Senior Forward Mikael Hopkins is a simple man. He doesn’t feel the need to enter Midnight Madness wearing a cape, rapping his own song lyrics like fellow senior Jabril Trawick. Nor does he maintain a major Twitter presence like teammates junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera or freshman L.J. Peak. During the madness of basketball media day, Hopkins is swarmed by reporters, but they seem more interested in talking about his teammates. He fields questions about Smith-Rivera’s preseason accolades and senior center Joshua Smith’s return. People probe him for information on the mysterious freshmen and insight into how the rotations might work at the beginning of the season.
Hopkins hoisted a Big East trophy on his home court after demolishing rival Syracuse in 2012-2013, but is also familiar with NCAA Tournament heartbreak. He has been able to stifle the incredible Doug McDermott, but has also been unable to play meaningful minutes because of foul trouble. Hopkins has been through plenty, and yet he almost exclusively answers questions about other members of his team. However, the forward doesn’t have much of a problem with the lack of attention he receives.
He just wants to play basketball.
While Hopkins has started in Thompson’s offense for two years, his performances haven’t always been pretty. The forward has often been forced to play out of position, leading to lackluster offensive outputs and foul-plagued defensive displays. Last season, many expected Hopkins to step into a larger role, aided by the addition of Smith. The transfer’s large presence allowed Hopkins to avoid many of the size mismatches that often left him helpless in years past.
Smith’s conditioning issues and academic suspension, however, left Hopkins in an even worse position than during prior years. With then-freshman center Bradley Hayes struggling to produce, the forward was forced to do all the work that was supposed to be reserved for Smith. As a result, Hopkins often floundered, stuck in between the power forward and center positions.
This year, Hopkins might finally be getting the help that he needs. Five freshmen bring depth to a team that was severely lacking in previous years, and a rejuvenated Smith should allow the frontcourt to excel.
“I’m able to move to the 4 position a lot more… the front court is going to be looking really good this year,” said Hopkins. “With five freshmen coming in, a couple of those guys are going to have to play a lot of minutes to help us out this year.”
Hopkins’s rebounding and defense should vastly improve as he will play almost exclusively at power forward, a much more natural position for him. However, in the spirit of the team’s “no more excuses” mentality, Hopkins has taken steps to ensure he doesn’t have to rely on a position or a teammate in order to contribute defensively.
“I just worked on getting a lot stronger, working on being more versatile, and playing defense without fouling—one of the biggest issues for me last year,” Hopkins said.
Many of the freshmen are known for their shot-making ability, and analysts already predict a huge year from Smith-Rivera, so scoring doesn’t have to be Hopkins’s first priority. He needs to be able to be a presence at the basket without getting into foul trouble.
This season will allow Hopkins to prove he is more to this team than just an amalgamation of his physical skills. He’s an incredibly underrated leader and will be needed more than ever with the new host of freshmen.
“We are just trying to keep them enthused, let them know that we need them… teach them the offense, teach them the defensive principles, and let them know the things Coach Thompson expects from us on the court,” Hopkins said.
And while thinking about the variables is all well and good, the senior really only has one thing on his mind.
“I mean I’m always excited to play basketball,” he said with a smile.
With the help in the frontcourt he has wanted for years, Hopkins finally has a chance to really shine as an individual in his last year on the Hilltop. Although, if you haven’t guessed by now, Hopkins isn’t particularly concerned with what he can do individually.
“I just want to win as a team. … If we win, then we all succeed.”