Unlike the Aggies, the Huskies waltzed through the Pac-12 Conference during the 2018-19 men’s basketball season.
Perhaps it wasn’t that easy for Washington, but the Huskies won the regular season title by three games. However, they stumbled a bit some down the stretch and ended up losing in the title game of the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon, 68-48.
Washington got an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament and was seeded ninth. The Huskies (26-8) will face eighth-seeded Utah State (28-6) in the first round on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
“I’m so excited and happy for the kids,” Washington head coach Mike Hopkins told the Pac-12 Network in television interview right after the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. “... It’s why you play the game in college. You get a chance to play for a national championship. You hear (he makes the sound of the song used for NCAA Tournament) and you get the chills. You get to be a part of it.”
Like USU, Washington has not been a part of the Big Dance since 2011. Hopkins is in his second season at the Husky helm.
He was an assistant at Syracuse and dubbed the head coach in waiting a few years ago at the school, but headed to the great Northwest when the opportunity came.
“I haven’t really seen Washington play this year,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “I know their head coach (Mike) Hopkins came from Syracuse, so I know they play exclusively the Syracuse zone, so to speak. They’re the Pac-12 champions, so it should be a heck of a contest.”
The No. 25 Aggies tied for the Mountain West regular season title with No. 20 Nevada. At the conference tournament, USU captured the automatic bid by beating San Diego State in the title game, 64-57.
The Aggies head to the NCAA Tournament on a 10-game winning streak and having won 17 of their last 18. The Huskies are not so fortunate.
After winning 12 straight, including the first 10 games in league play, Washington has went 7-4. One of those losses was at California, which was the lone conference victory for the Bears. Washington fell at home to Oregon, 55-47, to finish the regular season.
“I know they ran through the Pac-12,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “They stumbled a little bit at the end of the season, but they’re a really good team. I was just told they play quite a bit of zone, so we’ll see what happens there. Most Washington teams can shoot it really well. Obviously, they’re a high-major school, so they’ll have lots of athletes, but we’re excited for it.”
The Huskies were able to win their first two games in the conference tournament before running into Oregon again.
“This group had never won a game at the Pac-12 tournament,” Hopkins said. Disappointed to lose in the (Pac-12) final, but you go back to work. We are in our fourth season, as you have the preseason, season, Pac-12 tournament and then the NCAA Tournament. The guys are excited to be a part of it. You feel like you are part of the party.”
Several times the defense of the Huskies has come up. Commentators called what Washington runs a “unique zone.”
It’s a great advantage,” Hopkins said. “It’s been a proven winning system in tournament play. It’s tough to prepare for. If you win the first game, it’s an advantage to turn around and play so soon.”
The winner Friday between Washington and USU will take on most likely the top-seeded team in the Midwest Regional in North Carolina. The Tar Heels play 16th-seeded Iona in the game right after the Aggies and Huskies.
“If you haven’t seen the zone, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” Hopkins said. “You’ve got to have an answer for it. We are a very difficult team to play against.”
Washington’s 6-foot-5 guard Matisse Thybulle will certainly have the Aggies’ attention. He has a 7-foot wing span and was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as well as being named to the Pac-12 first team. The senior is a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Thybulle, who has started all 34 games, averages 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks a game. He also scores 9.3 points, grabs 3.1 rebounds and dishes out 2.1 assists a game.
The Huskies also have the Pac-12 Player of the Year in guard Jaylen Nowell, who is also a Jerry West Award finalist. The sophomore leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points an outing, while pulling down 5.3 rebounds, dishing out 3.1 assists and coming up with 1.3 steals a game. He has also started all 34 games this season.
Guard David Crisp and forward Noah Dickerson join Nowell in double-figure scoring with 12.5 and 12.2 ppg., respectively. Dickerson leads the team in rebounding with 7.4 boards an outing.
Forwards Nahziah Carter and Dominic Green add some punch off the bench with 7.9 and 6.3 ppg., respectively.
As a team, Washington shoots 45.3 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from beyond the arc. At the free throw line, the Huskies make 69.4 percent of their foul shots. They have held opponents to 41.4 percent shooting from the field and 33.1 percent from 3-point range.
Washington averages 9.0 steals a game, while causing its opponents to turn the ball over 16.2 times a contest. One area the Huskies have struggled is in the rebounding department as they are -2.6 in rebounding margin. Washington averages 69.8 points a game, while giving up 64.4.
“I know we’ll be in a dog fight against Washington, so that’s all I’m thinking about, and that’s all our guys better be thinking about,” Smith said. “ ... They’re the Pac-12 champions. Anytime you’re playing a regular-season champion, you know they’ve got to be good because you have to withstand a lot of things to do that.”