SEATTLE – Two years ago, Mike Hopkins sat at a podium inside Alaska Airlines Arena in front of a crowd of strangers curious about the former Syracuse assistant.
It took just a few minutes for the new Washington men’s basketball coach with the manic personality to endear himself to a room full of skeptics. Perhaps most intriguing was the coach’s description about his favorite weapon.
The 2-3 zone defense.
“It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re in a snowball fight … everybody has a snowball, right? But you’ve got this ice ball,” Hopkins said with a devilish grin. “That’s what the zone is. It’s something different and unique. It’s what separates you from everybody else.”
Later that day, Hopkins added: “You’ve got to have an identity. … Part of our identity is we’re going to be a team that’s tough, gritty and physical. And yes, we’re going to play zone.”
The 2-3 zone has been a Huskies staple since Hopkins’ arrival, and No. 9 seed Washington pits its disruptive defense against No. 8 Utah State’s high-scoring offense in Columbus, Ohio, for Friday’s 3:50 p.m. Midwest Region first-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s taken the Huskies two years to get comfortable with the simple scheme that’s tormented and stifled opponents all season.
Before Hopkins’ arrival, the Huskies allowed an average of 81.1 points per game, which ranked 330th in the country. This season, UW surrenders just 64.4 points – second in the Pac-12 (behind Oregon) and 30th nationally.
The Huskies have embraced their trademark defense, but it took some convincing.
Truth be told, Jaylen Nowell never liked the zone before he met Hopkins.
“Personally, I thought it was soft,” Washington’s sophomore star said. “Coming from the Metro League (at Garfield High), nobody played defense like that. In high school, it was straight-up man all the time.
“So coming in, I really thought the zone was a soft defense. I can’t lie. But it works. I’ve seen that. And when it works, it works.”
For years, UW senior forward Noah Dickerson wasn’t a fan of the zone and didn’t have a high opinion of teams that employed that style of defense against him.
“I thought teams that played zone couldn’t guard,” he said. “In my mind, that’s why you played zone. In high school, if you went zone then that meant you couldn’t guard me. At the end of the day, that’s what it came down to. Even in college, I felt that way.
“We never really experienced much zone in the Pac-12 my first two years, but now every team does it.”
Few teams do it as well as Washington.
“Our style has been a great tournament style,” Hopkins. “When we’re playing, defensively we can be disruptive.”
Hopkins was first introduced to the 2-3 zone during his five-year collegiate career at Syracuse as a guard. He then spent 22 years as an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, who practically invented the defense.
“It started with coach who taught me everything I know about (the zone),” Hopkins said. “That’s two decades’ worth of an education and during that time, you see it all.”
The basic principle of UW’s zone requires players to defend a region on the floor rather than a particular player.
The “2” in the 2-3 zone refers to guards David Crisp and Matisse Thybulle, who are positioned on either side of the free-throw line.
Before each defensive possession, they reach out and slap hands as a sign of solidarity.
“It’s like us putting on our body armor,” Thybulle said. “Like we’re putting up a wall and letting the other team know we’re here. We’re not going anywhere. And to get through me, you’ve got to get through him. And then all three behind us.”
The other three players form a back line spread between the sidelines with Dickerson and Nowell on the wings and 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Hameir Wright, UW’s tallest starter, planted in the middle to defend the rim.
“The concept is very easy,” Dickerson said. “You’re moving in a triangle. There’s not much that you really have to do in it. … But ‘Hop’ has been doing it for so long that he knows little wrinkles to add here and there that changes it up.”
In theory, the zone defense is vulnerable against a proficient perimeter attack, but UW’s defense is designed to expand wider than most zones to negate the 3-pointer.
The Huskies ranked third in the Pac-12 in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 32.9 percent behind the arc.
Because of its focus on taking away outside shots, Washington has been susceptible inside to versatile players who can operate in the high post and dominant rebounding teams.
The Huskies have been able to prevail despite big games from multidimensional players, but they’ve lost the rebound battle in 21 of 34 games. UW is outrebounded an average of 2.4 boards per game.
“Where we sometimes get hurt is rebounding,” said Dickerson, who averages a team-high 7.4 rebounds. “You can’t have just have one person rebounding in the zone. Everybody has to rebound.
“We still have problems with that sometimes. … But for the most part, we’ve been on point and we’ve embraced the zone. It’s like night and day compared to where we were.”
Of course, it helps to have Thybulle, the Pac-12’s two-time defensive player of the year and semifinalist for the Naismith national defensive player of the year award, on your side. The 6-5 guard with a 7-foot wingspan started in the back of the zone early last season before UW assistants urged Hopkins to move him out front.
“It made us so much more disruptive because (Matisse) is such a great defender and his anticipation skills are off the chart,” Crisp said. “When we came up to the top, he was able to get into passing lanes so much more. His activity was a game changer.”
Thybulle, who just passed Gary Payton to become the conference’s all-time steals leader, tallied 101 thefts last season and set the league’s single-season record with 117 this season.
During a radio interview Tuesday, Utah State coach Craig Smith joked he’s going to have the Aggies practice against seven or eight players with pool noodles to simulate Washington’s length and defensive prowess.
“We’ve played 34 games now and there’s not much you haven’t seen up to this point,” Smith told KJR when asked how much zone USU has faced. “We have a feel for it. Obviously, they do some things a lot better than most do.
“The windows in their defense are a lot smaller than the windows in most teams’ zone defense. So we’re going to have to adjust, and we’re going to have to be a lot sharper than maybe we would against other teams.”
The Huskies are first in the Pac-12 and ninth nationally with 9.0 steals per game. They also forced 16.2 turnovers, which ranks 18th among Division I schools.
When Washington is at its best, it’s able to suffocate opponents, like it did during a 62-45 win over Utah or its 69-55 win against UCLA.
Lately though, Hopkins has spotted what he called “slippage” in UW’s defense the past three weeks.
The Huskies have allowed at least 68 points in four of the past seven games, including a second-half defensive meltdown when Oregon scored 40 points and shot 64.4 percent to capture the Pac-12 Tournament title.
While some believe Washington needs to fix its struggling offense, Hopkins is focused on fine-tuning the defense.
“At this stage, we’re not putting in a new offense, so we’ve got to do what we do, only do it better,” he said. “We can still get better on defense.
“That’s the key to this thing. Be who you are, but be the best version of who you are.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.