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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unbeatens Try To Walk High Wire

Unbeatens Try To Walk High Wire

By JONAH KERI, ESPN's Page 2
December 14, 2007

With many teams on break for exams and the holiday season approaching, we're nearly done with the non-conference portion of the college basketball schedule. With that in mind, let's take a look at the remaining undefeated Top 25 Division I teams, their paths to perfection, and how long their unblemished records might last.

NORTH CAROLINA (8–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Tar Heels have yet to play a ranked team. They've scored their toughest wins over feisty mid-majors Davidson and BYU. Brendan Wright's early departure for the NBA opened the door for a fourth scorer to emerge alongside Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellingston, and Ty Lawson, and Danny Green has been the one to fill the void. The junior swingman is averaging 14.4 points while playing just 20.5 minutes a game, making him one of the most efficient players in the nation, and a big boost to the Carolina attack.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: January 6 at Clemson. The ACC season opener results in a big win for the Tigers and a new no. 1 team in the polls.

MEMPHIS (7–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: John Calipari knows his team needs to play a murderous schedule, given the weak competition Conference USA offers and the need to give his team more seasoning and a better RPI come tournament time. The Tigers have already beaten Oklahoma and USC, and they still have Georgetown and Arizona before New Year's.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: None in the regular season. We're calling it now, Memphis goes to the big dance undefeated, with huge expectations. The team's veterans are very good and very athletic, but the difference between a decent tournament showing and a run at the national title will be the play of freshman stud Derrick Rose.

KANSAS (9–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: A big win over USC at the Galen Center highlights an otherwise weak schedule. With Brandon Rush and Sherrod Collins healing, that slow ramp-up process probably works to Kansas's advantage.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: January 30 at Kansas State, if not sooner. While the Jayhawks don't face a ranked team until they travel to Austin on February 11, the Big 12 is filled with mines this season, including an improved Nebraska team and this scary Kansas State team, led by Michael Beasley and Bill Walker.

TEXAS (9–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Sharpshooting guards A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin are averaging 38.1 points a game between them, ably picking up the slack left behind by Kevin Durant's departure. The pair rang up a combined 44 points (seven 3s) in a 19-point rout over highly-ranked Tennessee, while Augustin's 19 points and Damion James's double-double fueled the Longhorns' win at UCLA, the most impressive win for any team so far this season.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: December 22 vs. Michigan State. Though technically not a home game for the Spartans, the Izzone shows up in full force in Auburn Hills and Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel prove too much to handle for Texas.

GEORGETOWN (7–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: No Jeff Green, no problem. The stellar play of Roy Hibbert and emergence of DaJuan Summers have kept the Hoyas in top form this season. Still, let's reserve judgment a bit until next week's tilt at Memphis — there's only so much we can learn from Jacksonville, Fairfield, and William & Mary.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: December 22 at Memphis. Whoever controls the tempo wins this game. If the Tigers get out and run, Hibbert will be neutralized and possibly forced to the bench. In a half-court battle, the Hoyas have the smarts and muscle to out-execute Memphis.

DUKE (9–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Blue Devils' signature wins have come against Marquette and Wisconsin. Discount their "road" wins a bit, though, as Mike Krzyzewski has again avoided true road battles in favor of neutral-site matchups. This is a different Duke team than in years past, with athletic players such as Gerald Henderson leading the way, and no true big men to be found.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: December 20 vs. Pitt. The schedule lists this as a road game, but it's anything but, as the two teams square off at Madison Square Garden, a.k.a. Duke North. Still, expect Sam Young, Mike Cook and company to overcome the Devils, who might not face another notable challenge until their February 6 showdown at Chapel Hill.

WASHINGTON STATE (9–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Cougars' top six scorers are upperclassmen, giving them a maturity that many national contenders lack. But Wazzou also benefits from the steady hand of coach Tony Bennett, who runs an efficient offense that wastes few possessions and a stingy defense that makes other teams work. The Cougs' early-season schedule has been spotty, but the team's fourpoint decision over Gonzaga marked just the second time a team had gone into the Kennel and come out a winner.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: January 12 at UCLA. Wazzou starts its conference schedule with a killer three-game stretch. They prevail against overmatched Washington and talented but erratic USC, but their luck runs out at Pauley Pavilion.

PITTSBURGH (9–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Like Duke, the Panthers have overcome the loss of go-to big men (Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall), finding success as a faster-paced team. Sam Young's production has skyrocketed, zooming to 18.1 points a game from 7.2, now that he's the biggest threat up front. Pitt hasn't faced a ranked team yet, though its recent win at Washington was impressive, even in a shaky year for the Huskies.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: December 29 at Dayton. Classic trap game, as Pitt celebrates its big win over Duke and looks ahead to Villanova and the start of conference play, only to get ambushed by a game Dayton squad that just took down Louisville.

CLEMSON (8–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Tigers started last season 17–0 before collapsing in ACC play and missing the NCAA tournament. Clemson's pre-conference schedule might be a little tougher than last year's, though the slate still includes luminaries such as Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. This is one of the most experienced major-conference teams in the nation, with leading scorers K.C. Rivers, James Mays, and Cliff Hammonds all upperclassmen.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: January 1 at Alabama. The New Year's Eve hangover kicks in for Clemson as the Tide ride double-double machine Richard Hendrix to a big home win.

VANDERBILT (10–0)

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Aussie sensation Andrew Ogilvy and senior star Shan Foster give the Commodores of the best inside-outside combinations in the country, averaging just under 40 points a game between them. Still, Vandy hasn't exactly walked the gauntlet en route to its 10-0 start.

PROJECTED FIRST LOSS: January 17 at Tennessee, but don't bet on it. If Vandy carries their strong play over to their SEC schedule, a down year for the conference could make this a very interesting season in Nashville.

Mr. Keri (jonahkeri@gmail.com) is a writer for ESPN.com's Page 2.

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