Washington picked third in Pac-12 preseason media poll behind favorite Oregon and UCLA and ahead of defending champion Arizona, which came in at fourth place.
SAN FRANCISCO – The questions Mike Hopkins and the Washington Huskies received at Thursday’s Pac-12 men’s basketball media day were vastly different from last year.
“Back then everyone wanted to know what it’s like playing for Coach Hop,” said senior guard Matisse Thybulle. “Because it was his first year with us, they wanted to know is he as crazy as he seems. And basically that was it.
“No one really cared about what we thought the season was going to be like. And no one wanted to talk to us about basketball.”
Hopkins added: “They wrote us off last year so there were no basketball-related conversations. I got in the main room and I got one question. Took about 15 seconds. And I was out of there.”
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This year was a little different, for Hopkins and the Huskies.
The purple-clad players and coach were in high demand during the day-long meet-greet event at the conference’s downtown San Francisco headquarters after the league revealed the results of its annual preseason media poll.
Washington was picked third behind favorite Oregon and second-place UCLA; while defending champion Arizona came in at fourth. Each team collected first-place votes; UW got two.
It’s the highest spot in the poll for the Huskies since the 2010-11 season when they were tabbed as the conference favorites.
“Plain and simple, we don’t care,” sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell said. “We could care less about any ranking. When you step between those lines, it doesn’t matter if you’re 1, 6 or 12. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s fun to get the team back to where we’re at now, but at the end of the day we’re focused on this year and how we’re going to improve day in and day out because that’s how greatness is achieved.”
So far, Hopkins has masterfully resurrected a once-proud program that bottomed out to a 2-16 finish in the Pac-12 and a 9-22 record in the 2016-17 season before his arrival.
Last year the Huskies were picked 10th in the preseason poll before stunning everyone, including themselves, with a 21-13 overall and 10-8 conference record.
“We had to go out and play well and that’s how you earn respect,” Hopkins said. “And we had to get (the players) to say not only do we have to play well, but we have to play well together because no one is bigger than the team. No one is bigger than our mission. It’s the easiest thing to say, but the hardest thing to do.
“We went from two nationally televised games last year to 18 and that’s because why? Because we won. We won. Winning. You win, they talk about you.”
Still, Hopkins was in no mood to take a victory lap Thursday and deflected praise for a successful first season at UW that ended in the second round of the NIT.
He often cited a need to improve UW’s rebounding margin and assists per game, which both ranked 11th in the Pac-12.
“It’s the process of getting better,” Hopkins said. “You can’t focus on if we’re rated third preseason or we’re rated first. It means nothing. There’s one truth and that’s when you go on that floor.”
Last season, the Huskies were 17-6 after an emotional 78-75 win over No. 9 Arizona.
UW went 3-6 over the next nine games, including a 69-66 overtime defeat to Oregon State in its Pac-12 tournament opener, which eliminated any chance to attain an NCAA tournament berth.
Hopkins believes the disastrous finish last season will help the Huskies manage expectations this season.
“They say experience is the best teacher and you had a team that got a lot of experience last year,” he said. “Played in some big games. Won a few and lost a few. All of it helps you as you’re moving forward.”
Thybulle added: “They picked us 10th last year and we had one of the most exciting seasons of anyone. And they can pick us third this year, but it’s just a number and it’s just an opinion. We know that if we do the work and if we play the right way we can get whatever we want.”
Washington appears in many top-25 preseason rankings and if the polls and prognosticators are correct, then the Huskies will finally return to the NCAA tournament and snap a seven-year drought.
“You’re talking about a dream,” Thybulle said. “To have four seniors on our team be able to go out on that note would be incredible. The trajectory that Husky basketball is on right now, it’s like we’re going back to those Isaiah Thomas days.
“We’re bringing back the fans. We’re building that excitement even before the season. If we can take this thing into the NCAA tournament, that would be the best thing we could possibly do.”