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Mike Hopkins’ elusive search for consistency from UW Huskies is nearly at an end

UPDATED: Mon., March 2, 2020

Washington coach Mike Hopkins looks down as the team falls well behind Stanford late in the second half of an NCAA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Seattle. Stanford won 72-64. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Washington coach Mike Hopkins looks down as the team falls well behind Stanford late in the second half of an NCAA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Seattle. Stanford won 72-64. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

First to worst.

Following their latest setback – a 78-74 loss to Washington State last Friday night – the Huskies became the first team in the 52-year history of the Pacific-12 Conference to fall from the top of the standings to last place in successive seasons.

With two regular-season games remaining, Washington (13-16, 3-13 Pac-12) is locked into a last-place finish for just the fourth time in school history.

Here are three impressions:

Carter struggles to close

The Huskies lost their ninth Pac-12 game by six points or less. And they’re 0-10 in games decided by eight points or less.

Let that sink in for a moment.

If Washington had split those games, it would be 18-11 and 8-8 with a realistic chance to return to the NCAA Tournament.

But since Jaylen Nowell left for the NBA last year, the Huskies have been desperately searching for a closer to take over in the final minutes of tight games.

Down 66-53 with 7:17 left, junior guard Nahziah Carter scored six points during UW’s final, frenetic 21-9 run that cut its deficit to 75-74 with 24 seconds left.

Washington trailed 76-74 on its next possession, and coach Mike Hopkins could have chosen several options to either tie it up or take the lead.

The Huskies didn’t have a timeout and Hopkins motioned from the sidelines for them to push the ball while seemingly calling a ‘1-4 Flat’ play, which positions four players along the baseline and the player with the ball at the top of the key.

Carter had the ball, an open floor and 18 seconds to get any shot he wanted.

With WSU defensive specialist Noah Williams blocking his path to the basket, Carter drove left into the paint before jumping to his right and floating up an off-balance shot that hit the bottom of the rim.

Carter said he was fouled on the play, but replays showed Williams harassed him into a difficult shot with solid defense.

Closing games is arguably the most difficult job in basketball, and Carter has been given the task of delivering for the Huskies in large part because he’s the best player on the team at creating a shot.

However, he’s come up short four times this season.

Down two points, Carter lost the ball on the final possession during a 66-64 defeat to UCLA. He missed a layup and a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation during a 61-58 overtime loss at California. And he short-armed a crucial 10-foot fadeaway jumper in the waning moments of a 67-66 loss at Utah.

Certainly, Carter’s late-game performances have been lacking and he might simply need more time to hone the ability to perform in the clutch. But he’s still UW’s best option when the game is on the line.

Zone vs. man defense

Despite overcoming a 13-point halftime deficit and nearly erasing another 13-point deficit in the final minutes, you could argue the Huskies lost this game in the first half when Washington State scored 41 points.

Washington simply doesn’t fare well in high-scoring games.

The Huskies are 1-8 this season and 10-19 the past three years under Hopkins when they allow opponents at least 75 points.

In its previous game, Washington destroyed California defensively while holding the Golden Bears to just 23.9% shooting from the field, which included 2 of 13 on 3-pointers.

The Cougars converted 15 of 28 shots (53.6%) in the first half and finished with 24-of-48 shooting from the field, including 7 of 19 on 3-pointers.

“Those just aren’t winning numbers for us,” Hopkins said.

Washington has to win with defense, and it’s interesting to note Hopkins threw caution to the wind – and surely opened himself up for criticism – when he scrapped his beloved 2-3 zone defense and employed a man-to-man attack in the final seven minutes.

The change in tactics allowed the Huskies to trim a 13-point deficit to one, but ultimately was not enough to deliver a win.

Washington has rarely used man defense for an extended period, so don’t expect Hopkins to change the defense for this week’s games at Arizona State and Arizona.

Hopkins is a devout disciple of the zone and for better or worse, he’s sticking to his beliefs, which critics say contradicts the composition of an athletic, long-limbed roster that’s seemingly tailor-made for man defense.

Consistently inconsistent

Hopkins on the Huskies: “We’ve just been that team that shows so many good signs and then we just, it’s like anything you’re looking for that consistency. You’re looking for that not mental lapse. You’re looking for that focus.

“As a coach, you’re always striving for perfection. Progress not perfection. We’re taking real baby steps and we’re not taking those significant steps that we need to win these games.”

Hopkins is seeking a consistent effort from players as he rolls out six different starting lineups in the past 10 games and constantly tinkers with players’ minutes.

Granted some changes were because of injuries, but Hopkins has been far from consistent while searching for lineups, rotations and pairings during UW’s nine-game losing streak.

Freshman forward Jaden McDaniels has been Washington’s best player the past three weeks, but he’s come off the bench in the previous six games before Friday.

Junior forward Hameir Wright logged just one minute two weeks ago at UCLA due to ineffectiveness.

Senior forward Sam Timmins has been lightly used for most of the season, but he is finding more minutes lately while sophomore post players Nate Roberts and Bryan Penn-Johnson languish on the bench.

In the past seven weeks, freshman guard RaeQuan Battle has started three games and logged fewer than nine minutes off the bench in three other outings.

And Isaiah Stewart, perhaps UW’s most consistent player, has steadily disappeared from an offense that used to feature him due in large part to aggressive double teams. He tallied his 12th double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds) while shooting 2 of 7 from the field and 6 of 10 on free throws against the Cougars.

Hopkins has repeatedly said the Huskies need to be creative while getting the ball inside to Stewart, but he’s been effectively negated in the past eight games.

Still, Washington did a better job of getting inside and attempted just 16 3-pointers, which is its second-fewest in Pac-12 play.

The Huskies were aggressive offensively and got to the free-throw line 38 times. However, they converted just 23 foul shots.

That’s not necessarily on Hopkins even though Washington ranks eighth in the Pac-12 while shooting 70.6 percent from the line.

“When you go to the line, you got to make them,” he said. “We went enough, for sure, to win.”

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