A look at the six remaining unbeaten teams in men’s college basketball; Who’s next to fall?
Every year, college basketball fans wonder if this is the year that a team runs the season-long gauntlet with an unblemished record. 19 teams in NCAA history have reached the tournament with an undefeated record, most recently Wichita State (2014) and Kentucky (2015), but only seven have went on to claim the National Championship (San Francisco 1956, North Carolina 1957, UCLA 1964, 1967, 1972, 1973, and Indiana 1976, respectively).
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no team has accomplished the feat.
As non-conference play winds down and the conference regular season approaches, six teams have been unfazed by the early season slate and sit with undefeated records. Not all perfect records are created equally, so let’s look at the remaining unbeatens, starting with the least likely to finish undefeated.
The Trojans continue to creep up the rankings, but as the only team on this list yet to play an opponent in the top 25, they have benefited greatly from an easy schedule. According to Kenpom.com, Southern California’s strength of schedule ranks 292 out of 351 division I men’s basketball programs. Considering six of the Trojans’ 11 wins this season have featured a comeback of at least nine points, they have mastered mediocrity in the early going. After Monday’s (Dec. 19) home win over Cornell which featured a double-digit deficit in the first half, USC’s head coach Andy Enfield said, “Honestly, I have no idea how we’re 11-0.” The Trojans wrap up the non-conference slate in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, where they will play Missouri State and either DePaul or Wyoming, before beginning the Pac 12 season with back-to-back road games at Oregon State (Dec. 28) and Oregon (Dec. 30).
The strength of Greg McDermott’s squad is undoubtedly the pace of play. With the fifth fastest average time per offensive possession, the Bluejays have forced their opponents to slow the game down to try to hang. Kenpom ranks the offense as the second most effective in the nation, behind only UCLA, while leading the nation in three-point field goal percentage (45.3%). Transfer junior Marcus Foster, previously of Kansas State, has taken over the role of the team’s leading scorer, averaging 19.1 points per game. Senior Maurice Watson Jr. leads the nation in career assists as well as assists per game on the season.
This fast, effective attack has seen the Bluejays’ opponents slow the pace to try to keep up with the Creighton attack, holding the average pace of possession to 342 of 351 division I teams. Creighton will open the Big East season with a home game against Seton Hall (Dec. 28) before hosting the undefeated defending national champions, Villanova (Dec. 31). Despite the early season successes, like USC, the Bluejays will not be the final undefeated team in their own conference.
One of the biggest early season surprises has been the Baylor Bears. After losing an NBA Draft lottery pick (Taurean Prince), the program’s all-time leading rebounder (Rico Gathers) and a point guard that ranked second in the Big 12 in assists (Lester Medford), Baylor was selected to finish fifth in the Big 12. Despite having one senior, Ishmail Wainwright, the Bears have been extremely effective on offense, ranking in the top 20 in Kenpom’s offensive efficiency metric for the sixth straight season (13th). Running the vaunted zone defense on the other end, the group has claimed early season wins over Oregon, Michigan St., Louisville, and Xavier.
No matter how impressive the early season run has been, the schedule will only become tougher in 2017. Kenpom rates the Big 12 ahead of the ACC as the strongest conference in the nation. To become the best of the best, Baylor must vanquish Kansas and West Virginia, but they have lost eight in a row to the 12-time defending Big 12 regular season champions dating back to 2013, and were swept by the Mountaineers last season. While the Bears have exceeded expectations with an unblemished record, they will surely suffer setbacks in the second half of the season.
As one of four programs to ever have an undefeated season, UCLA has returned as a preeminent power in the Pac 12. The Bruins have the single best win of the 2016-17 season under their belt as they defeated the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington (97-92, Dec. 3). With the highest effective field goal percentage in the country, UCLA runs the ninth fastest pace offense per Kenpom. Sharing the wealth, six players are averaging double figures in scoring and the Bruins lead the nation with 23.6 assists per game. However, the influx of talent that accounts for most of their scoring spends most of the time on the floor, as the Bruins are in the bottom five in the nation in bench minutes. Therefore, when it comes time to play in the conference and NCAA Tournament, the extremely fast playing style coupled with a short bench could come back to bite them.
The defending national champions are poised to be a top seed once again this March. Straight out of the gate, the Wildcats have impressed, notching a road win at Purdue (79-76, Nov. 14), dominating the field at the Charleston Classic (Western Michigan, Wake Forest and Central Florida), sweeping Philadelphia’s Big 5, and beating former Big East rival Notre Dame (74-66, Dec. 10). In the win over the Fighting Irish, 2016 Wooden Award finalist Josh Hart reaffirmed himself in the player of the year race, scoring 37 points on an offense that Kenpom ranks as the most efficient in the country. Dating back to last season, the Wildcats have won a school-record 18 consecutive games and are riding a 44-game home win streak. As a result, the Wildcats will likely be the favorite in all of their remaining games this season. However, the Big East is expected to be stronger from top to bottom this season. Including Villanova, the Big East has four teams ranking in the top 20, making the road to a fourth straight 16-2 Big East regular season more daunting. Moreover, they still host a bracket buster matchup against Virginia, set for Jan. 29.
With 13 West Coast Conference titles under his belt in his 17 years at Gonzaga, Mark Few is no stranger to success. However, this year’s team is the first bunch of Bulldogs to finish the non-conference schedule undefeated. Having already defeated San Diego St., Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, Washington and Tennessee, the Zags’ lone marquee opponent left on the slate is a home and home with conference rival Saint Mary’s.
Transfer junior Nigel Williams-Gross leads the Zags scoring attack (14.0 points per game), which features seven players averaging at least eight points per game. On defense, the ‘Zags have held their opponents to 36.1 percent from the field, which ranks fifth in the country. And their 26.7 percent opponent shooting from beyond the arc ranks third in Division I. Though it will be no easy task, Few’s Bulldogs have finished undefeated in conference four times, most recently in 2012-13. Kenpom gives the ‘Zags a 7.6 percent chance to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten. It is a tall task but with a roster ranks in the top 10 in terms of average height, they are the most likely to be up to the test.
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