Bumpy roads ahead for the six teams still undefeated
By Dana O'Neil, ESPN.com
January 2, 2008
Last To Lose
Six unbeaten teams remain throughout college hoops. Since 2000, how long have teams managed to remain unbeaten?
Year Team Started Final First loss
2007 Clemson 17-0 25-11 Jan. 13 at Maryland
2006 Florida 17-0 33-6 Jan. 21 at Tennessee
2005 Illinois 29-0 37-2 March 6 at Ohio State
2004 Saint Joseph's 27-0 30-2 March 11 vs. Xavier
2003 Duke 12-0 26-7 Jan. 18 at Maryland
2002 Duke 12-0 31-4 Jan. 6 at Florida State
2001 Stanford 20-0 31-3 Feb. 3 vs. UCLA
2000 Syracuse 19-0 26-2 Feb. 7 vs. Seton Hall
**Note: Every team went to the Sweet 16 except Clemson.
There are no Bill Belichick hoodies in college hoops. There are sport coats with mock turtlenecks, angry men in sweaters and a GQ issue's worth of three-button designer Italian suits tailored by a guy who visits the office while the coach designs new ways to defend the pick and roll.
But no hoodies.
There also are six teams in "pursuit of perfection" -- to borrow the latest term for the New England Patriots' undefeated run -- and the road to a goose egg in the loss column is no less daunting in basketball than it is in the NFL. UNLV was the last team to run to a perfect regular-season mark, but the Runnin' Rebels were stunned by Duke in the 1991 national championship game. Not since Indiana toppled Michigan in the 1976 NCAA title game has a hoops team gone wire-to-wire without a blemish.
So, as the calendar flips to January and the pursuit becomes about as smooth as a backwater country road after a rough winter, ditch the hoodie, embrace the suit and keep an eye on these six Patriots-in-training.
Road to perfection: It's hard to imagine that a team whose campus intersects history -- Allen Fieldhouse sits on Naismith Drive -- can be overlooked. But in the season of the sexy, studly freshmen, the Jayhawks are lacking; they don't have a head-turning rookie. They just have what might be the deepest team in the country. Bill Self's 10th man, freshman Cole Aldrich, is a McDonald's All-American. Four players -- Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson and Brandon Rush -- average double figures, and Kansas is steamrolling competition by a 25-point margin that would make Belichick proud.
Reality check: Beyond the absence of a future one-and-done NBAer, there is another reason no one is saying much about Kansas. The Jayhawks' early season schedule has been so-so. They beat a then-unranked Arizona team by four and won at then-No. 24 USC by the same margin. Otherwise, it has been a lot of directional victories -- Northern Arizona, Florida Atlantic, Eastern Washington -- that have done little to generate interest.
Potential potholes: It's tempting to circle a Jan. 30 date with state-rival Kansas State and the stud among those freshmen, Michael Beasley, as the next stumbling block. But a Saturday date at Boston College (ESPN, noon ET) can't be overlooked for a team that has left the state just twice in the early going. And, of course, there's always a Texas two-step on Feb. 11 in Austin.
Road to perfection: John Chaney threatened John Calipari in the last memorable event to occur at a postgame podium. Now the Memphis coach is taking a page out of his nemesis' handbook, albeit with his own tweak. The wise old Owl played anyone, anywhere to put his team through a nonconference obstacle course that left little doubt as to Temple's legitimacy, no matter the condition of the Atlantic 10. Having seen the value placed on a 16-0 run through Conference USA last season (Memphis and its 33-4 record were awarded a No. 2 seed), Calipari is playing anyone. Just mostly in Memphis. The Tigers already have dispatched three ranked teams -- USC (in New York City), Georgetown and Arizona (at home) -- plus Connecticut and Oklahoma (both in New York) to beef up their résumé in pursuit of a coveted No. 1 seed.
Reality check: Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale likely would swap teams straight up with Memphis if he could. The Tigers are that good, but it's not the expected prodigious offensive talent of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier that is turning heads. It's Memphis' defense. In the second half of the Georgetown game, the Tigers swarmed the Hoyas, a team that knows a thing or two about defense, and turned a much-ballyhooed matchup of top-five teams into a 14-point rout. Against Arizona, it was a crippling 12-minute, first-half stretch in which the Wildcats couldn't muster a field goal.
Potential potholes: Calipari still has a few treats in store for his team -- a Jan. 26 date against Gonzaga (ESPN, noon ET) and a Feb. 23 date with Tennessee (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) -- but again, both of those are in Memphis, which begs the question of what will happen when the Tigers leave home. Memphis doesn't have a ton of daunting road games, but one does jump out of the pack -- Houston on Jan. 30. The Cougars have won 10 in a row to run their record to 11-1.
Road to perfection: All those who had Mississippi 12-0, ranked 18th in the country and owning the SEC's only win over a ranked opponent heading into January, raise your hand. And now go play the ponies. On the Richter scale of hoops surprises, the Rebels' sizzling start is seismically behind only Kentucky's cataclysmic collapse. With nine of the 13 players on the roster new to Oxford, Andy Kennedy's bunch was picked to finish dead last in the SEC West. But one of those newbies, rookie point guard Chris Warren (15.3 points and 5.6 assists), has been downright sensational. He and previously little-used Eniel Polynice (12.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists) have settled a backcourt that had zero returners. Mix in senior big man Dwayne Curtis and his team-high 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds, and the surprising start isn't so surprising.
