Two coaches who competed against each other in the Big East and the ACC are on the verge of breakthrough seasons at their new schools.
Washington’s Mike Hopkins, a former longtime assistant at Syracuse, and TCU’s Jamie Dixon, the one-time Pitt head coach, were guests on NCAA.com's podcast March Madness 365 and were exceedingly confident about the prospects for the upcoming season.
The Huskies shocked Kansas in Lawrence but ultimately couldn’t quite get to the NCAA tournament last season, finishing 10-8 in the Pac-12 and 21-13 overall and a second-round NIT finish in Hopkins’ debut.
However, 95 percent of the squad's scoring is back with four of five starters all returning. While Oregon or UCLA could get the nod as a possible preseason favorite in the conference, the Huskies have the goods to be deemed the team to beat.
“We still have some warts and we’re not perfect,’’ said Hopkins. “We feel we have that chip on our shoulder. We haven’t really done what we want to do yet.’’
Hopkins said that last year he had to teach the zone he believes in so well from Syracuse. It took time. But the Huskies grabbed onto it and have one of the better defensive players in the country, let alone the Pac-12 (he took the honor last season) in Matisse Thybulle. Hopkins referred to him as their “Deion Sanders,’’ a disruptive nightmare for opponents. But he said he will need to improve his free-throw line ability and not settle for jump shots.
Hopkins said he expects him to jump up to 15-16 points a game from 11 a game. Having the top eight players back means the Huskies are “ahead of the game.’’
Hopkins expects his newcomers — 6-11 Nate Roberts, 6-2 Elijah Hardy, 7-foot Bryan Penn-Johnson and 6-6 Jamal Bey — to all have an impact.
He added that Penn-Johnson gives the Huskies size they didn’t have in the zone last season, Roberts an athletic presence who could be their most intriguing player, and then Hardly and Bey add even more depth to the perimeter. Add the new big with Noah Dickerson — the Huskies should have replacements for the key players.
The schedule will be challenging with a tournament in Vancouver that will produce a game against either Minnesota or Texas A&M, a road game against potential No. 1 Gonzaga and a game in Atlantic City against Virginia Tech.
Hopkins went into detail on the podcast about what he learned from replacing Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim for nine games and going 4-5 during that stretch in 2015. Hopkins was unfairly judged on the record during Boeheim’s absence, but it made him a better coach today.
“It was a great learning experience,’’ said Hopkins. “It was like test-driving a Tesla. It was a great experience and ultimately put me in an incredible place that I love and that has welcomed me and my family. I’m living my dream and it’s even better than I thought it would be.’’
Dixon is living out his ambition of going back to his alma mater. Dixon was a winner at Pitt and there was no reason he wouldn’t do the same at what had been the Big 12’s bottom. No more. TCU is now a real contender to finish in the top four after the Horned Frogs finished 21-12, 9-9 in the Big 12 and an appearance in the NCAA tournament in his second season. Dixon finished 24-15 in year one and won the NIT.
“The talent level is where we want it to be, we just have to stay healthy,’’ Dixon said on the podcast. “I love the style of play, love the school and love the Big 12.’’
Dixon was clear that former coach Trent Johnson should get some credit for building the blocks but didn’t benefit from the amenities that he has benefited from in two seasons.
“It’s part of the business,’’ said Dixon. “It’s a shame in coaching that the new guy comes in and they give him a lot more stuff. We have everything we need to be among the best in the country.’’
Dixon said he can’t see how the Horned Frogs couldn’t be in a better spot. Jaylen Fisher, who went out in mid-January with a season-ending knee injury, will be back to be the scoring guard. Dixon said he can’t go live yet with full contact but he is shooting, working out and will be free to play fully soon.
Dixon said being old and staying old was something they had down at Pitt.
“This team is not old,’’ said Dixon. “We’ve got eight new guys but five guys back who averaged close to double figures.’’
Dixon said the August plan is to figure out where they all fit in but it’s a problem he covets.
“Our 13 is good,’’ said Dixon of his scholarship players, which includes newcomers Kaden Archie and Kendric Davis, who will be counted on to have an impact on the wing and at the point, respectively.
Playing Florida in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, USC in the Staples Center, at rival SMU and being in the Diamond Head Classic (same side of bracket with URI but Pac-12 top four contender Colorado is on the other side) will give TCU plenty of opportunities for rise-up games. But the Big 12 offers plenty with all 10 teams postseason-worthy again.