by Gus Elvin
As we approach New Year’s Day and wrap up the 2nd month of the college basketball season we currently have 6 remaining unbeatens left in college basketball. These unbeatens are a very diverse group as highly ranked preseason teams like Syracuse, Baylor and Louisville are joined by Missouri, Indiana and surprising Murray State with unblemished records. Historically the odds of a team finishing the entire season undefeated are extremely low as only 12 teams have ever finished a season without a loss. 7 of those teams won the national championship, 1 won an NIT title(Long Island University in 1939, as the NIT was more prestigious at the time) and the other 4 did not play in the postseason because they were not invited to a tournament or were ineligible for postseason play. The odds have been even lower over the past 35 years as only Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were able to complete the regular season and postseason undefeated. Since that magical season in which the Hoosiers went 32-0 behind National Player of the Year Scott May no one has been able to run the gauntlet unbeaten as teams like Rutgers in ’76, Indiana State in ’79 and UNLV in ’91 came up short following unbeaten regular seasons. Since that ’76 IU team 4 other teams have finished the regular season unblemished most recently Saint Joseph’s in 2004 but no one has been able to join that elusive club of undefeated National Champions that currently has 7 members. This season 345 teams started out the season unbeaten but as of December 25th we have only 6 remaining unbeatens left standing as Syracuse, Louisville, Baylor, Missouri, Indiana and Murray State are all yet to taste defeat. It’s now time to take a look at the 6 remaining undefeated teams in college basketball and breakdown their success so far, look at their upcoming schedules and try to predict when each will lose if they do in fact lose a game this season. To start our look at the remaining unbeatens we will look at the team currently ranked #1 in the nation, the Syracuse Orange.
#1.) Syracuse Orange- While the Syracuse basketball program has been under the microscope this season due to child molestation accusations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine, on the court the current version of the Orange have been taking care of business as Syracuse is currently 13-0 after wrapping up their non-conference slate unbeaten. The Orange have so far managed to put all the negative media attention aside and focus on basketball as they are the top ranked team in the nation and one of the early favorites in the Big East. Jim Boeheim has one of his deepest and most balanced teams of his 36 year tenure as Syracuse has 7 players who average over 6 points a game led by Kris Jospeh at 14.5 points. Syracuse has not faced the most daunting schedule up to this point but do boast a win over #9 Florida, solid wins against Stanford and Marshall and at NC State. Syracuse also starts out with a favorable Big East schedule as they play early season surprise Seton Hall, and then play at DePaul and at Providence two of the teams picked to finish at the bottom of the Big East this season. 2 major stories for the Orange have been the improved play of sophomores Dion Waiters and Fab Melo. Waiters who had an up and down season last year off the bench is Syracuse’s 2nd leading scorer at 12.3 ppg while Melo is chipping in over 6 points and 5 rebounds after producing literally nothing at all last season. Another reason for Syracuse’s success so early this year has been the way Syracuse’s guards have protected the ball. Waiters, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche have all done a good job valuing the basketball as Syracuse is averaging just 11 turnovers a game, the 15th fewest total in the nation. Being a Syracuse grad its’ not easy for me to pick against the Orange in any game but looking at their schedule I could see the Orange realistically starting 23-0 or 25-0 as most of their toughest games are at the Carrier Dome and they don’t play Georgetown, Louisville or Connecticut until February.
When will they lose: Like I said I don’t like picking against the Orange but with a light schedule early on and matchups at home with #22 Pitt and #13 Marquette I could see the Orange continuing their roll to start Big East play. If I had to pick a date I look at the matchup with #9 Connecticut on February 11th as the possible date of the Orange first loss. Syracuse if it has a weakness it would be at center and I think that Connecticut with big bodies like Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond could pose a problem for Syracuse. In my opinion the Huskies would have a considerable advantage in the frontcourt as I am not sure Melo, freshman Rakeem Christmas or Baye Moussa-Keita are capable of shutting down the physical Oriakhi or standout freshman Andre Drummond. If Syracuse does get by Connecticut their winning streak might not last much longer as they play at Louisville 2 days later a place where the Cardinals have had a lot of success over the past few seasons. Final Answer: February 11th at home against #9 Connecticut
#4.) Louisville- Very quietly the Cardinals are off to a 12-0 start behind the play of star wing Kyle Kuric and the emergence of Senegalese import Gorgui Dieng. Dieng may be the most improved player in the Big East and one of the more improved players in the entire country as the 7-foot sophomore has doubled his scoring and rebounding totals from a year ago (10.8ppg, 10.2rpg this season) and also averages almost 3 blocks per game. The Cardinals are always one of the better defensive teams in the country under Rick Pitino and this season has been no different as they Cardinals rank in the top 25 nationally in a series of defensive statistics such as scoring defense (14th), field goal defense (7th) and steals per game(14th). Offensively Louisville like in recent years has relied on balance as 4 players average double figures and 6 players average at least 9 points per contest. While Louisville is still unbeaten and has risen all the way to #4 in the rankings their schedule is about to pick-up as they host #12 Georgetown on Wednesday and then play at Rupp Arena against the #2 Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. I will just say it now the Cardinals will not be undefeated on January 1st as I find it hard to believe that they will win both at home against Georgetown and at Kentucky on Saturday. So far this season Louisville has beaten a lot of the top mid-majors as they have beaten Long Beach State, Charleston and Ohio while also beating Vanderbilt and Memphis two preseason top 10 ranked teams who have been a disappointment so far this season. With all the injuries and youth on the floor Louisville has definitely surprised me thus far this season but as we enter conference play we will see just how good Louisville really is. I like Louisville’s depth and balance and with Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric and a new look Gorgui Dieng I think the Cardinal can be an upper echelon Big East club this season. If Russ Smith continues to be produce like he has and Louisville can get McDonald’s All-American Wayne Blackshear and Raheem Buckles completely healthy the Cardinals should be a top 4 or 5 team in the Big East. As good as the Cardinal have been I think they will get a bit of wakeup call in Big East play as I consider them a top 15- 20 team not a top 5 team.
