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Gonzaga’s path to No. 1 opens up after Villanova, Kansas fall

West Virginia guard Tarik Phillip, right, and Kansas guard Josh Jackson fight for control of a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Morgantown, W.Va. Kansas, ranked second, lost 85-69, paving the way for Gonzaga to move up. (Ray Thompson / Associated Press)
From staff and wire reports

Gonzaga’s path to No. 1 opened up Tuesday when top-ranked Villanova and second-ranked Kansas absorbed road defeats.

The third-ranked Zags are next in line to ascend to the top spot in the AP poll if they take care of business against visiting San Diego on Thursday and on the road versus Pepperdine on Saturday.

West Virginia’s Esa Ahmad scored a career-high 27 points to lead the 18th-ranked Mountaineers past Kansas 85-69 in Morgantown, West Virginia. About an hour after the Jayhawks’ loss, Marquette completed an improbable rally from 17 points down to knock off Villanova 74-72 in Milwaukee.

Marquette’s Katin Reinhardt hit two free throws with 11.6 seconds left, Jalen Brunson missed a layup at the buzzer and Golden Eagles (14-6, 5-3 Big East) upset the Wildcats (19-2, 7-2) in a season-defining victory.

Defending national champion Villanova was 120 points ahead of Gonzaga in this week’s AP Top 25. Kansas was 101 points in front of the Zags.

Kansas was ranked No. 1, Villanova No. 2 and Gonzaga No. 3 in this week’s USA Today poll.

Gonzaga was the only team other than Villanova and Kansas to receive first-place votes in both major polls. The Zags received two first-place votes in AP, three in the coaches poll.

No. 4 Kentucky lost to Tennessee, marking the first time three top four teams lost on the same day since Jan. 21, 2012, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Gonzaga defeated Tennessee 86-76 in December in Nashville.

The Zags, sporting a 29-2 record at the time, reached No. 1 for the first time in program history in March, 2013. Gonzaga eventually earned a No. 1 seed, also a program first, in the NCAA tournament before falling to Wichita State in the round of 32.

Gonzaga reached No. 2 in USA Today and No. 3 in AP before falling to BYU in the 2015 regular-season finale.

Gonzaga (20-0) is the only unbeaten team remaining in Division I.

The Zags have won four straight over San Diego (10-10, 3-5) and 15 of the last 16 in the series. Gonzaga has dominated Pepperdine (5-15, 1-7) with 32 consecutive series victories.

The Mountaineers (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) beat Kansas (18-2, 7-1) for the fourth straight time in Morgantown and snapped the Jayhawks’ 18-game winning streak.

Ahmad led West Virginia in scoring over the first two months of the season but entered Tuesday’s game with four straight games in single digits. He scored West Virginia’s first eight points against Kansas and finished 10 of 17 from the field.

West Virginia blew a double-digit lead after halftime for the third straight game. Svi Mykhailiuk’s 3-pointer put the Jayhawks ahead 59-58 midway through the second half. But that was their last lead.

WVU also knocked off Baylor, ranked No. 1 at the time, on Jan. 10.