Washington hopes to take another step towards the top of the Pac-12

FILE - Washington guard Jamal Bey, center, attempts to steal the ball from Southern California guard Drew Peterson, right, with Washington guard Terrell Brown Jr. watching during the first half of a basketball game -NCAA varsity ball in Los Angeles on Thursday, February 17, 2022. Bey is Washington's leading scorer after averaging 9.4 points per game last season.  He is also Washington's most experienced player at the start of the season with 119 career games played.  (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, File)

FILE – Washington guard Jamal Bey, center, attempts to steal the ball from Southern California guard Drew Peterson, right, with Washington guard Terrell Brown Jr. watching during the first half of a basketball game -NCAA varsity ball in Los Angeles on Thursday, February 17, 2022. Bey is Washington’s leading scorer after averaging 9.4 points per game last season. He is also Washington’s most experienced player at the start of the season with 119 career games played. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, File)

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At the end of last season, Washington coach Mike Hopkins believed the Huskies were on an upward trajectory.

Washington won 11 conference games — the Huskies’ second-most in the previous 10 seasons — and finished tied for fifth in the Pac-12.

But to keep that momentum going this season will require another group of new players combined with some key players if the Huskies are to get any closer to the top of the conference.

“The potential is there to be really good, but it’s a work in progress,” Hopkins said. “We have some great pieces. Really excited about this, but we need to come together, implement the system, that kind of stuff. But I feel very optimistic.

Joining the Pac-12 elite would be the optimal scenario for Washington and perhaps the one Hopkins needs. After a stellar performance in his first two seasons, the Huskies fell short of expectations, raising questions about Hopkins’ job security.

Washington went 17-15 overall last season before losing in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament. It was a significant improvement after the Huskies went 5-21 in the 2020-21 season, but the program has struggled since reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2019.

“Being 17-15 is obviously not our standard. That’s not where we want to be. We want to play in the playoffs and competitively,” Hopkins said. “But we won 11 league games after having struggled…. We were picked second from last and came fifth, tied, so there were a lot of positives and I want to focus on those.

The Washington returnees are highlighted by winger Jamal Bey and guards PJ Fuller and Cole Bajema. But that trio combined for just 22 points per game last season and will have to take on bigger scores as the Huskies try to fill the void left by the departure of Terrell Brown Jr., who led the Pac-12 by an average of 21.7 points last season. .

Part of that score could go to Kentucky transfer Keion Brooks. The 6-foot-7 forward scored a career-high 10.8 points per game last season for the Wildcats. The Huskies are also counting on contributions from Noah Williams, who was traded from rival Washington State.

PORTAL POWER

The transfer portal appears to have become Washington’s primary recruiting avenue over the past two seasons. Last season the Huskies had Brown, Daejon Davis, Emmitt Matthews Jr. and Fuller. Brown, Davis, and Matthews left, but Washington restocked.

Brooks was the biggest acquisition. He started all 33 games last season for the Wildcats and averaged double digits for the second season in a row.

Williams was a surprise making the jump from Pullman to Seattle. Williams averaged 14.1 points two seasons ago with the Cougars, but shot just 33% from the field last year and saw his scoring and minutes drop.

Washington added a trio of freshman rookies in point guard Koren Johnson, forward Tyler Linhardt and sneaky guard Keyon Menifield.

INSIDE SIZE

One thing Washington needs to sort out is size and depth inside. The Huskies brought back 6-foot-9 athletic forward Langston Wilson, but also added 6-foot-11 Franck Kepnang from Oregon and 7-foot Braxton Meah from Fresno State. Another key will be the development of 6-10 forward Jackson Grant, who played a limited number of minutes last season as a rookie.

That extra size in the middle should help both rebounding and defensively.

“We’ve got the size and the athleticism,” Hopkins said. “We had a lot of games last year, we had to play very small.”

RETURNEES

Bey is Washington’s most experienced player, starting the season with 119 career games played. Although he’s a solid defensive player, Washington needs better shooting from Bey, who shot 34 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3 last season.

Fuller is likely to be the starting point guard for the Huskies and has seen his role grow as last season has progressed, while Bajema is a streaky shooter.

PROGRAM

Washington’s non-conference schedule is rather disappointing. The Huskies will play in the Wooden Legacy in November with the possibility of a game against Saint Mary’s or Vanderbilt in the Finals. The two marquee non-conference matchups will take place in December with a game against No. 2 Gonzaga and at home against No. 15 Auburn.

In conference, the Huskies play seven of their first seven Pac-12 games at home and play the Oregon Schools only once.

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This story was originally published October 20, 2022 4:23 p.m.

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