When will they lose: I hinted at it earlier as I mentioned Louisville plays 2 top 12 teams this week but I think the Cardinal go down Saturday on New Year’s Eve against the Wildcats. Kentucky has the 2nd longest active home winning streak in the nation at Rupp Arena and with a more talented team then the Cardinals I think UK beats Louisville rather comfortably. That being said I would not be all that surprised if Georgetown knocked off the Cardinals a game earlier as the Hoyas have just 1 loss so far this season and have 2 legitimate stars in Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson. This will be an interesting matchup as Georgetown ranks 25th in the nation in field goal shooting at 49 percent while Louisville holds opponents to just 36 percent from the field, the 7th lowest percentage in the nation. In a matchup with 2 top 25 defensive teams the game will come down to who can make shots near the end of the game something Georgetown has been much better at thus far this season. Louisville will have their hands full with Georgetown midweek but at home at the KFC Y.U.M. Center I think the Cardinals will escape and continue their unbeaten run until the weekend. Don’t be surprised if the Hoyas knock them off but if Louisville gets by Georgetown they won’t get by Kentucky in the Battle for the Blue Grass State as the Wildcats are more talented with Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis and Doron Lamb and also have the advantage of playing at home in front of Big Blue Nation. Final Answer: Dec 31st at #2 Kentucky
#7.) Baylor-The Bears may have the best frontcourt in the nation with Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III and so far this season that has buoyed them to an undefeated 12-0 start. Although Baylor’s schedule at the start of the season was very light a win over San Diego State and recent wins at BYU and against Saint Mary’s and West Virginia have shown the Bears will be a tough team to beat this season. The Bears final non-conference test will come this Wednesday in Dallas against #17 Mississippi State. The Bears will look to keep their undefeated record intact against a Bulldog team that has reeled off 11 straight wins since losing to Akron in the Coaches vs. Cancer preliminary round. As good as Baylor is up front with 2 future lottery picks in Perry Jones and Quincy Miller their success going forward will hinge largely on the play of their guards who are talented but have also been inconsistent at times. Last season Baylor was one of the bigger disappointments in college basketball largely due to poor point guard play but this season with juco transfer Pierre Jackson and better play from A.J. Walton the sky is the limit for Baylor. Baylor also recently got former Cal transfer Gary Franklin eligible and are a better 3-point shooting team this season with BC transfer Brady Heslip(10.8ppg, 49% from 3-point range) and Jackson who is shooting 52 percent from downtown. If Baylor’s guards continue to play like they have of late the Bears will be one of the best teams in the country as their frontcourt ranks 2nd to no one. As a team Baylor is shooting over 42 percent from 3-point range(9th best in the nation) and with Miller, Jones, Acy and Cory Jefferson the Bears will also be one of the top rebounding teams(39th in the nation with 39rpg) a deadly combination that makes BU the favorite in the Big 12. Scott Drew has a plethora of talent at his disposal especially in the front court but the play of backcourt players like Jackson, Franklin and Walton will determine the long term success for the Bears. Looking at the schedule Baylor plays Mississippi State this week and then has upcoming games against a tough defensive minded K-State team and an underachieving Texas A&M team that finally has Khris Middleton back. Baylor will be favored in all of their upcoming games with at #18 Kansas on January 16th being the lone exception.
