Who Will Be the Last Undefeated Team in College Basketball?
This time last year, four college basketball teams were undefeated. A week later, that number was zero.
Why is it so hard to stay perfect past the first few weeks in January?
Conference play does this cruel thing to the undefeated teams: It makes them go on the road.
If you take away Wichita State from the group of six remaining undefeated teams, the other five—Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Syracuse and Iowa State—have combined to play 10 road games. The Shockers have already played four games on the road.
Over the next four weeks, those five teams play 18 road games. And they'll start dropping like flies.
No one has been perfect since Indiana in 1976, and it has now been 23 years since a team entered the tournament with a perfect record—UNLV did so in 1991.
Can any of the six stay perfect this year? Let's rank their chances.
6. Ohio State
Ohio State is lucky to be here.
Seriously, the Buckeyes should have seen their perfect season end on Dec. 21 when they trailed by eight points with less than a minute left against Notre Dame. According to KenPom.com (subscription required), Ohio State's win probability at that point was 1 percent.
Ohio State winning the game at that point was more likely than the team winning the rest of its regular-season games from here on out. Ken Pomeroy's numbers estimate the Buckeyes have a 0.8-percent chance to get to 31-0.
The main reason the Buckeyes rank last here is that their next game, at Michigan State on Tuesday, should be a loss. Ohio State has not played nearly as talented an opponent thus far; Notre Dame and Marquette are OSU's best wins.
The Buckeyes also will have a tough time keeping that perfect record because they're only an elite team on one end of the floor. Offensively, they have struggled at times, and it's hard to be consistent on that end when your best scorer is incredibly inconsistent. LaQuinton Ross had a stretch earlier this season when he scored seven points over the span of three games.
Whether Ross scores or not on Tuesday, the Buckeyes will not be able to keep up with the Spartans.
First Predicted Loss: Jan. 7, at Michigan State
5. Iowa State
Iowa State is the team that probably had the worst odds out of the six remaining unbeatens to still be perfect at this point.
The Cyclones graduated four of their six leading scorers on last year's squad and were not ranked in the preseason.
Fred Hoiberg's team definitely has not taken the easy path to get here. The Cyclones have trailed by double digits against four of their 13 opponents.
The lesson: Never count out a Hoiberg-coached team. They're almost built to play from behind with their quick-strike offense.
Iowa State's start has been legitimate, but it's harder to go undefeated in the Big 12 than some of the other major conferences because of the round-robin schedule.
In the history of the Big 12, the only team to go undefeated in conference play was Kansas in 2002. Back then, the league was split into two divisions and KU only had to play the Texas and Oklahoma schools once.
First Predicted Loss: Jan. 11, at Oklahoma
The Big Ten schedule-makers helped Wisconsin out this season.
The Badgers get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home and do not play a ranked opponent on the road until Feb. 4 at Illinois.
The perfect season nearly ended on Sunday night, but Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery gave the Badgers some help with two straight technicals that led to four free points.
Against Wisconsin, Iowa was able to speed up the game to its preferred pace and slow down Badgers star Sam Dekker, who scored eight points on 2-of-12 shooting. The Hawkeyes will get another shot on Feb. 22.
The team that ultimately beats Wisconsin will need to have experience and be able to make shots, because Bo Ryan's boys aren't going to beat themselves. Ryan's pack-line defense also doesn't give up many open looks.
Illinois has won 13 straight at home and starts five upperclassmen. John Groce also pulled off an upset against Indiana last year. Bet he has another headline-grabber in him this year, too.
First Predicted Loss: at Illinois, Feb. 4
Most teams in the ACC have never played Syracuse, and playing against Jim Boeheim's zone for the first time is about as fun as jumping into a pool of snakes.
One team that is used to taking the plunge is Pittsburgh, and Jamie Dixon is one of the few coaches that can say he's figured out how to beat the zone.
Dixon is 10-4 against Boeheim and has won at least one game against Syracuse in nine of his first 10 seasons at Pitt.
What Dixon's teams do extremely well is pass the basketball, and he usually has the guards to keep up with Syracuse's perimeter scorers.
One reason to believe in the Orange's chances to go deep into the season undefeated is point guard play. Freshman Tyler Ennis has emerged as one of the best lead guards in the country and has yet to have a game with more than two turnovers.
Of course, with as many quality games Syracuse will play in the ACC, an undefeated run is still unlikely. Pitt gets two chances to knock off the Orange, and history says to bet on Dixon.
First Predicted Loss: Feb. 12, at Pittsburgh
Head coach Sean Miller has not won at UCLA since his first season at Arizona in 2010, and Arizona travels to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday. But if the Wildcats can survive that game, they will not play another likely NCAA tourney team on the road until a late-February trip to Colorado.
Even though Arizona has only played two road games—at San Diego State and Michigan—Miller's team has proven it can win on the road by the quality of those two wins. The win at San Diego State might be the most impressive road win by any team in the country. That's the only loss for the Aztecs, who just won at Kansas on Sunday.
To beat Arizona, you have to be able to score from the outside. The Wildcats are the best team in the country at limiting opportunities at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. Michigan was closest to figuring out the Zona defense, losing by two after shooting 8-of-17 from deep. That also opened up some opportunities at the basket for the Wolverines, who made all 10 of their shots at the rim that day.
The Pac-12 has three teams (UCLA, Stanford and Oregon) shooting better than 40 percent from deep this year, but good outside shooting will not be enough. What ultimately lost the game for the Wolverines was their lack of bodies inside to slow Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, who combined for 46 points.
That's why it's going to take a team with size that also has solid scoring guards to finally knock off Arizona. The Buffs have the best combination in the Pac-12 to pull it off.
First Predicted Loss: Feb. 22, at Colorado
1. Wichita State
It's pretty much a pipe dream for any major-conference team to believe an undefeated regular season is even a possibility.
The last team to enter the postseason with a perfect record was Saint Joseph's in 2004. The Hawks were 27-0 before losing to Xavier in their first game of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
That team was great with two NBA guards in the backcourt, but that team would have dropped at least a game or two in a big conference.
But that's the formula:
Major talent + great coaching + weak conference = A slim chance at a perfect regular season.
The Shockers going undefeated in the regular season would actually be less shocking than the St. Joe's run because the Missouri Valley this year is much weaker than the A-10 was that year. In fact, I'd say it would be even less surprising than Wichita State's 2013 Final Four run.
There were three other tourney teams in the A-10 in 2004. At this point in the year, Indiana State is looking like the only other Valley team with even a chance to get in.
Ken Pomeroy has Wichita State as a favorite in the rest of its games. He gives the Shockers a 60-percent chance to win at Indiana State, which is their toughest game left on the schedule.
Even with that easy schedule, Pomeroy's formula only gives Wichita State a 10.5-percent chance to finish the regular season with a perfect record.
Pomeroy's numbers cannot really account for Gregg Marshall's coaching or the mental toughness of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, however. VanVleet, Wichita State's point guard, has gone three straight games without a turnover and has four turnovers in the last seven games.
Wichita State just might be the next UNLV. Making it back to another Final Four? That's a tougher challenge than what's left on the schedule.
First Predicted Loss: Elite Eight