Arizona is back home for its first full weekend of Pac-12 play, hosting the Washington schools at McKale Center.
First up for the Wildcats is Washington, a program that was picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings. To better understand the Huskies (9-6, 1-3) we reached out to Tom Adamski of SB Nation sister site UW Dawg Pound.
Below are his loquacious answers to our reticent questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Washington got off to a solid 9-3 start this season, albeit with some questionable losses to Cal Baptist at home and at Oregon State, but now brings a 3-game skid to Tucson. Has something drastically changed, or has the competition been a big part of the recent downswing?
Tom Adamski: “Competition is a big part of the recent 3-game downswing and injuries would be the secondary reason. Cal Baptist was a very bad loss and was the last game UW played primarily man-to-man. UW went zone after that and had a big win over Saint Mary’s to win the Wooden Classic. Then a big injury occurred during the Oregon State game when Franck Kepnang went down with an ACL tear. UW went almost seven minutes scoreless after the injury but still should have won that game.
“Injuries happen but UW has really changed the way they play without Kepnang, especially on defense. He was coming off the bench and produced 9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 22 minutes per game, actually playing more than starting center Braxton Meah. Kepnang and Meah were combining for 15 ppg, 12.8 rpg and 2.9 bpg out of the 5 spot, and at times played together in a big lineup that had some success. Add that to go with Keion Brooks, who averages 16 ppg, the 4 and 5 spot were set. Since the Kepnang injury, UW had to burn a redshirt for 6’10 Jackson Grant who is only averaging 1 ppg and 2 rpg. It has been a huge drop off and UW has had to play small with Brooks at the 5 spot at times. This is where Auburn, USC and UCLA really took advantage of UW. I wouldn’t say UW would have beaten Auburn, USC or UCLA with Kepnang but it would have been more competitive for 40 minutes. UW was up three on USC with nine minutes left and then UW finished the game shooting 2 of 15.
“UW has also been without senior PG Noah Williams for 12 of the 15 games but he just returned against USC and UCLA. He’s been rusty in his return but did add in five assists against UCLA and will need to help pick up the scoring load the rest of the season.”
Looking at the numbers, particularly the 3-point shooting and lack of assists, the Huskies’ offense seems hard to describe. Care to give it a whirl?
“That is a million-dollar question for many fans and the local media. The short answer is, there isn’t much of an offense and it has been a main topic of criticism for coach Mike Hopkins.
“The Huskies run a 4 out, 1 in motion offense and use a lot of ball screens up top, but too often there is not a lot of ball movement and guys are just standing around. Too often, it ends up with someone like Brooks or one of the guards going 1-on-1 and forcing up a tough shot at the end of the shot clock. Last year, UW had (former Arizona guard) Terrell Brown Jr. who could bail the Huskies out but they haven’t had that luxury this year.
“However, poor shooting has been a big factor in the lack of assists as well. A lot can be said of the offensive system, but UW is also missing wide open shots when they do have them. The Huskies shot an ice cold 2/25 (8%) from three against UCLA and 5/20 (25%) from three against Auburn. Cole Bajema is the biggest threat from the outside and can get hot but he’s only shooting 35.9% from 3 this year to lead UW in makes.
One thing UW does do well is get the ball inside to the 7-foot-1 Meah, who mainly goes over the top of defenses for dunks. Meah had a career-high 20 against UCLA and that included eight dunks in the game. USC did a good job with their length to stay with Meah and make the guards score over them, so I see Arizona trying a similar approach.”
Kentucky transfer Keion Brooks looks to be a bright spot, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. What has made him so successful, and who else should Arizona be worried about when Washington has the ball?
“Brooks has been UW’s most consistent scorer, but he hasn’t been the most efficient scorer and is going through a rough 3-game stretch himself shooting the ball. Brooks is only shooting 40% from the field after he averaged close to 50% last year at Kentucky. He’s the primary focus for opposing teams and has trouble with double teams and forcing tough shots. Brooks is 7/28 in the last two games versus USC and UCLA, but he does get to the free throw line a lot and shoots 80% from there. He also adds leads the team in rebounding and is second on the team in blocked shots so he adds a lot on defense.