When will they lose: Baylor has had a few tough games in a row now so don’t be surprised if Mississippi State knocks them off this week in Dallas. The Bulldogs can rebound with Baylor and have the best guard of the two teams in Dee Bost but in Dallas in a big time atmosphere I think Baylor will be able to sneak past the Bulldogs. MSU beat West Virginia pretty handily earlier this season a team that Baylor squeaked by last week but I like the Bears because of Perry Jones to improve to 13-0. January 16th at Kansas will be another tough date as the Jayhawks never lose at home. At Phog Allen on a Wednesday night the Bears undefeated run will come to an end as the home crowd will lead a feisty undermanned Kansas squad to a big home win. Kansas is not as unbeatable as they have been in the past and I dp think Kansas will lose a home game or 2 this season but not against Baylor as Thomas Robinson will have a big game in a marquee match-up with Perry Jones III. If they get by Kansas, their next game at home against #8 Missouri will be another tough one as the undefeated Tigers will look to run the Bears out of rhythm with their press and transition offense. Final Answer: January 16th at #18 Kansas
#8.) Missouri- If you follow the site you know last week that I ranked Missouri’s quick start as one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season so far not because they lack elite talent but because of the adversity the program dealt with this offseason. For those who did not see my last post , Missouri has not missed a beat without popular head coach Mike Anderson and 2nd leading scorer Laurence Bowers as the Tigers are 12-0 and lead the country in scoring at 87.1ppg, and field goal percentage at 51.9 percent. New head coach Frank Haith has done a great job getting the most out of his Tigers as he has the Tigers playing more efficiently offensively while maintaining their up-tempo pace. Haith has also helped revive the career of Kim English who is averaging a career high 15 points and shooting 53 percent from both the field and 3-point line after suffering through a poor shooting junior season. Guard play has been the key for Missouri who’s trio of Marcus Denmon (18.7ppg), Michael Dixon(13.1ppg, 3.3apg) and Flip Pressey(9.4ppg, 5.9apg) have been as good as any group of guards in the nation. Missouri has also held their own in the frontcourt as juco player Ricardo Ratliffe has been more effective this season as has the 6-6 English, a former guard who has moved to forward with the injury to Bowers. So far this season the Tigers have dismantled their opponents as they had won every one of their games by double digits before a close 4 point win over Illinois last time out. The Tigers resume is not barren of signature wins either as Missouri beat Notre Dame with Tim Abromaitis by 29 points, beat Cal by 39 points and also have wins against Villanova and Illinois. Missouri was a team that really limped into the tournament down the stretch last season but with a coaching change and a new defensive approach the Tigers seem to have revived the spark they had going early on last season when they rose into the top 10 of the AP Poll. It is important to remember that Missouri started off hot last season before going just 8-8 in conference play but this season the Tigers seem a lot more organized offensively and now that they don’t have to press all 40 minutes the players shouldn’t tire as much as the season goes on. In a conference with elite teams like Kansas and Baylor and good clubs in Texas A&M, Kansas State and Texas, it’s unlikely that the Tigers will run the table but if they were to lose when will it be? It’s hard to believe Missouri is playing for a new coach and without their 2nd best player as so far this season they have looked as good as anyone in the country on their way to a perfect 12-0 start.
When will they lose: Missouri still plays Old Dominion in non-conference play and then opens Big 12 play with a home game against a 9-3 Oklahoma team before playing #25 Kansas State in Manhattan at the “Octagon of Doom”. At Kansas State looks like a potential loss for Missouri as K-State will look to slow down the Tigers and slug it out in a half-court game. That being said I think Missouri has too much fire power for an offensively challenged Wildcat team that despite great defense lacks true go-to scorers. I see Missouri staying unbeaten until January 16th when they face Texas A&M. The Aggies for some reason seem to have Missouri’s number and with a finally healthy Khris Middleton I think Texas A&M and their defensive intensity could pose some problems for Missouri even though the Tigers are at home. The Aggies have struggled out of the gates partially due to the injury to Middleton but in conference play I expect the Aggies to toughen up and start grinding out results like they did the past few seasons under Mark Turgeon. Texas A&M is still finding their identity as a basketball team under Billy Kennedy but come January 16th I see the Aggies being ready to pull off the upset of the high flying Tigers. If Missouri does get by A&M a date at Baylor will await the Tigers but I think the Aggies will grind out a tough win over Missouri on January 16th behind a big game from Middleton which will knock the Tigers from the ranks of the unbeaten. Final Answer : January 16th at home against Texas A&M
#13.) Indiana- Most college basketball writers and experts including myself believed Indiana would be a lot better this season with a veteran roster and the addition of McDonald’s All-American Cody Zeller. That being said I don’t think anyone projected a 12-0 start from the Hoosiers that includes a buzzer beater win over then ranked #1 Kentucky. Indiana known as a basketball state with seemingly endless success and tradition has suffered through 3 straight difficult seasons for IU as Tom Crean has tried to rebuild the Hoosiers after the violations and sanctions that took place during the Kelvin Sampson era. IU has won just 28 games over the past 3 seasons, winning 12 all of last season a number the Hoosiers’ have already equaled. The biggest difference has been the play of 7-foot Indiana product Cody Zeller who not only is making a name for himself but also symbolizes the return of IU in terms of in-state recruiting. A symbol that is further evident in next season’s top 5 class led by 3 highly touted in-state high school recruits in Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Mosquera –Perea and Jeremy Hollowell. Zeller on the floor has been an immediate difference maker as the skinny center leads IU in scoring and rebounding with averages of 15 points and 7.3 rebounds and also brings a presence to the paint that IU has lacked since the departure of D.J. White. Contrary to popular belief Indiana has not been a one man band though as 5 Hoosiers are averaging double figures and 7 average more than 8 points per game. IU has also received inspired play from junior forward Christian Watford (12.1 ppg, 5.1rpg) and sophomore Victor Oladipo(12.2ppg) an explosive athlete who has emerged as a key contributor this season. Add in the play of point guard Jordan Hulls, senior Verdell Jones III and super sub Will Sheehey and IU has the look of a well-rounded Big Ten team that looks to be the real deal. Indiana’s schedule will pick up starting this week as so far this year outside the win over #1 Kentucky the only teams they have beaten are Notre Dame and a mediocre Butler squad.
