UW's Hopkins: 'This Is Why I Wanted to Be Here'
A conversation with Mike Hopkins can go in so many directions. He's gregarious, genuinely interested in what you have to say--and this is where Gonzaga might be wary of him--unpredictable.
"Hey, what do you think of my team?" Hopkins asked this veteran journalist in a hallway, totally catching him off guard.
Honest answer: You have a lot of basketball talent, but I wonder if your 3-point shooters will show up against a formidable opponent?
Hopkins nodded in agreement, though he hardly seemed concerned. That's his nature. His coaching style. Taking it all in. Being confident.
This third-year UW coach expressed great enthusiasm for Sunday's showcase event at Alaska Airlines Arena, where his young Huskies (7-1), 22nd in the latest Associated Press poll, will host in-state rival Gonzaga (9-1), ninth in the national rankings.
"You just want to play top teams," Hopkins said. "It's such a long season, you're trying to get really good. To get really good, you have to play teams that are really good and that challenge you in different ways. This is a game that will really help move us forward in terms of our goals--and that's win championships."
The arena should be at full capacity for the 4 p.m. tipoff and the 48th meeting between these basketball programs, even with the Seahawks kicking off in a nationally televised game in Los Angeles more than an hour later.
Both basketball teams have been rebuilt in a year's time, since they played in Spokane and the Zags took an 81-79 victory on Rui Hachimura's shot at the buzzer. Hachimura now plays for another Washington team, the NBA Wizards, sharing the ball with a former Huskies guard, Isaiah Thomas. Highlights of that game:
Each team returns just one starter from the 2018-19 season--junior forward Corey Kispert for the Zags and junior guard Hameir Wright for the Huskies.
Even with all of the personnel turnover, Gonzaga appears well-coached, cohesive and as offensive-minded as usual. The Zags should have a decided edge from the 3-point line, with Kispert, a Seattle-area product from King's High School, the most accurate long-range shooter on the floor with more than a handful of attempts. He connects at a 43-percent clip.
The UW's Naz Carter likely will be responsible for getting a hand in Kispert's face from the Huskies' different zones and occasional man-to-man defensive alignments.
Where things could get really interesting is if the Huskies' highly-touted freshmen big men, Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, come ready to play in the spotlight, in an electric environment. They're capable. But they're still so young.
The two 6-foot-9 NBA prospects will match up with the Zags' 6-10 senior Killian Tille and 6-11 sophomore Filip Petrusev, a pair of physical big men from France and Serbia, respectively. This will either be a coming-out party or a hard lesson for the young guys.
The wild card could be Quade Green, the UW's Kentucky transfer who has exerted himself more and more in recent games. He had a 20-point, 8-assist game his last time out against Eastern Washington. He'll need to be at his best against the Zags.
Where Gonzaga has revealed a rare weakness is in its backcourt. North Texas grad transfer Ryan Wooldridge and Joel Ayayi, plus Texas A&M grad transfer Admon Gilder, wore down and didn't play well in the Zags' 82-64 loss to Michigan.
Hopkins' team should benefit from splitting games with a pair of ranked teams, beating No. 18 Baylor 67-64 to open the season in Alaska and losing to No. 21 Tennessee 75-62 in Canada a month ago.
The Huskies handed Baylor (7-1) its only loss; the Bears just now gave 12th-ranked Arizona its first loss in 10 games, 63-58.
Washington, of course, should feed off its arena energy as it tries to interrupt Gonzaga's recent dominance of 12 wins in 13 outings in the series. This is what Hopkins has been building toward. Games like this. Something to own.
"This is one of the reasons I wanted to be here," he said. "I want it to be one of the toughest places to play."