BY Art Thiel 03:05PM 02/25/2019

Thiel: Questions loom as Huskies join Zags in poll

Monday’s AP poll has Gonzaga No. 1 and the Huskies 25th. But is the gap that large? Huskies lost by two in Spokane in December. Hmmm . . .

Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs are back atop the AP poll. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

As Gonzaga rose to No. 1 Monday, the Washington Huskies for the first time this season made the Associated Press’s weekly top 25 college basketball poll, ranked 25th with 92 points, two ahead of Louisville.

While the ranking in February is amusing but nearly meaningless, it does prompt a couple of valid questions:

Given the flatness of their surrounding territories in the West Coast Conference and Pac-12 Conference, does either team deserve its ranking?

Since the Zags at home Dec. 5 barely beat the Huskies (81-79), is there a 24-team difference between the 27-2 Bulldogs and the 22-5 Huskies?

What is known at the moment is that men’s hoops this season in the region is moon-like in its desolation. The WCC has long been a second-tier conference, but this year is Pluto-like. The closest any conference team has come to Gonzaga is a pair of 13-point road wins over San Francisco and Loyal Marymount.

Similarly, the rest of the Pac-12 beyond Washington is bleak.

Scandalized by the involvement of Arizona and USC in the FBI’s investigation of the sport’s rampant corruption, plus the arrests of three UCLA players in China on shoplifting charges, the Pac-12 last season failed to advance beyond the opening round of the NCAA tournament — the first time since 1996-97 that a top-six conference did that.

This season, it’s worse. In the NCAA’s new NET rankings (explained here), the cumulative Pac-12 record against Quad 1 opponents is 11-51, by far the worst among power conferences.

So the credibility of Washington and Gonzaga, which was No. 1 in the poll for two weeks in December, is somewhat suspect. They are salmon among minnows, but the NCAA tournament is played in a shark tank.

That lack of conference competition forces comparisons to be made from non-conference outcomes, a portion of the schedule Huskies coach Mike Hopkins deliberately upgraded this season.

Washington played only one other currently ranked team, losing to No. 20 Virginia Tech (21-6) Dec. 15 in Atlantic City, 73-61. They also lost at Auburn (18-9) Nov. 6 and to Minnesota ( 17-11) Nov. 21 in a tournament in Vancouver, B.C.  The only conference loss was Feb. 9 at Arizona State, 75-63, their lone emotionally flat game of the season.

The four non-conference losses came early, before the Huskies coaches re-emphasized shooting techniques that improved offensive production from dismal to average.

Coupled with their already formidable zone defense, the Huskies have gone 13-1 in conference. Following relatively easy home wins last week against Utah and Colorado (the opponents combined to score 100 points), UW has clinched at least a tie for the regular-season title.

The Huskies travel to the Bay Area for games Thursday at Cal (8 p.m., FS1) and Sunday at Stanford (1 p.m., ESPN2), before closing out the regular season at home the following week against Oregon State and Oregon. A strong finish sets up the Huskies for a No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, and are a good bet for their first NCAA tourney appearance since 2011.

In the NET ranking tool, Gonzaga is also No. 1. Virginia Tech is 12th, Auburn 23rd, Washington 29th, Minnesota 54th and Arizona State 63rd.

The suddenly old-fashioned RPI rankings see less disparity between the Zags and Huskies. Gonzaga is fifth, Washington 16th, Virginia Tech 29th, Auburn 32nd, Arizona State 50th and Minnesota 53rd.

Using either tool, the Huskies’ defeats appear to have come against teams with shots at the 68-team NCAA tourney field, meaning no bad losses.

But they didn’t beat Duke, which the Zags did in Maui in December, 89-87. Their only losses were to powerhouses Tennessee and North Carolina.

The comparatives seem to go a ways toward answering a tantalizing third question: What would happen if the Zags and Huskies met in the tourney?

The tournament-savvy Zags, with certain All-America selection Rui Hashimura, should win easily.

Or maybe not.

