavier and either No. 17 San Diego State or No. 23 Saint Mary’s in neutral site games in Las Vegas.
Washington opens conference play at Colorado on Dec. 29 and will play five of its first eight conference games on the road. The conclusion could be tough with games at No. 12 Arizona, home for UCLA and No. 21 USC and at Washington State to close Pac-12 play.
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