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How Washington went from woeful to wonderful a year after Markelle Fultz

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First year head coach Mike Hopkins has made Washington one of the surprise teams of 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, firing Lorenzo Romar last spring was a pretty straightforward move by Washington. The Huskies haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, and despite having eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick Markelle Fultz, the team went 9-22 overall last season and just 2-16 in the Pac-12, the worst conference record in the history of the program.

If parting ways with Romar had meant just parting ways with Romar, then few people in Seattle would have taken issue with it. The problem was cutting Romar loose also meant almost certainly losing Michael Porter Jr., then the No. 1 player in the class of 2017, Porter’s younger brother, Jontay, a four-star prospect, and consensus top-50 recruit Daejon Davis. It also meant risking the departure of a handful of key veteran players who were expected to return and step into larger roles under the new head coach.

Even with this potential domino effect looming, Washington elected to make the move.

Romar was fired March 15, the same day Missouri hired Cuonzo Martin away from California. Hours after Romar’s firing, Martin announced he was hiring Michael Porter Sr., who had been serving as an assistant on Romar’s staff. Porter’s sons would both eventually sign with Mizzou as well, and Davis would end up inking with Stanford.

In the eyes of the brass at Washington, this was still a gamble worth taking. Sure, having future millionaires wear your school’s name for a few months can be beneficial, but if there’s not any hope that bringing in these five-star players is ever going to go hand-in-hand with winning at a high (or even average) level, then what’s the point?

Four days after firing Romar, Washington announced it hired Mike Hopkins, the longtime head coach in waiting at Syracuse who decided he was tired of waiting after Jim Boeheim’s original retirement timeline kept getting pushed back.

Task one for Hopkins was making sure Washington was going to have enough players to field a team in 2017-18. Though Romar hadn’t produced a great deal of success in recent seasons, he remained wildly popular with his players right up until his firing. Though Hopkins knew keeping any of Romar’s top recruits was a long-shot, he thought convincing the core of the Huskies’ returning to roster to stick around was doable. He also knew it was a necessity to have players who had a feel for playing with one another if he was going to be able to successfully install Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone defense.

The Washington players were impressed with Hopkins, but still not sold on the best course of action during this unexpected time of turbulence. The players all seemed to be keeping their individual decisions a secret, until rising junior guard David Crisp stepped up and made a bold suggestion.

“I talked to some of the guys we had,” Crisp told The New Tribune. “I told them, ‘I’m ready to ride this thing out and if you’re with me, I’m going to do everything within my power to improve my game.’

“The way Hop is, there were never any worries. Never any doubts. He came in first day and told us he came here to win. He didn’t come here to rebuild and we were all on the same page.”

Most of the Husky returnees decided quickly soon after that they were with Hopkins and Crisp. Gifted junior forward Noah Dickerson took a couple of visits before deciding he, too, would be returning to U-Dub. In the end, reserve forward Matthew Atewe was the only player of note who elected to jump ship. Unofficially, Hopkins had scored his first win as Washington’s new head coach.

His unofficial second win would come soon after, and would perhaps be just as significant.

On April 18, Jaylen Nowell, a four-star standout from Seattle and the only member of Romar’s vaunted 2017 recruiting class who hadn’t officially announced he was now headed elsewhere, revealed he was going to give Hopkins a chance.

“I’ve decided to put my faith back into my city and remain a Husky,” Nowell said in a Twitter post reaffirming his commitment to Washington.

Hopkins made no effort to conceal his excitement, going very public with his belief that Nowell’s commitment was “one of the biggest moments in Husky history.”

What seemed hyperbolic at the time seems almost prophetic now.

Nowell has been a revelation in his first college season. He leads Washington in scoring at 16.5 points per game and ranks third in both assists (2.6 per game) and rebounding (4.1 per game). Each returnee who Hopkins convinced to stick with the Huskies has also taken a dramatic step forward. Dickerson, the player who initially announced he would be transferring, has developed into one of the best post players in the Pac-12 and is averaging 15.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Crisp is also averaging double figures in points, and fellow junior Matisse Thybulle is putting up career-best numbers nearly across the board.

Hopkins’ 2-3 defense is also receiving rave early reviews. After ranking a woeful 224th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, Washington currently sits at No. 65 in the same category this year. They’re holding opponents to just 32.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and have drawn significant praise from the most successful coach in the Pac-12.

“They do an excellent job of trying to take away the other team’s strengths,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “They’re the best defensive team in our conference and when you’re the best defensive team in the conference and you’re playing at home, it’s a heck of a challenge.”

Miller was speaking minutes after his Arizona team had been beaten at the buzzer by Washington in one of the best finishes of the 2017-18 season to date.

On the Arizona bench for that shot? Lorenzo Romar, who was hired by Miller as an assistant following his firing.

The upset over the Wildcats was Washington’s third over a top-25 opponent this season, and second over a team ranked in the top 10. The strength of the Husky zone was on full display in the first of those victories, a 74-65 road stunner over then-No. 2 Kansas back on Dec. 6. U-Dub held the Jayhawks to 5-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc as they captured their first win outside the state of Washington since a victory over Stanford in the 2015-16 Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

It was the first of many signs that Washington’s seemingly bold play during the heart of March Madness last spring was the correct one.

A year after winning just nine games with the soon-to-be No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Hopkins’ first Husky team is 17-6 overall. The team picked before the season to finish ninth in the Pac-12 currently sits alone in third in the league standings with a 7-3 mark. If the NCAA Tournament began today, SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean says Washington would be in the field of 68 as a 10-seed.

The fans in Seattle have taken notice. What other choice have they had?

After Washington had its first home sellout of the season for its game against Washington State on Jan. 28, Hopkins took out a full ad in the Seattle Times to thank the fans. Four days later Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion was sold out again as the Huskies took down No. 25 Arizona State. Two days after that, most of yet another sellout crowd was on the court after the most dramatic Washington victory in recent memory.

There may not be a top-10 draft pick on Hopkins’ roster, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is complaining.