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No. 25 UW Huskies host Western Kentucky in hoops opener

Jaylen Nowell is back for his sophomore year with Mike Hopkins and the No. 25 UW Huskies. (AP)

Ending a seven-season drought without an NCAA Tournament berth and competing in a wide-open Pac-12 Conference await the No. 25-ranked UW Huskies in the 2018-19 campaign.

Good News, Bad News, No News: UW cracks AP preseason hoops poll

The Huskies take their first steps toward reaching high expectations on Tuesday when they host Western Kentucky at Alaska Airlines Arena.

Washington showed promise in 2017-18, its first season under coach Mike Hopkins. The former Jim Boeheim assistant at Syracuse won Pac-12 Coach of the Year following a 20-win regular season, which included victories over Kansas and Arizona.

The Huskies’ slim hopes for a program-first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011 were dashed in an overtime loss to Oregon State to open the Pac-12 Tournament. The juxtaposition in some of the marquee wins and the letdown losses underscore the building project that was Hopkins’ first year.

In Hopkins’ second season, with key returning starters like Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp and All-Pac-12 center Noah Dickerson, the growing pains of a year ago provide optimism for this campaign.

“Last year, we were teaching them how to win,” Hopkins said at last month’s Pac-12 media day. “This year, we’re teaching them how to handle expectations. So it’ll be a new learning curve, but the kids have worked really hard and 1/8are 3/8 playing well together.”

The preseason expectations are well-founded. Hopkins implemented an aggressive defensive approach last season that yielded the nation’s No. 11 and No. 18 steals and blocks percentages in the nation, according to KenPom.com metrics.

Thybulle emerged as one of college basketball’s premier on-ball defenders, averaging a shade below three steals per game.

“He was just Spider-Man, like he’s a superhero,” Hopkins said of Thybulle’s ability to jump into passing lanes in Washington’s zone defense. “When the coaching staff recommended about putting Matisse up top, we were going against the grain. But he understood it.”

Balancing risk on the defensive end will be one of the Huskies’ keys to reach their potential this season. While Washington flourished when it generated turnovers, gambling on the perimeter allowed opponents to attack the rim effectively.

Washington’s strides in that facet could be evident immediately on opening night. Western Kentucky — a winner of 27 games and participant in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals last season — was one of the nation’s most productive offenses from inside the 3-point line.

The Hilltoppers ranked No. 35 in 2-point shooting percentage.

While Washington opens 2018-19 with expectations stemming from a veteran roster, Western Kentucky embarks on the campaign looking to prepare some new faces for the Conference USA race.

“All those things, we’ve got to get better at: getting some chemistry, getting some rhythm,” Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury said in his press conference following the Hilltoppers’ Nov. 3 exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan.

The jelling of a new-look roster includes replacing last season’s standouts, Darius Thompson and Justin Johnson, who combined to average 29.3 points per game in 2017-18.

One of the Hilltoppers’ newcomers, Auburn transfer Desean Murray, is suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Returning guard Josh Anderson, who gained eligibility midway through the 2017-18 season, was suspended for the Nov. 3 exhibition game. His 22 points were a team-high in the Oct. 30 exhibition against Campbellsville.

Stansbury said Anderson will travel to Washington.

– STATS