SEATTLE — Throughout his first season in charge at Washington, Mike Hopkins has searched for signs the Huskies are progressing forward. Little moments to prove the system being implemented is successful.
Washington’s improvement has outpaced what most expected and is why the Huskies are in the conversation for an NCAA tournament bid entering the final stretch of the regular season.
But the latest challenge for Hopkins’ team is recovering from a loss unlike any other this season.
Washington (17-8, 7-5 Pac-12) is coming off a stunning double overtime loss to Oregon State last Saturday on a 3-pointer in the final seconds and after blowing a double-digit lead in the second half. It’s the kind of setback that for the moment hasn’t damaged Washington’s NCAA hopes, but could end up being critical, depending on how the final few weeks play out. And it’s the kind of loss the Huskies have yet to experience with Hopkins in charge.
Washington hasn’t lost more than two games in a row at any point this season and will need to beat Utah on Thursday night at home to avoid its first three-game losing streak. At various times this season, Hopkins’ group has displayed surprising resilience. But few have stung like the loss to the Beavers.
“Every game matters now. Every game has mattered from day one. The difference is everybody is talking about the tournament and all these other things. That’s just interference,” Hopkins said on Wednesday. “You’ve got to focus on what you can control.”
Getting swept last week by the Oregon schools was a disappointing thud after the Huskies were the talk of the Pac-12 following home wins over Arizona State and an upset of then-No. 9 Arizona. The wins over the Arizona schools vaulted the Huskies into the NCAA tournament field according to most bracket projections.
But the massive swing of elation after a home sweep, to the disappointment of losing twice on the road was another example of where Washington is the first season under Hopkins. They’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12 for most of the season, but allowed 97 points to Oregon State. They’ve been good enough on offense to outscore Arizona and Southern California for victories, but managed just 40 points in the loss to Oregon.
“For the most part I think our consistency with how we’ve approached winning and losing is kind of the same thing of, ‘How do we get better?'” Hopkins said. “Not too high, not too low. Just trying to get them to understand that with championship programs you expect to win every game and there’s more consistency emotionally and basketball wise.”
Washington’s schedule the rest of the season could both benefit and hamper its NCAA hopes. Washington will play four of its final six conference games at home, beginning with Utah, followed by Colorado on Saturday. The games this weekend are critically important as the Utes (No. 60) and Buffaloes (No. 62) are the two highest rated teams in the RPI remaining on the Huskies’ schedule. Aside from winning at Stanford next week, the games with Utah and Colorado are the best opportunity for Washington to boost its metric evaluation prior to the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas in March.
“The focus is on a whole other level right now, just really getting guys to really buy in,” guard David Crisp said. “We’ve got these last few games coming up and if everybody is together, locked in, take every practice with laser focus, pay attention to all the small details, then we’ll be in great position.”