Sweet 14: Breaking Down College Basketball's Remaining Undefeateds

Ryne HodkowskiAnalyst IDecember 7, 2011

Sweet 14: Breaking Down College Basketball's Remaining Undefeateds

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    With the sheer amount of games played early against quality competition, college basketball eliminates teams from the ranks of unbeaten quicker than any other sport.

    We're almost one month into the season and only fourteen college basketball teams remain undefeated. As stated above, they're dropping like flies.

    Since we've waited an appropriate amount of time, let's take a look at the remaining undefeateds. I'll list them in reverse order of my rankings and list their best players and when I expect them to first lose.

    For what it's worth, I do expect all of these teams to be in the tournament come March. And... I don't expect any of them to be undefeated at season's end...no one has done it in 35 years!

Murray State

1 of 14

    Background: The Racers have become a staple in March Madness but never have they gotten off to such a hot start. They're 9-0 behind an odd schedule that included cupcakes Harris Stowe and Tennessee Temple, but also quality wins over Dayton and Southern Mississippi.

    Best Player: Isaiah Cannan leads the Racers. The junior guard is averaging 20.3 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. His point total is almost double of what he averaged last season. While he won't go all the way back down, a regression is possible since he most likely won't shoot 52 percent all season.

    Why they are undefeated: Murray State can be a dangerous team once again if/when they make the tournament. They currently shoot 44.8 percent from three which is good for sixth in the nation and 81.1 percent from the free throw line, which is good for third in the nation. Any team that can get hot and make free throws is dangerous in March.

    Next Loss: Sunday December 11 at Memphis. If the Racers can pull an upset in Memphis they could be a threat to run the table. No one in the Ohio Valley can compete with them. Austin Peay figures to be the second best team.

Creighton

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    Background: Creighton has already tallied some impressive wins including Nebraska and San Diego State. Their non-conference schedule gets harder with a trip to St. Joe's and Tulsa and a game against Northwestern.

    Best Player: Doug McDermott is coach Greg McDermott's son and he helps his dad out by being the best player on the Jays. McDermott is only a sophomore but he is averaging 23.7 points and nine rebounds per game! That's incredible. He's only scored less than 20 once and has three straight double-doubles.

    Why they are undefeated: Creighton has one of the best offenses in the nation. Their 87 points per game ranks fourth, and they shoot 52.6 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from three.

    Next Loss: This weekend at St. Joe's will be a very important game for tournament selections. Creighton is most likely still behind Wichita State in the MVC, so if they do not win the conference tournament they will need to get in on the strength of an at-large.

    I say that Creighton goes to Philadelphia and wins a close game against St. Joe's. They beat Tulsa, Northwestern and Missouri State before losing at Wichita State on New Year's Eve.

Harvard

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    Background: Harvard is nationally ranked and undefeated at 8-0. Their marquee win came Thanksgiving week against FSU, 46-41.

    Best Player: Keith Wright narrowly takes this award as Harvard is an extremely balanced team. The 6'8" senior leads the team in scoring and rebounds with 11.4 and 6.8 per game, respectively. He shoots 59.4 percent from the field.

    Why they are undefeated: Harvard plays at one of the slowest tempos in the nation. All of their scoring numbers are skewed as a result of this. Make no mistake, however, they control the tempo in games and are efficient on the offensive end. Harvard has eight players that average more than 10 minutes a game and freshman Jonah Travis will add to that list shortly.

    Next Loss: Thursday December 8 at Connecticut. I expect the Crimson to hang in this one and impose their style of play against the Huskies. Harvard is by far the best team in the Ivy League and should beat St. Joe's and George Washington, both home games.

Kansas State

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    Background: Kansas State has played the fewest games of any undefeated. In fact, they've played the fewest games out of all 345 teams! At 5-0 they have nice wins over George Washington and Virginia Tech, but getting a read on the Wildcats is difficult due to their limited portfolio.

    Best Player: Jamar Samuels has only played in three games but he has made an immediate impact. The senior is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game.

    Why they are undefeated: Again, it's early in the season for the Wildcats, but they play tremendous defense. They are allowing only 59 points per game and rank second in Ken Pomeroy's effective field goal defense.

    Next Loss: They'll be challenged by West Virginia on December 8 in Wichita (a "neutral" site). If they do get by the Mountaineers, they won't get by Alabama on December 15.

Illinois

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    Background: Illinois is 8-0 for the first time since 2006 behind an influx of youth and new senior leadership. They have already beaten Richmond, Maryland and Gonzaga.

    Best Player: Sam Maniscalco may not be the biggest or most talented player on the Illini, but he provides them with an intangible they lacked in the past. Maniscalco transferred from Bradley and is immediately playing due to the new NCAA rule that stipulates players can do this if they enroll in graduate studies.

