Coach Mike Hopkins changed the face of Husky basketball last season and this year surprised even the most optimistic UW fans by engineering a near-upset at Gonzaga, a 12-game conference win streak and 15-3 Pac-12 record.
So having a new hire resurrect a proud program is something the Dawgs have in common with the Aggies as they approach Friday’s opening round game in the NCAA Tournament.
Hopkins did it with defense, employing the famous Syracuse 2-3 zone led by an elite defender in 6-foot-5 senior Matthias Thybulle. Thybulle was born to pick off passes on the perimeter or sneak around the key to block shots from the weakside, which, when the Dawgs are rolling, sparks an offense that excels in transition through guards David Crisp and Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The Huskies have a low-post scorer, Noah Dickerson, but he’s a bit undersized at 6-8, and he’s the only real offensive threat among UW’s big man rotation. The Oregon Ducks exposed that weakness twice down the stretch, dominating the Huskies in the conference finale and conference title game by absolutely putting a lid on the basket by anchoring long and lanky forwards inside.
If UW is going to beat you, they need guards to score and, more specifically, they need their guards to hit threes. When Crisp is on from outside he seems to swing the team’s momentum, and during the conference win streak he and Nowell were deadly. When he’s off, the 6-foot senior draws the ire of Husky fans, who tend to criticize his quick trigger or penchant for errant passes.
The X-factor for UW is the team’s sixth man, sophomore guard Naz Carter. Carter’s athleticism is off the charts. He and Thybulle were neck-and-neck in the unofficial race to bring the Husky crowd to its feet most often. Nowell’s the team’s leading scorer, but Carter is the guy who really puts pressure on the defense when he attacks the rim.
For as exciting as the season began, the Huskies seemed to lose steam after clinching the Pac-12 conference title in mid-February. They closed the season by inexplicably dropping a game at lowly California, then struggled against Stanford and Oregon State before a rout in Seattle at the hands of Oregon.
The pessimistic Husky fans saw shades of Hopkins’ 2017-18 team, which ran out of gas in the season’s home stretch and settled for an NIT bid. But the optimistic fans will remember the defensive scheme that helped the Dawgs roll through the Pac-12 and nearly knock off NCAA tourney teams Gonzaga and Minnesota. UW also played Virginia Tech and Auburn, so they have experience on a national stage already this season.
The key question for Aggies fans is which UW team will show up in Columbus. Hopkins has rebuilt a program to respectability over the past two seasons and Friday may answer the question of whether Husky basketball is truly back.
David Nelson was a reporter at The Herald Journal from 2003-06. He’s now editor of the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington, and closely follows the Huskies.