Evaluating the remaining unbeatens
JEFFREY MARTIN, FOXSports.com
Fourteen undefeated teams remain in Division I college basketball, and don't bank on any finishing the regular season in that condition.
Some undefeated teams are not equal to others, which is why we decided to assess each of the 14 by a simple measuring stick — is Team X legit or suspect? In other words, is this unblemished beginning to the year a fluke, or is this a barometer of things to come?
In some cases, a team can be suspect but still destined for a decent season — a perfect start can cloud judgment and cause inflated expectations. But don't worry, because we've taken the guesswork out of it all for you. Here are the 14 undefeated teams, as of Dec. 14, listed in alphabetical order:
It's the third straight season the Tigers have started 8-0 under Oliver Purnell. In the 2006-07 season, the fast start resulted in an NIT berth, which was also Clemson's fate in 2005-06. Spot a trend here? Can't help but be skeptical about the Tigers, leaving cynics to wonder how this season is going to be any different. For some reason, though, we suspect this might be the year Clemson breaks through.
Verdict: Legit. As usual, the Tigers are big and athletic, but they've also been injured and erratic. Star forward James Mays is out with a bad hip, and Clemson has recently turned to freshman guard Terrence Oglesby, an exciting long-range gunner who is missing more than he makes. Still, it looks promising for the Tigers, who already boast solid defeats of Mississippi State (in Starkville), Purdue and South Carolina.
Size is an issue, but so what? There is more athleticism than in recent years, and far more versatility. Kyle Singler, yet another impressive standout in this year's stellar crop of freshmen, leads the Blue Devils in scoring. Coach K has opened up the offense, taking advantage of a roster based on the principles of penetrate, kick and shoot. Basically, this team is a handful to defend. Speaking of which, Duke still defends as well as any team around.
Verdict: Legit. Again, size is a concern, but who is equipped to exploit the differential? Sure, a couple of the teams below, but rest assured, the Blue Devils won't be another "one and done" in the NCAA tournament. They have too much functional depth — and talent — for that.
The Hoyas have so much balance that Jonathan Wallace, the senior guard many deemed ready for a breakout season, is playing just 23.6 minutes per game and averaging 9.1 points, good for fourth on the team. John Thompson III is building toward March, tinkering with lineups to maximize matchups. Freshman Austin Freeman (7.3 points in 19.6 minutes) in a star in the making, and there's already one in the middle in center Roy Hibbert (13.4 points, 7.1 rebounds). Plus, this team can shoot, hitting 50 percent of its field-goal attempts, including 39 percent of 3s. It's tough finding something to nitpick with this group.
Verdict: Legit. The Hoyas are likely the class of the Big East, especially given Louisville's apparent woes, so don't rule out a return to the Final Four. We can't wait to see how Georgetown deals with Memphis Dec. 22 at the FedEx Forum. It might be a precursor of what's to come in March.
The only thing better than talent is talent with experience. In that case, you have to love the Jayhawks. Even injuries can't slow KU — Brandon Rush is running around on one leg, but even so, he's second on the team in scoring at 10.7 points. Sophomore guard Sherron Collins, perhaps the most dynamic of a terrific backcourt trio that also includes Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers, is back from surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. It's all-systems-go for this team, which will guard — and then guard some more. Even when the Jayhawks are off, they're still awfully good.
Verdict: Legit. But more is going to be needed from sophomore forward Darrell Arthur (team-high 13.9 points), whose potential is unlimited. It was he, not Kansas State freshman phenom Michael Beasley, who was the subject of much of the buzz at this summer's USA Basketball U-19 World Championship practices before suffering a stress fracture in his lower leg, which has since healed. The Jayhawks will soar as high as Arthur guides them this year.
It's not just Derrick Rose, people. This team is loaded. It's frightening, really. But what's most impressive is John Calipari's willingness to schedule the nation's best, and his logic is sound. He knows that Conference USA, while not a walk in the park, isn't going to prepare this team for where it aims to go in March. As a result, the Tigers have already beaten Oklahoma, Connecticut and USC. Georgetown is up Dec. 22, followed by Arizona a week later. In the midst of C-USA play, Memphis takes a Jan. 26 break to welcome Gonzaga to the FedEx Forum.
Verdict: Legit. With all that said, if any of these remaining undefeated teams has a chance to finish the regular season that way, Memphis is probably the choice. Calipari hasn't been shy about his desire to win an elusive NCAA title, which would reportedly deliver free furniture to some Tigers fans as part of a local promotion. The timing seems right.
Miami (Fla.) (9-0)
Props for winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, but points deducted for the tiresome practice of fattening up on inconsequential non-conference cupcakes in preparation for the start of the ACC slate. Alas, the 9-0 start is Miami's best since 2001-02, when the 'Canes won 14 in a row. It's conceivable that Miami, which is led by Siena transfer Jack McClinton, a third-team All-ACC selection a year ago, might be worthy of its undefeated status. Probably not, though.
Verdict: Suspect. It's transparent what is happening here, at least from a scheduling standpoint. Coach Frank Haith is probably in trouble, and you take the wins where you can get them. We get it. We just don't think it proves anything.
The Rebels want to run. They are averaging 89.9 points, which is second in the country. They've topped 100 points twice, as much a testament to Andy Kennedy's brand of up-tempo, pressure basketball as it is to the level of competition through seven games. Nevertheless, Kennedy is breaking in a freshman point guard, Chris Warren, who leads Ole Miss in scoring (15.3 points) and assists (6.0). For youth, exceptions can be made.