In the Dec. 5 match, the 81 points by the Zags were the Huskies’ second-highest total of the season (Auburn won 88-66). But as it turns out, the Zags have led the NCAA in scoring average through most of the season, currently 90.7 points per game.

If Hopkins were told his team in a tournament game would hold the Zags to 10 points under their average, my guess is he would take his chances with that.

The rest of the Pac-12 would probably like the Huskies’ chances too. In the lackluster landscape, winning the state championship of Washington would be, for the entire league, a rose atop the slag heap.


  • Husky73

    I cannot figure out if Washington is a “good” bad team. or a “bad” good team. Virginia Tech and Auburn blew them out. The Huskies were not in either game. They looked terrible against the Sun Devils, but somehow have found a way to beat everyone in the conference. They stay in games because they don’t give up very many points. Dickerson and Crisp are not good players– hence the “bad.” Nowell and Thybulle are better than average– hence the “good.” The rest, and the bench, are….what?….scrappy!

    • WestCoastBias79

      Syracuse made runs with similarly flawed teams (not talking about the Carmelo team). The zone is the great equalizer. If you’re not hitting your midrange or threes off of skip passes, you’ll lose to it.

      • art thiel

        Exactly. Syracuse is always a pain in the ass early in the tourney.

    • art thiel

      This is not a dominant team of the Roy/Robinson variety. But the defense gives them a good shot at an opening win, and a decent shot at 2-0.

      What else do you want? the good/bad argument is one you can make about nearly every team beyond the top 20 or so.

      Don’t cogitate. Celebrate.

      • Husky73

        It’s too early to celebrate. Four games plus a tournament loom.

        • art thiel

          If I were a fan, I’d celebrate every win. What are you saving up for?

  • WestCoastBias79

    The WCC is probably top to bottom better than the Pac 12 this year. That said, I’d take UW in a game against Wofford.

    • art thiel

      The Pac-12 is down, but not THAT down. Zags and USF are the only equivalent teams in WCC.

      Don’t be dissing the Fighting Methodists.

      • Husky73

        Is that an oxy moron?

      • WestCoastBias79

        Uhh…after last night’s Cal game I might take Wofford.

  • 1coolguy

    As we know, defense travels, and is not at the top othe list for most college coaches (see Romar, etc) because it is more difficult to practice and play. So with their tourney-savvy HC, I would suggest th UW is a sure bet to win its 1st round match, then is a toss-up for round 2.

    • art thiel

      A reasonable guess. Zone Ds are usually trouble for foes early in a tourney when scout/practice time is minimal. It would not surprise me to see UW with a 2-0 start.

      • DonMac

        I have no doubt GU would still be undefeated if they played in the PAC-12 with all due respect to UW.

        • art thiel

          No one would argue.

  • DonMac

    Gonzaga is such an incredible story for a small school in a small city like Spokane but they just keep rolling along. They most likely are going to lose two guys as NBA first round picks (Hachimura and Clarke) but they are only going to reload with six incoming freshman, four of whom are in the top 75 of all recruits. I just wish GU played in a better conference but logistics just don’t make that feasible in terms of the amount of travel to play in a decent conference near or east of the Mississippi. That still doesn’t hurt them though when it comes to recruiting but it would certainly help when it comes to being fully ready to play in the grueling NCAA Tournament.

    • Husky73

      Seattle U needs an on campus facility.

      • art thiel

        They’re planning one.

        • Husky73

          They are?

    • art thiel

      Zags try to make up for it by booking a tough nonconference schedule. Credit to Few.

  • jafabian

    Dawgs seem to have more swag right now than they did at the beginning of the season or even all of last season. A rematch on a neutral court could be a different story. The benches for each team would be the difference maker. It would be a great game for TV.

    • art thiel

      This season the Huskies are competitive with the Zags. Not saying they’ll win, but it would be most entertaining.

  • rosetta_stoned

    The Minnesota ‘loss’ should’ve never happened as the player clearly traveled before he made a desperation three. I could see UW making the second weekend simply based upon how their seniors play.

  • Husky73

    A 22-5 team just lost to a 5-22 team.