Expert College Basketball Handicapping: The Last of the Unbeatens
And then there were three. Being the last unbeaten college basketball team in the country doesn't really mean anything - unless your unbeaten streak continues through March and into April. But that doesn't mean that watching the ranks of unbeaten teams diminish and figuring out which will be the last one standing isn't a fun thing to do every year. And now that Nevada not only lost but was completely humiliated, we are down to just three teams - Houston, Michigan and Virginia. Let's look at what's ahead for each squad and how long we can expect them to remain perfect.
Houston (No. 17 in the AP poll, +12500 to win the national title at Bovada ): With all due respect to Houston, they have absolutely been helped by their schedule to get to this point. They have been an underdog only twice - by two points at BYU and 2.5 at Oklahoma State. Both of those wins are fine but not stellar. And their best wins at home are against LSU and Oregon. They haven't played the softest schedule out there by any means, but they haven't run the gauntlet by any means. The AAC is going to be a tougher road, with squads like UCF and Cincinnati running good right now and SMU and UConn having more talent than they have showed so far. They have a big test at SMU next week and then at USF three days later. Those will be very tough. And if they survive that stretch, they travel to UCF on February 7 and UConn a week later. If they remain unscathed beyond that, then we will have to reevaluate what we know about this team, but I'm not too worried about that.
Michigan (No. 2, second choice at +900): I've been a Michigan fan my whole life, so I am giddy about where this team is at, obviously. And after losing the NCAA Tournament Championship Game last spring, being here is no fluke. They are talented - they lost their best player to the Lakers last year, Moritz Wagner, and are better now than they were. And they have some very nice wins so far, having destroyed Villanova and North Carolina and beating Purdue and Indiana. Their defense has faded a little after an extremely strong start, and their bench is far from deep right now, but the starters are as good as any out there, and this team remains legitimately dangerous. The Big Ten is brutal as always, though, so losses will come. And it will almost certainly come in January, with a trip to Wisconsin on the 19th, followed by Minnesota at home, a trip to Indiana, and a home game against Ohio State on the 19th. That is a very rough four-game stretch. This team probably has three or four losses, at least, coming in Big Ten play, but don't let that fool you - this is going to be a very dangerous March team. Remember, the last two times the squad has made a Final Four run they have been looking pretty ordinary at this point in the year before making a big step forward as the season progressed. This is John Beilein's time of year.
Virginia (No. 4, co-fourth choice at +1100): The Cavaliers hadn't exactly played the toughest schedule, with wins against 25th ranked Wisconsin and at 24th Maryland ranking as their best accomplishments. But last time out they not only beat a Top 10 team in Florida State, but they humbled them. It was an open question as to how this team would deal with the humiliation of being the first No. 1 seed to ever lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but they seem to have used it as fuel. Like Michigan, this team will have to be very lucky to get through the month of January without a loss. They host a very good Virginia Tech team on the 15th and then have to visit the ridiculous Zion Williamson and Duke four days later. Then they finish the month after likely beating up on a lousy Wake Forest team with visits to a talented-but-underachieving Notre Dame team and a probably overachieving North Carolina State one. If they survive that, then early February will almost certainly do them in - they host Duke and then play at UNC two days later.
The Bottom Line: I lean towards Michigan lasting the longest, but bias probably plays into that. All three teams have tough stretches in January, but Michigan's feels slightly more manageable than the other two. That being said, I would bet a whole lot that we will not have an unbeaten team on Valentine's Day. A whole, whole lot.
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