Washington coach Mike Hopkins saw something in a school and a program roughly 2,750 miles away from the place he’d spent 22 years as an assistant coach. It made him to vacate his perch as the coach in waiting at Syracuse University, his alma mater.
This winter, Hopkins’ Huskies have collected more overall victories and more Pac-12 wins than last season — this after the team lost Markelle Fultz, who left after his freshman season to become the No. 1 pick of the NBA draft, in the offseason.
The Huskies (13-5, 3-2) and their rookie coach will chase their 14th win of the season on Thursday at 8 p.m. when they visit Utah (10-7, 2-4) in the Hunstman Center. The Utes will try to snap a four-game losing streak.
“Syracuse raised me,” Hopkins told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview. “It was my dream school as a basketball player. It’s where I wanted to go and play, and I did it. It meant a lot to me. It was one of those places where it was like, you know, I was going to protect a legacy. That meant something to me.
“And then you kind of go through a part of your life where it’s people your age have passed away or you see a friend having success building a program. I just got to a point where I felt like being a builder would be pretty cool.”
Hopkins didn’t leave Syracuse entirely behind. While his staff all have ties to the West — assistant Dave Rice was a longtime assistant at BYU under Dave Rose and later went on to become UNLV’s head coach — his team’s style of play has been molded in the image of the Syracuse squads under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.
Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone defense which swallowed opponents in a sea of long arms? Yes, it made the trip to the Pacific Northwest with Hopkins. Entering Thursday, the Huskies rank first in the Pac-12 in 3-point field goal percentage defense (27.9 percent), first in blocked shots (4.8 per game), second in steals and second in scoring defense (69.8 points per game).
“They’re not trying to trick anybody from an offensive point of view. They play to their strengths,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “They’re really doing a nice job hanging their hat on the defensive end. It’s impressive considering all the players that were lost there and where some of the predictions came in. Give [Hopkins] a heck of a lot of credit. It seems like there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm in Seattle.”
The Huskies, picked 10th in the Pac-12 preseason poll, boast a nonconference win against Kansas, win that Hopkins pointed to as bit of “validation” that served as a springboard.
“Learning a new system, I might be surprised with how well they’ve adapted and adjusted and believed in the zone,” Hopkins said. “We’re starting to get really good at it. I think there were some growing pains, but the way that they’ve responded with it has been probably the biggest surprise. But I think that’s been probably one of the biggest reasons we’ve been winning.”
Hopkins’ father grew up in Seattle about 10 minutes from Washington, and attended the university. Hopkins, a California native, used to vacation in Seattle. While his basketball heritage comes from New York, he has treated this shift back West as a long-term move.
Hopkins identified an athletic director he felt comfortable working under in Jennifer Cohen, a university with a high academic profile and local recruiting base he coveted, as well as a prominent and nationally-competitive conference.
“I had the three Ps,” Hopkins said. “People, place and potential. ... I felt like if I could hire a great staff, which I think is the most important thing, it’s a place where they love their sports and basketball. There’s tradition. I was like, ‘Gosh.’ It checked all my boxes. It had to be a pretty special place to leave what I had. I believe it’s just an incredible spot.”
WASHINGTON AT UTAH
Tipoff • Thursday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Washington 13-5, 3-2; Utah 10-7, 2-4
Series history • Utah leads 13-9
About the Huskies • Washington junior Matisse Thybulle leads thePac-12 in steals (3.1 per game) and enters the week tied for fifth in the conference in blocked shots per game (1.7). A 6-foot-5 guard, Thybulle has also averaged 10.8 points per game. … Jaylen Nowell leads the team in scoring (16.7 ppg) and free throw percentage (82.9 percent). He’s coming off of a 20-point game in a loss against Stanford. … Junior forward Noah Dickerson has averaged 14.6 points and a team-high 7.6rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound native of Atlanta, Ga., has shot 58.8 percent from the field.
About the Utes • Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored 19second-half points in Sunday’s loss at USC. Bibbins, who has averaged a team-high 13.9 points per game this season, committed a season-high six turnovers in the game. … Since the start of Pac-12 play, sophomore Kolbe Caldwell has made 5-of-9 3-pointers (55.6 percent), but he has also committed 10 turnovers. Caldwell did not play against USC, and ParkerVan Dyke scored seven points and made 2-of-2 3-pointers in 21 minutes. …Senior David Collette has shot 59.3 percent from the field this season and averaged 13.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.