Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:23 PM
A question hovered around Jackson coach Steve Johnson all season, and it came from the mouths of friends, neighbors and even his kids.
Is it hard to be undefeated?
"I'm always like, 'Well, it's better than being the opposite of undefeated,' " Johnson said. "It's a good problem to have, I guess."
Second-ranked Jackson High School of Mill Creek is the only undefeated boys team left in the state. Right behind the Timberwolves (24-0) — and right ahead of them in the Class 4A rankings — sits No. 1 Garfield (23-1), the only one-loss team in the 3A or 4A state tournament and winner of 23 straight.
Garfield and Jackson are favorites to reach the championship game in the 4A tournament, which starts Thursday at the Tacoma Dome.
No coach or team seeks losses. They come organically and always pack the same sting. But they often serve as an opportunity for growth and provide reason for a team to refocus.
Jackson hasn't had such a moment this season. Garfield hasn't had one since November. Only here's the thing: Neither coach felt his team ever needed that experience.
"This group didn't need to get a slap in the face to bring them down to earth," Johnson said.
Said Garfield coach Ed Haskins, "I don't think I needed that to happen with this group. They've improved without taking hard lessons."
Yet Garfield started the season with a whimper. The Bulldogs, ranked fourth at the time, lost by a point to an unranked Beamer team in the season opener.
"We had to jell still," Haskins said. "We had to mesh."
The Bulldogs rely heavily on seniors and returning starters Tucker Haymond (18 points per game) and Trevaunté Williams (16 ppg), but Haskins also had as many as 11 players capable of playing significant minutes.
Early on, Garfield had to figure out the complexities of having so many moving pieces. The upshot: The Bulldogs are now the state's deepest team in 4A, with reserves like sophomore Vincenzo Reizer scoring 21 points in a win against Bothell and senior Aja Buchanan going off for 16 against Issaquah.
"The special thing about this team is we all know our roles," Williams said. "And we accept them."
The same could be said for Jackson. The Timberwolves have been pushed. They had a five-point win against Auburn to reach the state tournament.
Jason Todd, a 6-foot-5 junior, is Jackson's leader: He averages 22.2 points and is the team's leading rebounder and best defender. He is surrounded by a more-than-solid supporting cast that includes fellow juniors Dan Kingma (14.2 ppg) and Brian Zehr (12.8 ppg).
But it's the other end of the floor that has elevated Jackson.
"This group has evolved through the years to be a more consistent defensive team," Johnson said.
Now Jackson and Garfield will defend their streaks at the time of year when a loss will end their title hopes.
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Garfield's Tucker Haymond (1) and Jackson's Jason Todd, meeting in last year's state tournament, lead the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in Class 4A boys basketball into this year's event at the Tacoma Dome on Thursday.