    Maniscalco gives the Illini a new attitude. He is more physical and tenacious than players of the past, and isn't afraid to go to the basket and can hit free throws. He gives the Illini the hard-nosed attitude they've been lacking since their glory days of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head.

    Why they are undefeated: Illinois is bigger and more physical than in years past. They play two seven-footers in Tyler Griffey and Meyers Leonard who offer a contrast in styles. Griffey is more akin to tall Illinois-players of the past, ones who want to shoot three pointers and 15-foot jump shots. Leonard is developing into more of a true center and averages 2.9 blocks per game.

    That, combined with an influx of youth (Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw and Myke Henry) and their two best athletes, veterans D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, and the Illini are 8-0.

    Next Loss: They'll have their hands full with UNLV on December 17 at the United Center. If they get by that, they'll be hard pressed to beat Mizzou in St. Louis on the 22nd.

Indiana

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    Background: It didn't take long for Tom Crean to get the Hoosiers turned around from their Kelvin Sampson-days. In just his fourth year as head coach, Crean has the Hoosiers undefeated and loaded with talent. They haven't played a difficult schedule yet, but do have wins over Butler and North Carolina State.

    Best Player: It could be that freshman Cody Zeller is instantly the best player on the Hoosiers. Zeller is already averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He is second in the team in minutes and also contributes 2.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.

    Why they are undefeated: Verdell Jones is a senior, but all other major contributors are juniors or younger. They are a big team, as Victor Oladapio and Jones line up at guard at 6'5". As a result of their length, they are 11th in the nation in steals per game.

    Next Loss: Saturday December 10th against Kentucky. The Wildcats will have to earn it in Bloomington, but they'll get it done. Indiana isn't there quite yet.

Xavier

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    Background: Xavier has compiled an impressive resume, defeating Georgia and Vanderbilt before having a huge comeback win against Purdue. The Muskateers are ranked eight nationally at 6-0.

    Best Player: Xavier has the best 1-2 punch in the nation with guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Together they average 35.3 points per game. If you forgot how Holloway can take over a game, you should re-watch this from last week.

    Why they are undefeated: Xavier already has two big come from behind wins. The Musketeers trailed Vanderbilt by 10 in Nashville before tying the game and ultimately winning in OT. They trailed Purdue by 19 in the second half before winning by three.

    Next Loss: Xavier plays an absolutely brutal schedule coming up. They travel to Butler, host Cincy, host Oral Roberts, host Long Beach State and then host Gonzaga.

    I think that if they go down, it's tonight at Butler. Otherwise, it may be all the way to a road trip to Memphis in February.

Baylor

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    Background: The Bears have now successfully reloaded following their 2009 elite eight trip. They have already secured wins against San Diego State and Northwestern, the latter coming in a blowout fashion.

    Best Player: The general consensus is that Perry Jones could have been a top pick in last year's NBA draft if he decided to come out. He could have been, but it was advised that he stay and refine his game.

    So far, so good. Jones is averaging 19.5 points and six boards a game (granted in only two games). He needs to stay healthy and keep his mind sharp, and he can be a top player in the nation and a lottery pick next year.

    Why they are undefeated: Not since Jack Klugman solved forensic cases for the L.A. Police Department has the nation seen a "Quincy" this good. In fact, Baylor has two of them!

    Quincy Acy is the senior forward who is averaging 12.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Quincy Miller is the freshman forward from Chicago who has burst onto the scene to average 13.2 points per game. The Bears have four players who average double figures (the other is Pierre Jackson who averages 11.9) and two more players who average 9.6 points per game.

    In other words, they're deep and balanced.

    Next Loss: I have a feeling they'll have trouble in Provo on December 17. BYU isn't as bad as everyone thinks without Fredette and the Marriott Center is always a tough place to play.

Marquette

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    Background: Marquette has already played a difficult schedule. They defeated Ole Miss, beat Washington in New York and completely destroyed Wisconsin in the Kohl Center. Wins in Madison are hard to come by. Building a double digit lead in the first half and winning comfortably is unheard of.

    Best Player: It's finally Darius Johnson-Odom's team. The senior guard showed flashes of greatness in the past, but now the team is his. He is currently averaging 19.9  points per game, and that is even after not shooting very well against Washington or Wisconsin.

    Why they are undefeated: Marquette is solid on both ends of the floor. They have two legitimate scorers in Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder and are physical on the defensive end.

    Next Loss: They should easily remain unbeaten through the New Year. Then they are faced with consecutive road games against Georgetown and Syracuse. I think they'll lose at least one, if not both.

Louisville

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    Background: Louisville came into the season with a legitimate shot of cutting down the nets in April and nothing has changed. They have already beaten upset-minded Long Beach State and narrowly escaped with a win against Vanderbilt.

    Best Player: Louisville is a well-balanced team without too many standouts. All their players contribute in a variety of ways. That said, Kyle Kuric most likely contributes the most.

