Predicting the 1st Loss of the 2015-16 Season for Top College Basketball Teams
Wichita State and Kentucky flirted with perfection over the past two years, and they just might be the last two teams to suffer a loss during the 2015-16 men's college basketball season.
Though we've had some close calls lately, it has been four decades since the last time a team went undefeated all the way through the NCAA tournament. As such, it's only a matter of time before every high-ranking team suffers its first loss of the season.
In fact, thanks to the Champions Classic and a few other strong November events, several national championship contenders are guaranteed to lose at least one game in the first two weeks of the season. When and where those losses will occur is why we gaze upon our crystal ball today.
To determine the top 20 teams for this list, the top 25s of ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, NBC Sports' Rob Dauster and Blue Ribbon's Chris Dortch were combined into one consensus poll, spitting out the following teams: Arizona, Baylor, California, Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, Vanderbilt, Villanova, Virginia, Wichita State and Wisconsin*. If you disagree with the top 20 teams, be sure to cry to those four experts.
Those 20 teams are ranked in chronological order of first projected loss on the following slides, culminating in one team that doesn't have a single definite loss on the calendar.
*Wisconsin was actually No. 21, but we removed No. 20 SMU from the list, given what has happened with that program this week.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 16 @ Oregon
Other Early Scares: Nov. 13 vs. Stephen F. Austin, Dec. 6 vs. Vanderbilt, Dec. 19 @ Texas A&M
Opening weekend of the college basketball season is typically calm. We'll inevitably get a few minor upsets—like Ole Miss losing at home to Charleston Southern last year or Kansas State falling to Northern Colorado in 2013—but you have to go back to November 2011 when Loyola Marymount shocked No. 17 UCLA and Cleveland State beat up on No. 7 Vanderbilt to find the last time a top-20 team was upset in the first three days of the season.
By day No. 4, though, all bets are off and ranked teams start dropping like flies. Between ESPN's Tip-Off marathon, dozens of neutral-site tournaments and the various conference vs. conference challenges, it's almost a miracle that anyone can make it more than a couple of weeks into the season without a slip-up.
So take heart, Baylor fans. You might be the first top team to suffer a loss, but by the end of November, you'll just be the founding father of a rapidly growing club of teams with Final Four aspirations despite having at least one loss.
However, maybe take less heart in the fact that the Bears are highly unlikely to be favored in this game at Oregon.
The Ducks are being wildly undervalued in projected polls and standings, as a starting five of Tyler Dorsey, Dylan Ennis, Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and Jordan Bell is beyond formidable. Baylor has a great frontcourt in Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers and Johnathan Motley with Jo Acuil off the bench, but it's probably too early in the season to expect a backcourt of Lester Medford and Al Freeman to win a quality road game. It will probably be a loss for Baylor, but it should also be our first real look at whether this team will have what it takes to finish in the top five in the Big 12.
Duke Blue Devils
First Projected Loss: Nov. 17 vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 22 vs. Wisconsin/Georgetown, Dec. 2 vs. Indiana, Dec. 19 vs. Utah
It's kind of crazy to see a solid contender for the national championship this early on the list, but these things happen when the Champions Classic ensures that two talented teams suffer a loss five days into the season.
We'll have to wait and see whether Duke or Kentucky ends up being the better team in March, but at this early juncture of the season, it's easy to give the edge to the team with three returning McDonald's All-Americans in addition to an incoming trio of potential lottery picks.
Brandon Ingram is going to be special for the Blue Devils, and Derryck Thornton should be the Tyus Jones to Ingram's Justise Winslow. Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard will each have his fair share of explosive scoring performances. Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson are the wily, underappreciated veterans who will inevitably do a lot of little things to make the team better. In the long run, it should be business as usual for coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has incredibly finished 18 of the last 19 seasons ranked in the Top Nine of the final AP Top 25.
On this night, though, the experience of Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee—in conjunction with the sheer talent dripping from Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere—will probably be too much for the young Blue Devils to handle.
Should they survive, though, it might be a long time before they drop a game. The home game against Indiana and the neutral-court games against Utah and either Georgetown or Wisconsin will be challenges, but they'll certainly be the favorite in those contests. They proceed to open ACC play with an easy stretch of opponents before back-to-back road games against N.C. State and Miami in late January. If we're wrong about the result of the Champions Classic, Duke could realistically go another two months without a loss.
