Over the course of the college basketball season’s first four weeks, former Syracuse Orange assistant Mike Hopkins had been quietly coming into his own with the Washington Huskies.
UW came back big to beat a feisty Mercer team in the opener, then outlasted Eastern Washington. The Huskies took on some water in losses to Providence and Virginia Tech, but then rebounded for four straight wins vs. lesser teams before Wednesday night’s big matchup with the Kansas Jayhawks in Kansas City, Mo.
Then his Huskies went and dominated Kansas, 74-65, for his first big upset as a head basketball coach.
While defense hasn’t exactly been Washington’s calling card thus far, it worked to perfection in this one against the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks. Hopkins employed the 2-3 zone to put a stop to Kansas’s three-point shooters and seemed to protect against shots from outside the arc; something Syracuse struggled with in its own loss to KU less than a week ago.
The Jayhawks were just 5-of-20 from three, and were manhandled inside. Where Syracuse stuck with KU early only to fade once the shots started falling, Washington seemed to keep to its game and force Kansas to play at their pace.
It’s no time to wonder “what if” on the Orange’s loss to Kansas this past Saturday. But it is worth wondering if Hopkins is indeed coming back to Syracuse when Jim Boeheim retires. For those that weren’t sold on the idea before, perhaps the KU win (even if it’s just one game) was enough to tip the scales.
For as much as Hopkins had long been the coach-in-waiting at SU, the 4-5 record during Boeheim’s suspension in 2015-16 did seem to shake some folks. Not necessarily of the faith that he’d be able to handle the job eventually. But there was worry that he’d be able to jump right in and just resume the success we’ve witnessed in Jim’s 42 years on the bench.
Without the school, Boeheim or Hopkins saying so, perhaps that was the point of him heading to UW. Washington’s basketball culture is minimal, and expectations are modest. There’s no shadow to stand in there, and he’s free to experiment a bit with his own unique style of coaching.
So far, it hasn’t all been successful — as mentioned, defense has been a question mark and they’ve taken some losses. But these years with Washington do have the potential to bring a better coach (back) to Syracuse, should he choose to return to CNY once Boeheim’s career wraps up.
There are no guarantees there, however. And while obviously we’re happy to let Jim stick around on the sideline for as long as he wants (and as long as the results continue to come with that), hopefully we don’t end up seeing Hopkins as the “one who got away.” He stuck around at Syracuse for so long because he loved the place. But also because he knew he was getting the head job at some point.
He didn’t in 22 years, so he left. And even if it was just a temporary move, Hopkins will be better off for it as a coach and a person. Should he return to Syracuse (please, in four or five years!), the Orange will probably be a better program for it too. And that 4-5 stint in 2015-16 will just end up a footnote en route to a Final four that year, and a long and successful career for the coach.