Verdict: Suspect. This team is long on potential and is probably going to be a threat by mid-February. But the Rebels have barely left home — which won't be the case for much longer. Ole Miss plays six straight road games, which should provide a much clearer picture of what the Rebels are.
North Carolina (8-0)
College basketball royalty assumes its rightful place — on the top of the national polls and at the fore of the nation's collective consciousness. Or so it seems as the Tar Heels are constantly on TV. But there's a reason for that — they're good. Very good, in fact. They've survived stiff tests from Davidson, BYU, Ohio State and Kentucky. Odds are, UNC will enter conference play undefeated, which is how it's supposed to be with royalty, right?
Verdict: Legit. What don't the Tar Heels have? There's a Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams. There's a national player of the year candidate in Tyler Hansbrough (21.4 points, 9.6 rebounds). Wayne Ellington, who is hitting 47 percent of his 3-point attempts, might be one of the most improved players in the country. Danny Green is averaging 14.0 points — off the bench. And don't forget about point guard Ty Lawson, who is making 59 percent of his shots, averaging 11 points and nearly five assists. Sometimes, it's just not fair.
We'll find out everything we need to know in the coming weeks about the Panthers. They kick off against Oklahoma State, followed by a Thursday throwdown with Duke in Madison Square Garden and a road trip to Dayton Dec. 29. So there will be at least one less unbeaten team by next weekend, which we find fascinating. Can't fault Jamie Dixon for his ability to develop players — two years ago, we were wondering where Aaron Gray came from. Now, it's junior forward Sam Young (18.1 points, 7.9 rebounds) who has us scratching our heads.
Verdict: Suspect. Mark it down — the Panthers have started the season 10-0 four consecutive times. This doesn't mean too much right now. Only two of their wins have come away from home, and only one outside of the Pittsburgh city limits. The combined margin of victory in those two games? Six points. Consider us skeptical.
Sam Houston State (9-0)
Give it up for the Southland Conference, which has two of the nation's remaining undefeated teams. The Bearkats have won 42 consecutive games against non-conference competition at home, the nation's second-longest streak ... behind Duke. SHSU has already notched wins against Texas Tech and St. Louis. Senior forward Ryan Bright is averaging a double-double (11.6 points, 10.8 rebounds). The Bearkats received an AP vote in this week's poll. And coach Bobby Marlin ... well, read all about him at www.bobbymarlin.com.
Verdict: Legit. An odd call, for sure, but it makes sense. The Bearkats are one of the nation's best mid-majors. They're tough, obviously, at home. The Southland isn't filled with mines, which means SHSU should reap the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And from there, well, anything can happen in March.
Is it possible for a team to actually improve despite losing the best player in college basketball? The Longhorns have, mainly by getting better on the defensive end. And it helps that D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams have been outstanding, comprising arguably the nation's best starting backcourt. Opinions always vary when it comes to Rick Barnes, but a couple of things are certain — the man can recruit and he develops his players. Texas is not only a threat in the Big 12, but nationally as well.
Verdict: Legit. When you have the best point guard in America — sorry, Darren Collison — you're always dangerous. And when you have a group of kids who seem hell-bent on proving they were more than Kevin Durant's supporting cast, well, that's a bonus.
After beating Wichita State 60-59 on the road Dec. 8, UTA coach Scott Cross said it was suggested to him that the victory over the Shockers — a group picked to finish sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason — was the biggest triumph in the program's history. 'Nuff said. It's a veteran group — three seniors in the starting lineup, paced by center Jermaine Griffin's 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds — that finished 13-17 last year.
Verdict: Suspect. Winning at Koch Arena is quite the accomplishment for the Mavericks. We'll wait to reserve judgment on UTA following its next two games — at TCU (Dec. 17) and at Oklahoma State (Dec. 22). And don't forget — the Mavericks compete in the Southland Conference, which means running into Sam Houston State twice.
Beating Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the span of five days in early December is no joke. Overcoming an 18-point deficit — on the road — at DePaul to win in overtime is impressive. The 'Dores have smooth sailing until January, when the schedule perks up with a visit from Massachusetts. So far, so good.
Verdict: Legit. Beat someone good away from Nashville, and we'd be even more impressed. For now, we are merely convinced Vandy has permanently turned the corner under coach Kevin Stallings. There are some nice pieces in place — beginning with senior Shan Foster (20.3 points, 4.6 rebounds) and freshman center A.J. Ogilvy (19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds). And remember this was an NCAA tournament team a year ago, losing to Georgetown in the regional semifinals.
Washington State (10-0)
All five starters average at least 9.6 points. No one exceeds junior center Aron Baynes' 5.8 rebounds per game, yet the Cougars are outrebounding foes by five. Maybe we're late to the party, but how good is Kyle Weaver? The only thing ordinary about him is his name. He can shoot (49 percent from the field, 42 from 3-point range, and 83 from the free-throw line), distribute (4.1 apg) and clean the glass (4.7 rpg).
Verdict: Legit. Defense always gives Washington State a chance. So far, opponents have eclipsed 70 points once (Boise State, Nov. 13). Collectively, opponents are scoring 52.4 points while shooting 37 percent. Obviously, it's more difficult once Pac-10 play begins, but we saw the Cougars do the same thing a year ago.
Jeffrey Martin writes for the Wichita Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.