I’m conflicted when it comes to the excitement surrounding the Washington men’s basketball team. As a Coug, I never want the Huskies to excel at anything, though it’s usually applied more to the football team than the basketball team.
What makes it worse is while the Huskies are rising to unexpected heights this year under first-year head coach Mike Hopkins, the Cougs are last in the Pac-12 Conference at 1-9. The Huskies play in front of sellout or near-sellout crowds at Alaska Airlines Arena, and the Cougs play in front of empty seats at Beasley Coliseum.
The Huskies have a coach who has re-energized and restored faith in the program. We have a coach in Ernie Kent who had a lot of success at Oregon but is 15-49 in conference play since he became coach four years ago in Pullman.
I guess because I’m a crimson-and-gray fool, I keep watching Cougar basketball games, hoping for the best, especially since we won the Wooden Legacy Classic in December, beating St. Mary’s in the semifinals. St. Mary’s is 23-2, and it’s astounding to think that one of those losses was against Washington State. If the two teams met now, I’m convinced the Gaels would win by 20 or 30, or you name the number as long as it’s in double digits.
Monday was new athletic director Pat Chun’s first day at WSU, and I hope he makes the state of the hoop team his first priority. Is Kent the right man to turn it around or does a change need to be made? Problem is, if Chun determines a change is the best course of action, Kent’s contract runs through 2022, and he earns $1.4 million a year.
For the handful of us who are still paying attention, it makes it even tougher to see what former WSU coach Tony Bennett is doing at Virginia. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 2 in the country and have a terrific shot at winning the national championship. They held Syracuse to 44 points over the weekend while Washington State gave up an average of 94 points in a losses to Arizona and Arizona State.
Poor defense has always bothered me when I watch basketball games, whether it’s at a youth level or any level. It’s one of the reasons I’ve lost interest in the NBA. Defense takes effort and a good scheme, and the Huskies now have both.
Washington has many of the same players who slogged through a disappointing season last year that caused the firing of Lorenzo Romar, who is now an assistant coach with Arizona. The players have bought into Hopkins’ 2-3 zone and are causing opponents all kinds of problems.
I admit to being envious. I watched Saturday night’s game against Arizona, the one that Dominic Green won with a 3 at the buzzer. I was actually happy for him since we live a mile or two from Hazen, where he played his high school ball.
After that 78-75 victory, the Huskies are now 8-0 in games decided by five points or fewer. I even like their motto of “Tougher Together” because they truly are. (Meanwhile, the Cougs’ motto is “Respect Our Hustle,” and I would if I saw more of it.)
Before Saturday’s game, Husky fans gave a warm reception to Romar, and I guess it’s because of the big picture since he was Washington’s head coach for 15 years, leading the Dawgs to postseason prominence for a while. In the smaller picture, last year was a fiasco, turning Nathan Hale into a farm team and hiring the dad of the Nathan Hale star, Michael Porter, to be an assistant on his staff. The whole thing stunk, but apparently they hung enough air fresheners from the Hec Ed rafters to make Romar’s return palatable.
Under Hopkins the Huskies are 17-6 overall and 7-3 in Pac-12 play, just one game behind conference-leading Arizona in the loss column. Looking at the rest of their conference schedule, there’s a good chance they could go 6-2 and raise their record to 23-8 and 13-5. With wins over USC, Arizona and Kansas, they will probably be invited to the NCAA Tournament, and with the way they play, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make some March Madness noise.
Matisse Thybulle has set a single-season school record for steals and freshman Jaylen Nowell already looks like an NBA player. And Noah Dickerson, that kid is unbelievable, fearlessly taking on much taller Arizona defenders and beating them in the post.
The Huskies are flat-out impressive, and it’s not a one-game or one-week thing – this is a team that looks like it’s on its way to creating more havoc and memories the rest of the year.