It is that time of year in which college basketball pundits begin to question aloud whether certain teams will remain unbeaten through the regular season and entering March Madness. This year, that discussion will focus on the #1 ranked Arizona Wildcats, #2 ranked Syracuse of the Atlantic Coast Conference, #4 ranked Wisconsin of the Big-Ten, #6 ranked Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference and #9 ranked Iowa State of the Big-12. All five of these teams are undefeated, are about to enter the heart of conference play, and are beginning to think about their potential seeding in the NCAA Tournament. An undefeated season would all but guarantee one of the coveted number one seeds in the tournament.
So one would think that going undefeated during the regular season would be advantageous, right? Well, in the words of ESPN’s Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” Since 1951, 18 college basketball teams finished their regular season with an undefeated record, but no one has done so since 1991, when UNLV finished the regular season with a record of 30-0 but lost in the semi-finals of the tournament to Duke. Of those who entered the tournament without a blemish on their record, only seven teams went on to win the National Championship. The last to do so was almost 38 years ago, when Indiana did so in 1976 under Bobby Knight. Four of the other six teams to go undefeated and win the championship were UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden.
To be clear, no program will set out to lose a game just to avoid the potential pitfalls of an undefeated season. That being said, an undefeated regular season creates a scenario in which the first loss of the year would be sudden death for the season. That is a great deal of pressure on top of the already existing pressure associated with the tournament. Further, teams learn from losing, including recognizing that they are not immortal.
Turning to the Wildcats, I love this team and what they can do this year. But they are not infallible. The Pac-12 is stacked with talent, and it is highly improbable that the Cats will beat them all. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Cats go into the Pac-12 Tournament in March with multiple losses on their resume. One or more regular season loss(es) would not hurt Sean Miller’s overall objective for this team and its goals for a National Championship.
As for the other undefeated teams, I see losses on the horizon for at least three of the four of them. Syracuse is a power, no doubt, but they still must play Duke twice, Pitt twice and North Carolina. Wisconsin has been dominating, but they still must take on the strength of the Big-Ten, including Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan. Iowa State is likely the over-achiever of the group, and when they meet Kansas twice, Oklahoma State twice, Baylor and perhaps Kansas State, multiple defeats are more than likely.
Of the undefeated teams, Wichita State has the best chance at going undefeated. They may be challenged by Drake or Illinois State later this month or Indiana State in early February, but I believe the Shockers are far and away the class of the Missouri Valley Conference. If last year’s Final Four team shows up to play for their coach, Gregg Marshall, all of their remaining opponents will have their hands full.
Will The Cats go undefeated through the regular season? As much as I bleed red and blue, I hope not. As for the others, it will be interesting to see who will be the last to fall, as I am fairly sure that they each will lose before we begin to fill out our brackets.