Michigan State Spartans
First Projected Loss: Nov. 17 vs. Kansas (Champions Classic)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 27 vs. Boise State, Nov. 29 vs. Arizona (Wooden Legacy finals), Dec. 2 vs. Louisville, Dec. 12 vs. Florida
The other half of the Champions Classic will likely result in an early loss for Michigan State, but don't expect to see many more of those this season. The Spartans play just one game each against Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Purdue, and they get the two better teams (Indiana and Maryland) at home. Maryland is almost unanimously regarded as the best team in the Big Ten, but Michigan State may well have the best shot at winning the conference.
But I digress, because that's more than five months away from being decided, and we're really just interested in this game on the fifth day of the regular season. Assuming Cheick Diallo is eligible—which even Bill Self doesn't sound so sure about anymore—Kansas figures to be just too strong and talented to let this one slip away.
Deyonta Davis is an excellent freshman for the Spartans, but he's not quite on the same level as Diallo. Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling made a strong tandem at center last year for Michigan State, but can they slow down or hang with Perry Ellis? Eron Harris (who is suspended) and Bryn Forbes are great shooting guards, but Wayne Selden might be the best shooting guard in the country if he finally decides to live up to his potential this year.
Michigan State's best chance at pulling off a win is if Denzel Valentine absolutely makes a mockery of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Brannen Greene en route to a 20-point triple-double—which is very much within the realm of possibility, given how much of a versatile weapon Valentine has been for the Spartans. But even that might not be enough if Ellis and Frank Mason play like the All-Big 12-caliber players they're expected to be.
The Spartans might be headed for a seven-loss season and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, but this battle with Kansas is probably going to be one of those losses.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 22 vs. Duke (2K Classic)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 20 vs. Georgetown (2K Classic), Nov. 29 @ Oklahoma, Dec. 2 @ Syracuse
For the record, Wisconsin wasn't supposed to be on this list. The Badgers were No. 21 in the consensus top 25, but we decided to remove SMU from the pool of candidates because of the punishment the NCAA levied on the Mustangs earlier this week. As a result, Wisconsin jumped into the top 20 but doesn't figure to last deep into the season before suffering its first loss.
The Badgers open the season with a trio of cupcakes at home against Western Illinois, Siena and North Dakota, but things get serious in a hurry. They will face Georgetown, either Duke or VCU, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Temple in a span of 15 days. Even 2014-15 Wisconsin would have been hard-pressed to survive that gauntlet with a zero in the loss column, so it might be impossible for it to happen without Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan.
The first game of that stretch will be no picnic. Though we had Wisconsin at No. 10 on our list of the most physically imposing lineups for the 2015-16 season, Georgetown checked in at No. 9 and should at least provide a significant challenge for Nigel Hayes and friends. It's pretty much a coin-flip game with the battle between Georgetown's L.J. Peak and Wisconsin's Zak Showalter or Brevin Pritzl deciding the outcome.
If Wisconsin does survive the Hoyas, though, it's highly unlikely it will upset the Blue Devils two days later in the 2K Classic finals.
Duke and Wisconsin delivered two of the best games of the 2014-15 season, but that's largely because they were both top-five teams for just about the entire year. No matter how much you believe in Bo Ryan, there's no denying that there's a big gap in expectations between the two programs this year. And considering Duke was already able to win both games last season, don't expect that to change now that the Blue Devils will be much bigger favorites.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 24 vs. Indiana (Maui Invitational semifinals)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 25 vs. Kansas (Maui finals), Dec. 6 @ Baylor, Dec. 22 @ Purdue
Everyone loves a strong eight-team early-season tournament field, but the cold hard truth is that seven of those teams are going to suffer at least one loss before a champion is crowned. The Maui Invitational, for example, features Vanderbilt, Indiana, Kansas and UCLA—three of which are in the consensus top 20 and only one of which could potentially still be undefeated by Thanksgiving.
I love Vanderbilt this year. With Wooden Award candidate Damian Jones headlining a lengthy list of key returning players that will also welcome Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler to its rotation, the Commodores might be the second-best team in the SEC and should spend the bulk of the season ranked in the AP Top 25.
That said, even a double dose of Amortentia might not be enough to convince me they could beat Indiana and Kansas on consecutive days. (That's right. I made a Harry Potter love potion joke. Deal with it.)
Great as Jones is in the paint defensively, there's not much he can do to stop teams hellbent on relying on perimeter shots, which the Hoosiers might do more than any team in the country this year. Last season, Vanderbilt's opponents shot at least 35 percent beyond the arc in 13 games. The Commodores went 4-9 in those contests.
