The Huskies will have their hands full in trying to upset top-ranked Gonzaga, which has won 11 of the past 12 meetings in the series and is among the highest scoring teams in the country. “I see an offensive blitzkrieg,” said UW coach Mike Hopkins of the Zags.
Perhaps to lighten the mood, Mike Hopkins feigned ignorance about Washington’s next opponent.
“I forget,” he said smiling. “Who do we play again?”
And then the Huskies coach spent the next 15 minutes heaping mounds of praise on the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, their explosive offense and coach Mark Few, who has been at the helm of the dynastic basketball powerhouse for the past 20 seasons.
“I see an offensive blitzkrieg,” Hopkins said noting Gonzaga ranks second in the nation in scoring while averaging 98.4 points per game. “I see a team that’s explosive. They really feed off of other people’s turnovers and bad shots. They are as good of a transition team as there is.
“Every player can pass, dribble and shoot. They’re unselfish. They’ve got everything covered. They can shoot it. They can go inside. They got great interior players, guys that can play inside and outside. Extremely skilled and disciplined. They’re a great team.”
Hopkins, who inherited a streak of losses in the century-old rivalry with Gonzaga that originated in 1910, got a taste of Gonzaga’s dominance during a 97-70 beatdown last year in front of a soldout crowd at Alaska Airlines Arena.
But at 8 p.m. Wednesday, the second-year UW coach will experience the full Zags effect when he takes his first steps inside McCarthey Athletic Center, which has been a house of horrors for the Huskies.
Washington has lost its past seven games at the Kennel where GU has a 20-game winning streak against nonconference opponents.
“You’re going to have a great environment,” said Hopkins, who spent 18 years as a Syracuse assistant before taking over at Washington. “I heard so much about it. I’ve been to a lot of great places so I’m excited about that. To be able to experience that will be great.”
In their last trip to Spokane, rowdy GU fans created a raucous atmosphere that rattled the Huskies who didn’t put up much of a fight during a 98-71 defeat.
For practical purposes, the game was decided when the Bulldogs used a 30-6 run to go up 35-10 with 7:41 remaining in the first half. Washington trailed 47-22 at the break and never got closer than 24 points the rest of the way.
Hopkins is preaching poise to a team that didn’t show much of it last month during an 88-66 defeat at No. 8 Auburn.
“It’s just yelling,” said Hopkins who switched from subdued to animated while illustrating what UW will receive Wednesday night from GU fans. “If I go to a player and I go ‘Yaaaaaaaaaah!’ Does that effect you? You know what I mean? It’s one of those things. You got to, it’s basketball. You’ve been playing your whole life.
“The hype of it, the build up can get you out of really what your poise is. That’s a big word poise. … It’s going to be a great test for us.”
Few and the Bulldogs (8-0) are seemingly at the height of their powers – not to mention on top of the college basketball world – while Hopkins and the Huskies (6-2) are currently on the outside of very early NCAA tournament forecasts.
Washington, which ranks 58th in the NCAA’s NET ranking, needs a statement win to make amends for its drubbing at Auburn and a last-second loss against Minnesota two weeks ago.
“We’re going to have to have our ‘A’ game,” Hopkins said. “We’ve done it before when we executed game plans.
“I just challenged the guys, this is one of the greatest opportunities that you can have. Not too many people in a lifetime get to play against a No. 1 and we’re one of them. We get a chance and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
History and the Las Vegas betting line that made UW a 15½-point underdog, say the odds are against the Huskies.
Washington is 2-28 all-time and 0-12 on the road against a No. 1-ranked team.
“Playing a top-ranked team is something you’ll never forget,” said former UW star Tre Simmons, who led the Huskies to a 75-62 win against No. 1 Stanford on March 6, 2004. “And if you win that game, you’ll be remembered for the rest of your life.”
Behind a team-high 16 points from Simmons, Washington handed the Cardinal its first defeat in the regular-season finale at then Hec Edmunson Pavilion.
Simmons remembers the Huskies alternating between elevating and downplaying the importance of the game.
“At times you’re thinking everybody is watching and this is a chance to put your team on the map,” he said. “But then you’re also thinking, we got nothing to lose. They’re No. 1. We’re not, so the pressure is on them.
“Basically, you’re just telling yourself anything so you can be as relaxed as possible and play your best game.”
Any advice for the Huskies?
“It’s going to be crazy in the Kennel,” said Simmons, who went 0-2 against Gonzaga. “They’re going to be on you from the moment you walk in until the time you walk off.
“You got to stay together, run your stuff and just trust and believe that it’s good enough.”
Following a similar script, Washington stunned the college basketball world a year ago this week and defeated No. 2 Kansas 74-65 in Kansas City, Mo.
And four days later, the Huskies lost by 27 points to Gonzaga.
“We thought we had arrived and then, bam!” Hopkins said. “When you go against the best – and they are the best team in the country – these are games that tell you where you are.”
For Hopkins, the big takeaways from last year’s game are UW’s 12 turnovers that led to 18 points and GU’s 13 offensive rebounds that resulted in 26 second-chance points.
“We’ve got to be able to manage and protect the ball,” he said. “We got to be able to get a good shot and get it to the right guys.
“If we can do that, I think we can be in in the game and hopefully have an opportunity to get an upset.”