SAN FRANCISCO – Whether Mike Hopkins leads the Washington men’s basketball team to its first Pac-12 title since 2009 remains to be seen, but the second-year coach has guided the Huskies back to prominence sooner than imagined.
Expectations at UW, which was picked third in a Pac-12 preseason media poll, are the highest since the 2010-11 season, when the Huskies were tabbed preseason favorites.
Meanwhile, Oregon occupied the top spot in this year’s preseason poll ahead of UCLA, UW and fourth-place Arizona, which all received first-place votes.
For the fourth straight year, Washington State was projected to finish in last place in the annual poll.
USC was voted fifth followed by Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. Stanford came in at No. 9. Oregon State was 10th, California 11th.
It’s been a quick turnaround for Hopkins’ Huskies, who were picked last in the conference’s preseason poll a year ago.
The reason for the optimism on Montlake stems from the return of a trio of all-conference performers, five starters and seven of the top nine scorers from a veteran-laden team that compiled a 21-13 record and finished in a two-way tie for sixth in the Pac-12 at 10-8 last season.
The Huskies, who have the most returning production of any major conference program in the country, are led by all-Pac-12 forward Noah Dickerson, conference defensive player of the year Matisse Thybulle and Jaylen Nowell, who was chosen to the Pac-12 all-freshman team.
By comparison, Oregon is relatively young and powered by two returning starters, second-team All-Pac-12 point guard Payton Pritchard and forward Paul White, as well as the conference’s top shot blocker, Kenny Wooten. The Ducks boast a recruiting class ranked in the nation’s top five, led by 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol, the son of former NBA player Manute Bol, and 6-9 forward Louis King, a five-star prospect.
UCLA also brought in a highly touted recruiting class ranked among the top 10 nationally, but the Bruins are reeling after two freshmen – forward Shareef O’Neal (heart surgery), Shaquille’s son, and guard Tyger Campbell (torn left ACL) –suffered season-ending injuries. There’s still enough talent in Westwood for a NCAA Tournament run,. with the likes of sophomore guard Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, along with 7-1 freshman center Moses Brown, a former McDonald’s All-American.
Defending champion Arizona looks to rebuild a 27-win team that lost all five starters. Coach Sean Miller enters his 10th season with the lowest expectations since he arrived in Tucson in 2009. He’s essentially starting over with a new staff and six newcomers, led by Duke transfer Chase Jeter.
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