College Sports

Huskies, Zags entering crucial make-or-break period before March Madness

SMU forward Markus Kennedy (5) pulls in a rebound against Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. SMU won 69-60.
SMU forward Markus Kennedy (5) pulls in a rebound against Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. SMU won 69-60. AP

At times this season, college basketball fans in the state of Washington might have envisioned a possible postseason meeting between Washington and Gonzaga.

Nobody was likely to have imagined it could be in the NIT.

A month away from the start of the NCAA tournament, the top two teams in the state each hover in the No. 60 range on the ratings percentage index (RPI) — somewhere in that vague and dreaded category of “on the bubble” for tournament consideration.

Each has time to strengthen their tournament standing, as well as the possibility of earning an automatic berth through their conference tournaments.

But it’s somewhat less than seemed possible for these teams at times this season.

When Gonzaga opened with the No. 9 preseason ranking in the AP poll, it would have been unexpected to read February opinions that the Zags might now need to get the automatic bid with a WCC tournament title to sustain their streak of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

And in early January, when Washington stood at 11-4 and 3-0 in the Pac-12 Conference, the young Huskies were clearly on the rise, having infused energy and expectations into the program.

For the Huskies, getting an NCAA berth of any form, regardless of seeding, would be a significant validation for such a young team. It has been since the 2010-11 season since they’ve gone to the NCAAs.

For the Zags to continue getting there might be even more critical. Their streak of consecutive berths is fourth-longest active in the NCAA, trailing only powerhouses Kansas, Duke and Michigan State.

Anybody else in the state got a shot? With a six-game winning streak, Eastern Washington is 15-10 and two games back in the Big Sky standings. Seattle U is level at 12-12. And Washington State is a dismal 9-16 and a distant last in the Pac-12.

Excitement for the future is warranted for the Huskies, as five of their top seven scorers are freshmen. But the sense of their trending upward in the short term has waned in recent weeks.

Since beating Colorado at home Jan. 20, the Huskies have lost five of their last seven and three in a row to stand 15-10 and 7-6 in conference.

They play host to California on Thursday, which is slightly ahead of them at 7-5. Their best chance for a quality win to grab tournament attention is at Oregon (ranked No. 16) on Feb. 28.

The Zags, at 20-6, face Pacific at home Thursday. At 12-2, they have a one game lead in the WCC over Saint Mary’s and are two ahead of BYU — two teams that beat them, and which they face again before the conference tournament.

So, there’s time for this to go either way for GU, with the only certainty being that we’ll have a chance to watch it up close.

Since the fall, HBO has focused on the Zags for a five-part documentary series called “Gonzaga: The March to Madness.” The first episode appeared Tuesday, and will continue on a weekly basis until the week of the tournament’s start.

They seemed a safe subject at the start of the season. Aside from the consecutive tournament streak, they were coming off a 35-3 Elite Eight season with the return of three nationally regarded big men in Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis — the so-called Spokane Skyline.

But Karnowski went down in December with a back injury that required surgery. And while Wiltjer (21.1 points) and Sabonis (10 double-doubles in WCC play) have piled up big stats, the “quality” wins GU generally piles up have been rare.

In the loss against 16th-ranked SMU in their last game, the Zags got just four points out of Wiltjer. This week, they received no votes in the AP Top 25 poll.

Even though far from a lock, they still should be a solid bet to reach the NCAAs one way or another — especially given their history.

After not meeting since 2006, Washington and Gonzaga met in November in the Bahamas, which resulted in an 80-64 win for GU. At the time, the Zags were highly ranked and the Huskies were a gang of green kids.

Three months later, these two teams have trended toward the middle — in the vicinity of the bubble.