It's been a flip-flop college basketball season in this state. Washington State has flipped. Washington and Gonzaga have flopped. Up is down; down...

Share story

It’s been a flip-flop college basketball season in this state.

Washington State has flipped.

Washington and Gonzaga have flopped.

Up is down; down is up. Hot is cold; cold is hot. Halle Berry is ugly; Ugly Betty is pretty.

Most Read Sports Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

When the 15-3 Cougars host the 11-6 Huskies on Saturday, they can accomplish something they haven’t done in a decade: Beat both Washington and Gonzaga in the same season.

Back during the 1996-97 season, the Huskies were ambling through the Bob Bender era, and the Zags were a year from replacing Dan Fitzgerald with Dan Monson. Though the Cougars split two games with UW and beat Gonzaga that year, they finished only 13-17.

The difference now is Washington State can do more than beat its in-state peers. It can truly own the state, at least for a season.

The Cougars currently possess the best men’s basketball team in Washington, their excellence wrapped with a fascinating zero-to-hero tale. Still, the season just passed the halfway point. Their challenge is to maintain. If they do, please FedEx all coach-of-the-year awards to Tony Bennett’s office in Pullman.

Meanwhile, UW can’t win a close Pac-10 game and, at 1-5 in the league, stands closer to the NIT than the NCAA tournament. And Gonzaga, which suffered only 12 defeats in the previous three seasons, has seven in its first 19 games this season. On Monday, Saint Mary’s snapped the Zags’ 30-game winning streak against West Coast Conference foes.

If you’re into RPI, college hoops’ geeky stat aimed to compute the best teams by considering opponents’ strength, consider these rankings: Cougars 23rd, Gonzaga 59th, Washington 80th.

It’s possible the Cougs could be the state’s only NCAA tournament representative.

Who envisioned that scenario? If you did, you either have John Wooden’s feel for the game or wear too much crimson.

It’s too wacky. What’s next? Eddie Murphy becomes an acclaimed actor?

Never mind.

Taking a broader view, it could be a wonderful thing for college hoops around here if Bennett has some Lorenzo Romar in him. Washington and Gonzaga have stumbled, but both will be fine long term. If Bennett will stick around and make the Cougars consistently good, the state could become hugely influential on the national scene.

Is the state big enough for three good teams? Let’s not look too far ahead. The Cougars are only 18 games into their turnaround. Romar’s Huskies have only put together three good seasons. Gonzaga has been to eight straight NCAA tournaments. Nice work by all, but it’ll take much more success for Washington to be considered a true college hoops hotbed.

Right now, the state has a nice developing story. And this chapter has provided a most unexpected twist.

Washington State’s best players are a group of guys who’ve been around the program at least three years and suffered the defeats and disrespect that come with Cougars basketball. Now they do all the frustrating, with efficient offense and solid defense.

They look like schmoes in the layup line, and then they eat up foes in the game. They exemplify the charm of college basketball, the belief that anything is possible if the right group plays the right way.

Only in this sport can the Derrick Lows and Kyle Weavers of the world compete with the Spencer Haweses and Derek Raivios.

It proves how much experience matters. It proves how worthwhile struggles can be. In that sense, the Huskies and Zags definitely should be looking up to the Cougars.

Romar built his Huskies with a group of underappreciated players. Now he’s transitioning with a group of highly appreciated players who still must learn the game.

You never get to skip steps. Sometimes, talent helps a team minimize the time required to go through the process, but you never get to take shortcuts. The young Huskies will be better because of these pains, but the hope was that they could be great before Hawes made a decision on the NBA.

The Zags are simply living life without a dominant player. Adam Morrison is off shooting bricks for the Charlotte Bobcats, and Gonzaga has a bunch of good players but not a great one to help them finish games. And they miss J.P. Batista’s inside presence, too. Still, like the Huskies, they are transitioning and not falling apart.

The season figured to be an intriguing one in these parts. If you include the entire Northwest, then you have Oregon battling Washington State for thrills. Meanwhile, the region’s two most stable programs struggle.

In a year this weird and unpredictable, you must ponder everything. So to assure the Cougars are never underestimated again this season, it’s time to ask about one possibility.

Cougars in the Final Four?

Hey, nothing about this college hoops season qualifies as silly.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com