The closest Mike Hopkins has been to Vancouver, B.C., was a childhood trip to see family in Vancouver, Wash.
The University of Washington men’s basketball coach never even made it north of the border to see his college teammate, Lawrence Moten, suit up for the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies.
“He was fan favourite; people loved him,” said Hopkins, taking a quick trip down memory lane to his playing days with the Syracuse Orangemen.
“I always remember — they used to call him Slow-Mo — and he had those big socks. He just knew how to score. His whole game was deception. And you were like ‘how did he just do that?’
“He didn’t look like he was fast, and then he’d just blow by you. And he didn’t look like he could shoot, and then all of a sudden he’d hit three threes in a row. He just had a deception that made him so unique and different.”
Moten, who is still the Big East career leading scorer, was a Grizzlies’ fan favourite at the former GM Place, just a high-socked Euro step away from the Vancouver Convention Centre, where Hopkins and his Huskies will play in the TCL Vancouver Showcase. The event will see four men’s and eight women’s teams play in the first NCAA regular-season tournament played outside of the U.S.
UW opens the tournament on Sunday at 5 p.m. against Santa Clara — the alma mater of NBA legend and B.C. boy Steve Nash — followed up by games against Texas A&M and the Minnesota Gophers over the next four days.
Hopkins, who spent the past 23 years as an assistant coach under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, took over the Huskies program at the start of last season, and nearly got UW into the NCAA tournament. He ramped up the strength of schedule for the Huskies this season, and through the first three games, it’s been a trial by fire — literally.
The Huskies dispatched a tough Western Kentucky team at home to open the season, then flew across the country to Alabama to face the Auburn Tigers, losing by 22 to the nation’s No. 8-ranked team in a hostile environment. On the way to the airport after the game last Friday, their bus dramatically caught on fire. Hopkins humorously recounted the tale of him and his team sloshing their way through “swamp water” in a frantic dash to get away from a bus they expected to explode at any moment.
On Monday, the Huskies followed up the craziness with a three-point win over San Diego, and have been off ever since, preparing for the Vancouver Showcase.
“We tried to upgrade our schedule to a bit more demanding one,” said Hopkins. “Three games in nine games, across country, has been pretty difficult. But I think it’s challenged us. I really believe that having a tougher schedule makes you better in the long run, as long as you survive — and we were able to survive.”
Playing in this tournament was also with another long-term goal in mind: the recruitment of Canadian players. Like most NCAA programs, the bulk of their recruiting is done within a five-hour radius of the campus, and the Huskies are no exception. But the emergence of northern talent on the elite scene isn’t lost on Hopkins, who spent time helping Orangmen alumnus Leo Rautins and the Canadian men’s national team learn the intricacies of the famed Syracuse 2-3 zone when he was an assistant.
“Canada has become one of the powerhouses in the world of basketball,” said Hopkins, adding he already has relationships with local coaches as part of his scouting network.
“Us coming up there gives us an advantage because we are close, there is exposure to our brand, and I think we bring an exciting brand of basketball … and those are always great opportunities as you build a program.”
The Huskies went 21-13 last season, but two losses down the stretch to Oregon State — including one in the Pac-12 Tournament — dashed their NCAA Tournament hopes. They settled for an NIT berth instead, but hope this year they can stop flirting with an at-large NCAA seed and qualify for the Madness.
“One game at a time. We have a veteran team that can get there. That’s what you strive to do, to get in the national tournament and have a chance to win a national championship,” said Hopkins, whose team started as the nation’s 25th-ranked team.
“As a coach, in the second year of building a program, rebuilding it step by step, brick by brick, we’re just focusing on the process. We’ve obviously got to get better in some areas, but we have the talent to do it. We just have to put it together — that’s why we’re coming to Vancouver, to see where we’re at.”
MEN’S TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Sunday, Nov. 18
5 p.m.: Washington vs. Santa Clara – ESPN3 / TSN Direct
7:30 p.m.: Texas A&M vs. Minnesota – ESPN2 / TSN
Tuesday, Nov. 20
6 p.m.: Santa Clara vs. Minnesota – Big Ten Network
8:30 p.m.: Washington vs. Texas A&M – ESPN2 / TSN
Wednesday, Nov. 21
3:30 p.m.: Minnesota vs. Washington – Big Ten Network
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