Two of the hottest young coaches in college basketball square off for the first time this week in a game that could be a preview of the rising powers in the Pac-12.
Washington’s Mike Hopkins, 47, and Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, 46, are two of the three youngest coaches in the conference, guiding teams that are making improbable runs toward the NCAA tournament.
“That team is an extension of him,” Hopkins said when asked about Hurley and the Sun Devils. “They’ve got terrific guards. Four of them. ... And we all know, coach Hurley was one of the best guards in college basketball.
“They’ve taken on his characteristic. A gritty team. Undersized a bit like we are. Won’t back down. And he’s had some time to put in his system, and you can see it’s working well for them.”
In his third year, Hurley was the toast of the college basketball world last month when ASU started 12-0 and rose to No. 3 in The Associated Press rankings.
Since then, the Sun Devils have stumbled to a 4-5 record against Pac-12 opponents. Still, they enter Thursday’s 8 p.m. game at Alaska Airlines Arena ranked No. 25 at 16-5 and still in the thick of most NCAA tournament projections.
“We’ve had to focus on getting better in some areas on defense because teams have been reluctant to go up and down the floor with us and play a wide-open game,” Hurley said. “It’s been a lot more possession-oriented in conference play, and we’ve also faced a lot more zone defense.
“We haven’t shot it quite as well, and that’s affected our offensive numbers some.”
The average margin of defeat in ASU’s five Pac-12 losses is 6.6 points, including a pair of overtime defeats.
“We’ve had chances (to win), we just haven’t really closed games as well as we needed to,” Hurley added.
Meanwhile, Hopkins is being lauded for quickly revamping a UW team that won nine games last season and guiding the Huskies (15-6, 5-3) to a virtual third-place tie in the Pac-12 standings.
Hurley understands and appreciates what Hopkins has done in such a short time considering he performed a similar task at Buffalo, where he posted a 42-20 record during his first two years as a head coach.
The ties binding Hopkins and Hurley reach back three decades.
They started their collegiate careers at the same time. They’re former guards who played at two of the most storied programs in college basketball and learned from pillars in the sport who are Nos. 1 and 2 on the most wins list in men’s college basketball. Hurley had Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, whereas Hopkins received tutelage from Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
They were prized pupils who drew favor from their mentors and basketball-crazed fan bases due to their distinct personalities.
Hurley, the consummate winner, was a fiery and passionate prep All-American from Jersey City, N.J., who played in three Final Fours, won two national championships and claimed the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award as a junior.
Meanwhile, Hopkins, a hard-nosed overachiever from Orange County, Calif., rose in the ranks from a redshirt freshman to a two-year starter and team captain who then spent 22 years as an assistant.
“He’s more than paid his dues in terms of getting himself ready for this opportunity,” Hurley said. “He’s already off to a fast start, and I’m really happy for him.”
Thursday’s game will be the first time Hopkins and Hurley will share a court as competitors since their freshman season in 1989.
“I redshirted that year, but if I remember correctly, Bobby had a nice game,” Hopkins said, recalling an ACC/Big East Challenge matchup between then-No. 1 Syracuse and No. 6 Duke.
Hurley finished with 10 assists, four points and two steals to offset six turnovers in 33 minutes. However, Syracuse won 78-76.
“I got to know Bobby’s brother Dan (who coached at Saint Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey) and obviously their father is a legend. I just love the Hurley family. (Bob Sr.) helped me a lot in my career. Whenever I had questions or asked about the game, he’s the kind of guy that you bought all of his videos and went to all of his clinics and practices.
“Their name where we’re from on the East Coast is just so infamous for the best basketball. And they’re great people. They’re competitors to the death. Great people. Great coaches. Great family.”
When asked about Hopkins, Hurley said he remembers the game when the former Syracuse guard played with a bloody face.
“He’s a tough dude,” Hurley said. “Got an elbow to the head and still kept playing. That’s my kind of guy. I like Mike a lot.”