Popular college basketball narrative has forever circled around the idea that landing the best players should equate to the most success possible. If you look at the recent history of the Washington Huskies, however, transitioning from recruiting guru Lorenzo Romar to a lifetime assistant in Mike Hopkins, a different story can be told.
The Romar era is well documented. He would regularly land NBA-level players, promptly leading the Huskies to underwhelming and disappointing campaigns. In his last two seasons manning the helm, despite having three one-and-done players at his disposal, Romar led the Huskies to a ho-hum overall record of 28-37, not even sniffing the NCAA Tournament.
Romar’s entire Washington existence can be used as a starting point for another discussion. One anchored to destroy lazy talking points about how polarizing figures like John Calipari only do well with the Kentucky Wildcats because he recruits the best players. If it’s that easy, the Huskies wouldn’t have been justified in letting one of the nation’s best recruiters take a walk.
Of course, being a stellar recruiter helps. And yet, as this iteration of the Huskies is trotting about their second season, there’s proof to highlight just how layered great coaching is.
Enter, naturally, Mike Hopkins. A forever assistant. A man once tabbed as the heir apparent to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Not a sexy mid-major name or a scorching hot commodity two years prior. Merely a respected basketball lifer.
He’s the antithesis of who major college basketball programs are meant to target. The mid-major flavor of the month might fail more often than he hits, yet it’s the path usually chosen by universities looking to light a fire under its basketball programs. Rare is the alleged lifetime running mate to a living legend the savior schools turn to in their hour of need.
Regardless, Washington did it. The Huskies took a chance on a man respected, though not widely believed to be a sure thing as a Division I head coach outside of the New York area. It’s an unfair perception of a person who previously had no real shot to succeed or fail, but sports fail to operate in a landscape allowing nuance.
Following a 9-22 season, which featured Markelle Fultz well before he caught a case of the Chuck Knoblauchs, the Washington Huskies decided enough was enough. The program moved on from Romar. Hindsight will likely tell a different story, but at the time it could have been argued Romar’s success was decent enough.
After all, the Pac-12 was never a league to run through Washington, and it was a minor miracle he convinced kids to spend a season outside of the national spotlight and in Seattle. It’s easy to pick on the now Pepperdine coach at the moment, though it would be a disservice to the actual prosperity he did bring to the school, leading the Huskies to six NCAA Tournament appearances in 15 seasons.
Nevertheless, that’s in the past, and the past is in the past for a reason. Washington is hoping to leave it there in favor of this surprisingly bright future Mike Hopkins has brought with him.
Year-one of the Hopkins’ era went far better than expected. Having to patch together a team on the fly, the Washington Huskies would finish the 2017-18 season with an overall record of 21-13, impressively winning 10 of their 18 conference games.
There’s plenty of time for circumstances to turn sideways. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to avoid the exceeding of expectations to act as a harbinger. To expect linear growth as time progresses.
Only a few games into the second season, the picture being painted of the program is different. It’s no longer a school tucked away from tired East Coast eyes, preventing fans from catching a presumed lottery selection. Nor is it the entity that should just be satisfied with what it’s given. Instead, it’s about winning games with whoever is on the roster, building toward a brighter future.
The Washington Huskies are now flirting with Top 25 polls. Not in a disingenuous way, either. There’s no insincere, some beat writer saw a YouTube clip of an incoming freshman votes being gifted to the program. Rather, it’s credibility found, brought to it by way of Hopkins.
With a record of 6-2 for this season, there’s clearly room for future disaster. Another college basketball team many expected to make a developmental jump after achieving feats the campaign prior, but one that simply couldn’t live up to such a task.
Washington wouldn’t be the first team to succumb to such a scenario, as a program like the DePaul Blue Demons are touted as a college basketball sleeping giant — at least according to some — for a few decades at this point. People are still waiting for them to wake up from what might not be a nap, but a death camouflaged as a coma.
Still, it feels different. The vibe, aura, everything. When turning on a Washington basketball game in 2018, it’s not only to check out some kid who will be gone the moment you learn his name. It’s to see how good the team’s good actually is. To figure out its ceiling, since the floor is the safest it has been in nearly 10 years.
Mike Hopkins brought in only one four-star, and a bunch of three-star counterparts, in the 2018 class. As of this writing, he has lured a pair of players (one a four, the other a three-star) to Washington for the fall of 2019. If it were any other program in the country, especially one coming off years of spectacular recruiting like the Huskies were having thanks to Romar, there would be a cause for concern.
Maybe it’s naivety, but from the outside looking in, with the way things have gone so far under Hopkins’ guidance, this isn’t even a glass half full situation in Washington, it feels like the cup is overflowing. A nation should probably start paying attention.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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