When will they lose: After a tumultuous last few seasons Tom Crean scheduled rather lightly in the non-conference this season hoping to build some confidence for Big Ten play. Although that worked to the tune of a 12-0 start but now IU will be tested right away in the Big Ten as they play #17 Michigan State in East Lansing on Wednesday and then host #2 Ohio State this Saturday. As much as I like Indiana and believe they are for real I think this schedule will result in an 0-2 week for the Hoosiers. At the Breslin Center against Michigan State is always tough for any team and against a more talented Buckeyes team IU will be overmatched this weekend. Indiana will be fine but I would be surprised if the Hoosiers were able to earn a split as Michigan State doesn’t lose at home and Ohio State is one of the best teams in the entire nation. Final Answer : Wednesday December 28th at #17 Michigan State.
#20.) Murray State- After losing head coach Billy Kennedy( Texas A&M) and 2 double digit scorers in seniors Isacc Miles and B.J. Jenkins many expected the Racers to take a step back this season but that has been far from the truth as the Racers have “raced” out to a 12-0 start under new coach Steve Prohm. Led by key returnees Isaiah Canaan(18.6ppg, 4.2apg) and Ivan Aska (12.9ppg, 5.9rpg) and the improved play of senior Donte Poole(13.1ppg) the Racers look to be the favorite in the OVC and because of their schedule may have the best chance to remain undefeated the longest this season. The Racers have not had the most rigorous schedule so far but do boast wins at #20 Memphis, against an at times good Dayton team and over an 11-2 Southern Miss squad. The Racers are not 13-0 by accident as they are one of the best shooting teams in the country shooting 48.5 percent from the field(28th in the nation), 43.5 percent from 3-point range(6th in the nation) and also rank in the top 30 in steals per game at just under 10 per game. In a seemingly down Ohio Valley Conference Murray State looks to be the overwhelming favorite and with a legitimate star in Isaiah Canaan and a solid post player in Ivan Aska the Racers are not just a product of a light schedule. Murray State has long been on the radar as a Mid-Major and 2 seasons ago they showed they were for real knocking off Vanderbilt so don’t forget about the Racers in March as they have a tournament pedigree and good guard play in Canaan, Poole and Jewuan Long.
When will they lose: This is the toughest one to project as the Racers will be favored in each of their remaining games this season especially in an OVC that lacks a lot of strength. That being said I don’t think the Racers will run the table as I believe one night someone will catch them off guard or on an off shooting night and knock them off. Looking at the schedule I am going with the regular season finale against Tennessee Tech on the road. Why? The Golden Eagles are the 2nd best team in the conference and boast one of the conference’s top scorers in Kevin Murphy(20ppg) and one of the best point guards in the OVC in former Georgia guard Zack Swansea(8ppg, 5.6apg). I am honestly not sure if Murray State will lose but I have a gut feeling that they will trip up at least once along the way as history shows it is awfully tough to run the table perfect no matter what conference you are in. If you remember the 2004-05 Illinois team that went 29-0 before losing the regular season finale to a mediocre Ohio State team this is the same scenario. Tennessee Tech has a veteran team with 7 seniors and on senior day with a chance to end a perfect season bid from Murray State I’ll go with the Golden Eagles in the upset. I don’t want to pick an exact game here because it’s not much better than shooting in the dark but I’ll go with Tennessee Tech behind Murphy and Swansea in both team’s regular season finale. Final Answer: February 25th at Tennessee Tech