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.
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.