Will Undefeated Hoops Teams Stay that Way?
by Trevor Whenham - 12/13/2006
Ever since the Indiana Hoosiers pulled it off in 1976, college basketball fans have longed for another team to complete an undefeated season with a national championship. Like the Triple Crown, the Grand Slam and all the other revered accomplishments in sports, though, it has remained elusive. Indiana State came closest in 1979, but Magic Johnson and his Spartans got the best of Larry Bird et al in the finals. UNLV looked like a lock in 1991, but Christian Laettner and his Blue Devils pulled off the huge upset in the semi-finals. Illinois came close in 2005, but didn't even make it all the way to the tournament without a loss, and then lost again in the finals.
Before a team can finally win an undefeated championship, though, it has to make it through the regular season untarnished. Will anyone manage to do that this year? The simple answer, without an ounce of handicapping, is no. It's such an incredibly difficult task that the safe bet is to assume it won't happen. Still, it's nice to dream. Of the 336 Division I teams that are playing this season, only eight have made it this far without a loss. Can one of these eight make our dreams come true? Here's a look:
Oklahoma St. (11-0) - The Cowboys have the most wins in the country, but that's not much of an accomplishment given the teams they have played. They haven't played anyone. They beat Syracuse, and Auburn isn't bad, but it falls off dramatically after that - Florida Atlantic, Texas Southern, Sam Houston State, Southern. The upcoming road gets considerably tougher. Before Christmas they face tough spots in both Tennessee and Pittsburgh, then they move into conference play. That includes tough games like Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and more. In other words, there is virtually no chance that the Cowboys, a decent though not brilliant team, will stay undefeated.
Clemson (10-0) - Even more so than Oklahoma St., the Tigers haven't played anyone remotely terrifying yet. Before the season, the team wasn't predicted to make the tournament and they didn't have a player on the first or second All-Conference Team. This start is nice, but it hasn't yet done anything to change the long-term opinion of the team's fortunes - making the tournament will still be quite an accomplishment.
Pittsburgh (10-0) - Much more than the first two, this is a very good team that has an outside shot. Hopefully they learned from their recent game against Buffalo. They barely squeaked by with a win against a much inferior team. With the return of Aaron Gray, and depth that few teams in the country can match, the Panthers are unquestionably the best in the Big East. The biggest problem they face, though, is their conference. They have the potential to beat any team in the Big East, but there are so many good teams that it seems unlikely.
Oregon (8-0) - This team chronically underachieves. They were a solid team the last two years, talented enough to make the tournament, but they couldn't even manage to make the NIT either season. They have an excellent guard in Aaron Brooks, Tajuan Porter has been fantastic as a freshman and Malik Hairston is a talented but underachieving former super-recruit that should be better than he has been his first two years. Beyond that, they have a lot of solid players, but they don't have an obvious and consistent starting five. They'll make the tournament if they play their best, but doing it without a loss is out of the question.
Connecticut (8-0) - How do you judge a team that lost its six top scorers from last year? No matter how you judge them, they appear to be overachieving this year. They have had the perfect schedule so far to break in a new group of freshmen - they haven't played anyone notable yet. As you would expect of a program like this, they have an incredible amount of talent, but a tough Big East schedule is a hard way to break in a new team, and losses are inevitable. Anything could happen, but the losses will come.
UCLA (8-0) - They were almost good enough to win it all last year, and they are probably better this year. Their last game against Texas A&M, though, shows how hard staying undefeated would be. They won the game, but it was too close. I'd like to pretend my Michigan Wolverines were going to beat them on Dec. 23, but that's not going to happen. That means that they will be undefeated entering conference play. The Pac-10 is one of the softest major conferences, so UCLA could do it. I'll go this far - if any team makes it to the tournament undefeated, it will be the Bruins.
Wichita State (7-0) - The Shockers were one of the best stories of the last tournament, and they have carried on shocking their competition since. They have as many impressive wins as any team in the country so far - Syracuse, LSU, George Mason. You have to give them credit for scheduling tough games. Unfortunately for them, you also have to give their conference, the Missouri Valley, credit for being very tough. It would be one of the best stories in the history of college basketball if they pulled it off. They won't.
Southern Mississippi (7-0) - Not going to happen. All you need to know about their season so far is this: they have played seven games, but only one has had a line set for it. This is the most meaningless undefeated record you could possibly have. Even making the NIT would be a major miracle.