A month ago, there were six undefeated teams left in college men’s basketball, and now there is just one: Gonzaga at 16-0.
There might none by Sunday.
One of the least publicized college hoops rivalries has to be that of perennial West Coast Conference powers Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. At least one of the two programs has won the league every season since 2000-01, including when the Bulldogs and Gaels tied for the West Coast regular season title last year.
Imagine the hype surrounding this matchup if both teams were unbeaten. St. Mary’s is ranked No. 21, but it has a 15-1 record because of a loss to Texas-Arlington Dec. 9.
Fifth-ranked Gonzaga is rolling after four consecutive victories in the conference by an average margin of 25.8 points per game.
If St. Mary’s doesn’t win in Spokane, Wash., on Saturday night (9 p.m., ESPN), then Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s team might be undefeated for another eight games until a Feb. 11 rematch in Moraga, Calif.
How good are the fighting Fews?
Well, Gonzaga’s not only proved to be in a class of its own so far among league competition, but it pulled off impressive nonconference victories over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, Washington and Tennessee.
You can make a case that Florida and Arizona, both top 25 teams this week, were tougher or just as tough as the rival Gaels will be Saturday. So how did Gonzaga get this good even after losing 70 percent of its scoring from last season, with stars Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis now playing in the NBA?
Transfers have something to do with it. Among the Zags’ newcomers are Jordan Matthews from California, Jonathan Williams from Missouri and Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington.
Williams-Goss, a 6-foot-3 junior, has been the team’s best player, averaging 15 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. His 36-point, 11-rebound, six-assist performance last week vs. San Francisco was All-America worthy.
The talented additions complement returning starters such as 7-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins. With potential one-and-done 7-foot freshman Zach Collins coming off the bench, this could be a Final Four team down the road. But Gonzaga has to get past its only likely regular season hurdle left in St. Mary’s.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves by mentioning this, but Kentucky (2015) and Wichita State (2014) are the last two college basketball teams to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten. Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was the star of the 38-0 Kentucky team that lost to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four (Indiana’s 1976 undefeated NCAA title team breathed a sigh of relief).
Baylor was the nation’s No. 1 team at 15-0 entering this week, but it fell hard Tuesday at No. 10 West Virginia, losing 89-68. Now we’ll see how long the Zags can hang on to the honor of being the 2016-17 season’s last remaining unbeaten.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Grayson Allen, G, Duke
The 6-foot-5 junior has been the talk of the college basketball world for the wrong reasons after being suspended for only one game following the third tripping incident of his career. The negativity surrounding Allen could continue to be distracting if he doesn’t play well in a big game Saturday against Louisville. He only had nine points in Duke’s 88-72 loss at Florida State on Tuesday.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
(9) Florida State at (11) North Carolina
noon Saturday, ESPN: The Seminoles, on a school-record 13-game winning streak, weren’t even a top 25 team when they beat the Gophers on Nov. 28. Now they are No. 9 and an early favorite to win the ACC title. They are looking to end a six-game losing streak against North Carolina and earn their first victory in Chapel Hill since 2010.
It already seemed like a weird year for the Big Ten when Nebraska got off to a 3-0 start. This might be the year when the champion has four or more losses. There are too many middle-of-the-pack teams and no real bottom-feeder besides Rutgers for elite programs to escape unscathed, especially on the road. The last team that went 14-4 to win the Big Ten regular season was Indiana in 2012-13.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Wisconsin (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten)
The Badgers made it look easy after bouncing back from a 66-55 loss at Purdue to demolish Ohio State by 23 at home Thursday.
2. Purdue (14-4, 3-2)
3. Maryland (15-2, 3-1)
4. Michigan State (12-6, 4-1)
The Spartans had Miles Bridges back healthy and playing well in their 18-point blowout of the Gophers in East Lansing.
5. Gophers (15-3, 3-2)
6. Northwestern (14-4, 3-2)
7. Indiana (11-6, 1-3)
The Hoosiers have arguably the Big Ten’s most talented team, so the pressure is on coach Tom Crean to figure out what’s wrong.
8. Illinois (12-5, 2-2)
9. Nebraska (9-7, 3-1)
10. Iowa (11-7, 3-2)
The Hawkeyes showed their young talent and toughness beating Purdue at home Thursday behind Peter Jok’s 29 points.
11. Michigan (11-6, 1-3)
12. Penn State (10-7, 2-2)
13. Ohio State (10-7, 0-4)
The Buckeyes are off to their worst Big Ten start under coach Thad Matta, dropping to 0-4 in the conference for the first time since 1997-98.
14. Rutgers (11-7, 0-5)
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. email@example.com