Reality check: Beating then-unbeaten Clemson for the San Juan Shootout championship put some muscle behind the Rebels' record. They count New Mexico, Central Florida and Winthrop -- all decent, if not great, teams -- among their victims. But like that of Vanderbilt, Ole Miss' early season schedule has left a lot to be desired. Back when Ray Meyer stomped the sidelines in the 1980s and the L-Train, Lionel Simmons, won player of the year honors in 1990, beating DePaul and LaSalle meant something. Now, not so much.
Potential potholes: Running unscathed through the SEC is practically impossible. Just ask Les Miles. Mississippi will see pretty quickly where it ranks in the league's pecking order when it opens conference play at Tennessee on Jan. 9 (ESPN Full Court, 8 p.m. ET).
NORTH CAROLINA: 13-0
Road to perfection: That Carolina is 13-0 heading into ACC play is about as surprising as a Spears girl in crisis. Talented, experienced and deep, the Heels had their toughest test in the season opener against an upstart Davidson team looking to puff its chest. Since then, it has been a pasting of the opponent of the week. UNC averages 92.4 points per game, pushing the ball upcourt like some sort of swirling acid trip in baby blue.
Reality check: Roy Williams took his team on a November/December barnstorming tour -- against BYU in Vegas, at Ohio State, at Kentucky, at Penn and at Rutgers. None of them are top teams, but all of them play in gyms that aren't exactly hospitable. And the Heels won by an average of 17.7 points. That's the sign Carolina, dogged last season for being long on talent but short on toughness, is developing an attitude. The sluggish 10-point win against Nicholls State remains the nagging doubt. But for a team that's beating its opponents by about 19 a game, it's a doubt smaller than the scar on Tyler Hansbrough's nose.
Potential potholes: Duke and Duke. Sure, the Feb. 6 date (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) in Chapel Hill and the March 8 meeting (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) in Durham are easy picks, but those aren't nearly the only hurdles for the Heels to hop. Carolina will open its ACC slate Sunday at Clemson and will have to contend with a Jan. 23 date at Miami (ESPN Full Court, 9 p.m. ET). Until last week, the Hurricanes were in pursuit of perfection, too.
Road to perfection: Long overlooked in the powerful SEC, Vanderbilt would like to remind you that only two conference teams have reached the Sweet 16 twice in the past four years. Florida, with those two nice pieces of hardware to show for it, is one. The Commodores are the other, which is a long-winded way of saying this 13-0 mark isn't entirely a fluke. Swingman Shan Foster (20.1 points) and Aussie import Andrew Ogilvy (19.2, 6.8 rebounds) pack a powerful 1-2 punch for a team off to its best start since 2004.
Reality check: Kevin Stallings called his Commodores the most overrated undefeated team in the nation. He was not entirely wrong. Vandy's blemish-free run has come against teams whose combined record now stands at 86-79. There has not been an NCAA Tournament lock among the bunch, and eight teams sport RPIs of 101 or worse.
Potential potholes: For Vandy, the Volunteers are like the big brother who aces every test, hits every home run and always gets the girl. So when the Dores visit Bruce Pearl and Tennessee on Jan. 17 (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), they will relish the chance to simultaneously thumb their nose at the doubters who picked them fifth in the SEC East, assert their legitimacy and best big brother. Tennessee leads the all-time series 105-66.
WASHINGTON STATE: 12-0
Road to perfection: The rest of the world is just now learning what hoops junkies and East Coast insomniacs have known for a year and a half: Washington State is for real. The Cougars finished second in a tough Pac-10 last season and rolled to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet, the uninformed wondered how they got an 80-year-old crooner to coach their team. They didn't. Pullman's Tony Bennett is 37 and can shoot 3s (he's the NCAA all-time leader at 49.7 percent), but his singing voice remains a mystery. Thanks to its 51-47 win over Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington State isn't a mystery any more.
Reality check: The Cougars have won six games by 20 points or more and have held seven teams to fewer than 50. Even folks with limited math skills could recognize those numbers generally work in your favor. Unlike previous nation-leading defenses that earned their stripes by running methodic offense (see: Princeton offense disciples), Washington State merits its spot based on swarming defense. The Cougars average 6.2 swipes per game, hold opponents to 36.3 percent shooting from the floor, get to the line almost twice as often as their foes and win the board battle by five. Oh, and opponents average 49.7 points per game.
Potential potholes: There is nothing like a trip to L.A., where everyone is blonde, beautiful and Botoxed, to make a kid from the sticks take a real measure of himself. Washington State will try to turn its Norma Jean self into Marilyn the second weekend of January. After opening the Pac-10 season at Washington on Saturday, Wazzou will be at USC on Jan. 10 to face its exposure-hunting freshman, O.J. Mayo. Two days later, it will be on to Westwood and UCLA's old-school-loving freshman, Kevin Love. The Cougars have pulled off the L.A. sweep just once in school history.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.