“Meah is by far the most efficient player on the Huskies, with an efficiency rating on Kenpom of 121.3, which is 4th in the Pac 12 with at least 20% of possessions used. Meah is shooting 70% on field goals and mostly scores on dunks (he leads the Pac 12 by a wide margin with 36 dunks this year). Meah will have a tough time with Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis’ size and foul issues are a reason he doesn’t play more minutes. Look for AZ to go right at him early.
“Bajema and freshman Keyon Menifield are two other names to look for. 6’7 Bajema (10.4 ppg) is UW’s best shooter from 3 and the best FT shooter in the Pac 12 at 88%. He also had 3 steals and 2 blocks versus both USC and UCLA recently. Bajema had a stretch last year where he made 11 threes in two games and will be needed to score on the outside for UW in Arizona.
“Menifield is an electric 6’1 dreshman guard who barely weights 145 pounds but he is lightning in a bottle and fun to watch. Picture a shorter Jamal Crawford but is still just a freshman that has his big ups and downs. He got banged up versus a physical UCLA team and left the game but scored 18 versus USC with multiple highlight plays. Menifield recently cracked the starting lineup and he’s expected to play this week.”
Washington is one of the best teams in the country in defending the 3-point shot and blocking shots in the interior but has been outrebounded in the majority of games. How is this combination possible?
“Kepnang was a big part of the early block shots success. He is still 3rd on the team in blocks and hasn’t played in the last 7 games. The 2-3 zone helps get a lot of blocks on the inside and on the perimeter. Earlier in the year, Husky guards could defend the perimeter more aggressively, knowing Meah and Kepang were helping protect the rim. It’s a big drop off when Meah is out of the game or playing with foul trouble. Teams have had more success shooting the three as of late. UCLA and Auburn both carved the zone or when UW switched to a man-to-man defense. Once a few threes go down, it can be easy to score inside in the zone.
“Rebounding has never been a specialty for zone teams like UW or Syracuse. Even the Carmelo Anthony national champion team for Syracuse was a poor defensive rebounding team. It’s just harder to rebound out of a zone but a well-run zone is supposed to make up for it in blocked shots, steals and defending the 3. UW rebounded well versus UCLA but got pounded on the boards versus Auburn and USC. Definitely a big factor to worry about against Arizona.”
This is Mike Hopkins’ sixth season at UW, and after quickly turning around the program (including a Pac-12 regular-season title in 2018-19) the results have tailed off significantly. What’s the temperature of his seat?
“From a fan perspective, it’s about as hot as Bobby Hurley when he gets a tech. The Huskies have been to the tournament one time in the last 12 years and that is something that should not happen with the talent in the backyard. Fans want the Huskies to get back to the Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy, Quincy Pondexter and Nate Robinson days where UW made the tourney 6 out of 8 seasons in the 2000’s. The hope for this season was that the Huskies would battle for a tourney bid or at the very least for an NIT but there is a large majority of fans that have been done with Hopkins since he failed to do anything with with 1st round NBA picks Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.
“From a University perspective, I’d say the seat is getting much warmer but there is still a $9 million buyout on the table which goes down to $6 million after April. If the season spirals out of control, there is a good chance the Huskies will be looking at a new coach. If UW makes their way back into NIT contention, it’s possible Hopkins will be back for one more year, but it will be an NCAA tourney or else type of situation. The one thing he has going is that there is a good chance a majority of players return next year and UW is bringing in a top-30 recruit in Wesley Yates but it won’t mean much if the Huskies can’t finish strong this season or if a large group of players transfer out again.”
Prediction time: Can the Huskies end Arizona’s 27-game win streak at McKale Center, or will Arizona earn a sixth straight victory in the series?
“I’ve watched a lot of Disney movies and would love to say yes, but I’m more concerned about the Huskies keeping the game competitive and building some momentum for the rest of the season. Last year the Huskies came into McKale Center with a 5-5 record after a 16-point loss to Utah Valley at home, so the current temperature feels similar to last year as it does today. The Huskies kept it close last year by forcing 18 steals (21 Arizona turnovers) and were down five with five minutes to go until Arizona pulled away in the final minutes. Expecting the Dawgs to come out with a similar energy but could easily get out of hand late if shots are not falling again or if Arizona is not turning the ball over often. Arizona 86, Washington 64.”