    Kuric leads the team in scoring with 12.4 points per game. He stuffs the stat sheet with 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He is the most valuable player on the team.

    Why they are undefeated: Louisville's press causes a lot of teams trouble. Overall the Cardinals rank third nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency defensive rankings. They are a deep team as nine players average double figures in minutes.

    Next Loss: At Kentucky on New Year's Eve.

Missouri

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    Background: Frank Haith inherited a very talented team in Columbia. Mizzou has already destroyed Notre Dame and California, and beat Villanova by double digits.

    Best Player: Difficult choice, but it goes to Marcus Denmon. The senior guard is averaging 21.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds. He is shooting 54.7 percent from the line and 89.7 from the stripe!

    Why they are undefeated: Missouri is an extremely talented team and they feature one of the nation's best offenses. As a team they are shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 76.1 percent from the free throw line. Their big four of Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Michael Dixon combine to average 63.1 points per game.

    Additionally they are a very experienced group. Three of the aforementioned four are seniors, while Dixon is a junior. Phil Pressey continues to improve as a sophomore.

    Next Loss: They should be good up until a tough game at Kansas State on January 7. I see them struggling but escaping. After that, they'll be hard pressed to win at Baylor on January 21.

Syracuse

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    Background: The Orange have built an impressive resume, winning close games against Virginia Tech, Stanford, Florida and Marshall. They are talented and figure to be the favorites in an always competitive Big East.

    Best Player: Kris Joseph is the most talented player on the Orange. He leads the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game, is second in rebounds with 5.9, and adds 1.3 assists and steals per game.

    Why they are undefeated: Syracuse is extremely long, which of course fits perfectly for their 2-3 zone defense. As a result they are eighth in the nation in blocks and first in the nation in steals. You are going to win a lot of games when the opponent doesn't even attempt a shot.

    Next Loss: The Orange don't play a ranked team until Marquette on January 7. That game is at the Carrier Dome so I will give the Orange a win. After that, their first difficult road game comes at Cincinnati on January 23.

    It could be a while before the Orange lose, but I'll take them to get upset in the Queen City in late January.

Kentucky

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    Background: Kentucky and Ohio State are 1) and 1a) in the nation right now. The Wildcats beat Kansas and North Carolina. The latter win came despite being outscored by 21 from beyond the arc.

    Best Player: If Terrence Jones can't ball, I don't know who can. Kentucky, and the national landscape, got a big boost when he decided to return for his sophomore year. He leads the team in scoring with 15 points per game and adds 7.5 rebounds per game, and...it doesn't seem as if he has really kicked it into gear yet this season. He has improved his shooting percentage and he has a stronger supporting cast than last season, but his numbers are slightly down. He'll continue to improve as the season goes on.

    Why they are undefeated: Kentucky is probably the most talented team in the nation. Jones, Doron Lamb, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all average double figures.

    Defensively they lead the nation in blocks. Jones averages 2.5 a game and freshman Davis averages 4.5 a game! 4.5! His block against UNC sealed a one point win.

    And if you don't believe me when I say they are talented, watch the attached video. Realize they had 18 blocks in that game to go along with their trapeze act on offense.

    Next Loss: Kentucky is in the top two and therefore they shouldn't lose. Of course, teams don't go undefeated, but that doesn't make it any easier to pick an upset.

    UK had trouble defeating inferior opponents on the road last season. They lost to UGA, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Arkansas before making the final four. It's unreasonable to predict a similar resume this season, but it is more likely they will lose on the road than at Rupp.

    All that said, I'll predict that their first loss will occur at Vanderbilt on February 11....if it doesn't occur this weekend in Bloomington (I picked Kentucky on the other slide, and I'm sticking with it).

Ohio State

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    Background: Many felt that the Buckeyes were the best team in the nation last year before being "upset" by Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Without going too much into the past, let's just say that the tournament selection committee didn't do the Buckeyes any favors by having UK as their four-seed. OSU has already beaten Florida and destroyed Duke this season.

    Best Player: Jared Sullinger is most likely the best player in the nation. He is averaging a double-double with 19.1 points  and 10.3 points per game. He adds 1.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game and shoots 62.2 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the stripe. Insane.

    Why they are undefeated: With Sullinger, Aaron Craft, William Buford and DeShaun Thomas, the Buckeyes are the best defensive team in the nation. Last year they ranked No. 1 in the nation in FTA/FGA, a statistic that measure how many free throws you give up compared to field goals. In other words, they rarely foul and put you on the line.

    They rank 19th in the same category this season but are improving. Don't be surprised to see them near the top once again come March.

    Next Loss: They will be in a dogfight this weekend against Kansas in Lawrence. Following that they will have tough road games against Indiana and Illinois.

    I think they get by all of those, however, and eventually fall on February 4 in Madison.