How a three-point checklist helped Washington to college basketball’s biggest upset
By Jesse Newell firstname.lastname@example.org
The words were written on markerboard No. 7, using a “Korney Board Aids” black pen with Velcro stuck to the back.
This was inside locker room 1.03.06 at Sprint Center, where Washington’s coaches scribbled the official game plan before Wednesday night’s 74-65 victory over Kansas.
Six words. In the minutes afterward, Washington coach Mike Hopkins referenced three short phrases located on the bottom right section of the board as the biggest reason for his team’s victory as a 22-point underdog.
The word “Keys” was written inside a small black box. Below that were three points that would soon help deliver the season’s biggest upset.
1. No 3s
Hopkins is a former Syracuse assistant, so he admits he received extra help in film sessions this week by talking with Orange assistant coaches Gerry McNamara and Allen Griffin, who went against KU on Saturday.
One thing became immediately clear, though: Washington could not let Devonté Graham win this game for KU.
“He’s the best guard in America. And (Svi) Mykhailuk’s one of the best shooters in America,” Hopkins said. “If we could eliminate them, force somebody else to score and do that, then that’s what we’re going to deal with.”
Washington’s coaches came up with an idea that, even to them, seemed risky. The Huskies would extend their 2-3 zone way out on the perimeter, forcing KU to go away from a three-point-based attack that had served it well against Syracuse. That also would leave the area 15 feet away from the basket and in wide open for KU’s Lagerald Vick in the high post.
“If he scores 50 points by scoring twos,” Hopkins said, “that’s what we’re going to go with.”
It worked. Vick, while scoring 28 points on 12-for-23 shooting, was hesitant to create for himself and also didn’t find his teammates enough for open looks.
The Huskies also played to the scouting report. Coaches warned of Graham going to his left hand for a rhythm dribble before hoisting up an outside shot. They also told players to always be aware of Mykhailiuk’s location in half-court settings.
The result? Graham had three points on 1-for-5 three-point shooting, while Mykhailiuk had eight while making 2 of 8 outside shots.
“I mean, you’ve got to go with the odds. It’s coaching analytics,” Hopkins said. “What are you going to give up? … Not Devonté Graham playing HORSE.”
2. Transition defense
Hopkins knew coming into the game that KU was averaging 20 points per game on fast breaks. The Jayhawks finished with three transition points Wednesday.
It was part of a general “nothing easy” mantra that Hopkins preached to players in the days leading up to the game.
Hopkins knew KU had run four successful alley-oops from the wing against Syracuse. If Washington was going to extend its defense, it wouldn’t work if that just resulted in close shots inside.
That’s why the first play was not encouraging. Vick received at the high post and tossed it up to Udoka Azubuike, who finished with a dunk.
There would be a few more of those, but not enough to keep KU from tying its worst offensive effort of the year: 0.93 points per possession.
3. Limit turnovers
When Hopkins spoke to his team about playing with poise, he mostly was talking about eliminating giveaways. He’d seen what KU could do with opponent mistakes.
“Turnovers for that team? They do what? They’re points,” Hopkins said. “It was simple. Simple. Limit turnovers.”
Doing that also was the first part that allowed Washington to execute a more elaborate offensive scheme.
Hopkins knew of KU’s depth issues without Billy Preston — “They only have seven guys, so they can’t get in foul trouble” — and that played to Washington’s strength. Forward Noah Dickerson entered as the nation’s third-best at drawing fouls, which meant he likely was going to receive extra attention in the form of a double-team.
“If we could get it to him, we’d be able to pick (the defense) apart by just getting passouts,” Hopkins said, “and you’d have spot shots.”
This happened early. Just a minute and a half in, Dickerson received the ball in the post, Azubuike came to double, Vick helped on Azubuike’s man, and Dickerson passed to the opposite wing to get Marisse Thybulle an open three. After the shot went in, Hopkins walked down his bench repeating two words to his players, “Every time! Every time!”
It worked again later in the first half. Dickerson received the ball in a similar spot, Mykhailiuk came to help, and Dickerson found Thybulle again on the opposite wing.
“He kicks it out, and we’re just finding the open guy,” Thybulle said.
It wasn’t a fool-proof method. Washington had only made 32 percent of its threes coming into Wednesday’s game.
Hopkins considered those good shots, though. The Huskies made 9 of 21 threes Wednesday.
“Some days you make them. Some days you miss them. Tonight, we made them,” Hopkins said. “They executed perfectly.”
When Hopkins entered the halftime locker room, he made sure to reference those six words on the markerboard again.
No threes? He read off the stat sheet. KU was only 2-for-9 from long range.
Transition defense? He read again. The Jayhawks had no fast-break points.
Limit turnovers? He told his team it had only five giveaways through 20 minutes.
So much of being a first-year coach is trying to get players to believe: in what you’re trying to build, in your style of defense, and most importantly, in the overall vision of the program.
Hopkins was most happy about that. His kids trusted the gameplan. They did what their coaches taught.
Their reward was a celebration in room 1.03.06 … just a few feet in front of markerboard No. 7.