College Basketball Handicapping: Looking at Remaining Unbeatens
by Trevor Whenham - 1/6/2015
And then there were three. Unbeaten teams in college basketball, that is. It was a rough week for unbeaten teams, as two squads suffered their first losses. Villanova lost at Seton Hall in overtime, and Colorado State, who had benefited from an almost impossibly soft schedule, was stomped by New Mexico in The Pit. Now we are left with just three remaining teams with a shot at running the table - Kentucky, Duke and Virginia. The latter two meet on Jan. 31, so the most perfect teams we could have this year are two - though that is obviously very unlikely to happen. In fact, history teaches us that it is overwhelmingly unlikely that we will have any.
So, how do the three teams stack up in terms of their chances of entering the postseason without a loss? Let's take a look:
Kentucky Wildcats: This is the obvious place to start since in the eyes of many this team has already won all their games and clinched the NCAA Championship. It's actually quite ridiculous - at Bovada they are already at 10/11 to win the National Championship, with Duke sitting second but all the way back at 7/1. Just think about that for a second - this team still has more than half of their regular season, a conference tournament, and six NCAA Tournament games remaining, yet they have already been bet down below even money to win the toughest championship in sports to secure. Wow.
That being said, this team is exceptional and well-positioned to win for a long, long time. They have certainly been tested plenty already. They have played Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville already - and the latter game was in Louisville. They have won those games by an average of 21 points. Texas and Louisville put up the best fights, but ultimately neither game was particularly tense in the latter stages. Now they head into an SEC season that certainly won't be intimidating. The conference wasn't expected to be particularly impressive, but Florida looked like it could have something to offer. They are a dismal 7-6, though, and frighten no one.
There is not a game in the SEC schedule that the Wildcats shouldn't be able to win going away. That doesn't mean that they will, though. Last year Kentucky wasn't as good as they are now, but they obviously found some form later in the season. Still, they lost six games in SEC play, including three of their last four. Their problem, then, wasn't that they weren't good enough so much as that they weren't ready to play some of those games. It's very hard for a young team to stay consistently focused, and that's especially true for a team like this one that has not been challenged at all. So far their focus has been flawless, but if they get complacent at all then it would be easy for them to slip up and drop a game - especially on the road. No game stands out as a likely loss, and most are tough to imagine as losses, but it would probably be less shocking to see them win than to see them run the table.
One final thought - you have to wonder how much John Calipari cares about being undefeated. He knows what this season is about - a title. It doesn't matter if they lose a game or two in the season - they will still be a top seed en route to their goal. Will he keep this team fired up all year, knowing that an unbeaten record will only amplify the pressure, or will he not worry too much if a loss comes along?
Duke Blue Devils and Virginia Cavaliers: I'll put these two together for three good reasons - they play in the same conference, they play each other, and both are absolutely going to lose. I like Duke a whole lot more than Virginia - just like I liked most top teams a lot more than Virginia last year - but both teams face huge challenges in a pretty tough conference. Duke plays at Louisville, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina. Winning all of those games would be beyond impressive. They also face the Irish, Tar Heels and Orange at home. Tough. Virginia has a somewhat easier schedule, but with Duke on the schedule once and Louisville twice I don't need to look further than that to find a likely loss. Both of these teams will wind up with very good records and high seeds in the tournament, but neither will remain undefeated.
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