Meanwhile, Indiana shot 40 percent or better in 19 of its games last year and drained at least 10 three-pointers on 17 different occasions. Look for Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon and company to send Vanderbilt to a third-place consolation game against UCLA.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 25 vs. Kansas (Maui Invitational finals)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 24 vs. Vanderbilt (Maui semis), Dec. 2 @ Duke, Dec. 19 vs. Notre Dame
If Indiana were hosting Kansas in Assembly Hall after several days of rest, perhaps we would be less inclined to write this one off as a loss for the Hoosiers.
Given the circumstances, though—neutral court, third game of a back-to-back-to-back that begins with Wake Forest and Vanderbilt, facing a superior opponent with a much easier path to the finals (Chaminade and UCLA)—it might be foolish to expect Indiana to win the Maui Invitational.
For one thing, even with the addition of big men Thomas Bryant, Juwan Morgan and Max Bielfeldt, Indiana will remain a "live or die by the three" type of team. It's a perfectly viable offensive approach for most of the season, but it's also susceptible to a loss when going up against elite competition on consecutive days.
Maybe the Hoosiers get and stay hot by draining 14 three-pointers against both Vanderbilt and Kansas, but there really is no plan B for Indiana to beat Damian Jones and Cheick Diallo in the span of about 24 hours. So if those triples don't keep falling, the Hoosiers will.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 25 vs. Connecticut (Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinals)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 20 vs. Xavier, Nov. 26-27 Battle 4 Atlantis semis/finals, Dec. 1 @ N.C. State, Dec. 8 @ SMU
Moving from one great eight-team tournament to one that is arguably even better, the Battle 4 Atlantis will also conclude with a maximum of one undefeated team.
For Michigan, though, trying to win the first game of the tournament might be too much to ask.
Both the Wolverines and the Huskies had a disappointing 2014-15 season but should be right back in the thick of things this year. Michigan still has a great core group of guys in Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. But while the Wolverines are banking on returnees fulfilling expectations they failed to meet last season, Connecticut reloaded in a huge way with freshman Jalen Adams and grad transfers Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller all likely joining the starting lineup.
As a result, this could be a bit of a brutal draw for the Wolverines. Miller and Amida Brimah against Michigan's frontcourt is hardly a fair fight, and Adams could run circles around a defense that rarely forced turnovers last season.
Even if Michigan survives Connecticut, though, what are the chances of subsequently getting through Syracuse and Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis?
Heck, are we even sure the Wolverines will enter the tournament without any blemishes? That home game against Xavier is quite the beginning to what might be the most difficult 18-day stretch of games that any AP Top 25 team will face until March. If the Wolverines are 10-0 on December 9 with wins over Xavier, Connecticut, Syracuse, Gonzaga, Charlotte, N.C. State and SMU—with only the game against the Musketeers coming at home—they just might get my vote for No. 1 in the nation.
First Projected Loss: Nov. 27 vs. Connecticut (Battle 4 Atlantis finals)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 13 vs. Pittsburgh, Nov. 26 vs. Texas A&M (B4A semis), Dec. 5 vs. Arizona, Dec. 12 vs. UCLA
In case it wasn't clear from the previous slide, I'm quite high on Connecticut this year. We're talking "occasionally checking 2016 title odds, will be uncontrollably livid if the Huskies aren't in the preseason AP Top 25" high.
So, even though Gonzaga will deservedly be a top-15 team, if this Battle 4 Atlantis championship game comes to fruition, you'll have a hard time talking me into a backcourt of Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis besting one of Jalen Adams, Sterling Gibbs and Rodney Purvis.
Frankly, though, the Bulldogs might not even make it this far before suffering a loss.
The season-opening Armed Forces Classic against Pittsburgh in Okinawa, Japan is anything but a guaranteed win, as the Panthers should be considerably better than last season and will be seeking to immediately prove as much.
Gonzaga also has a tougher-than-advertised home game on Nov. 21 against Mount St. Mary's—a team that probably needs to be regarded as the favorite to win the Northeast Conference. In a vacuum, that game should be no problem for the Zags. However, if they're ever going to blow that type of trap game, it will be a week after returning from Japan and hours before leaving for Bahamas.
Once in Bahamas, Gonzaga has a brutal semifinals pairing against either Texas or Texas A&M—both of which could open the season ranked in the AP Top 25.
Finishing up that journey with a game against Connecticut is an awful lot to ask in the first two weeks of the season from an inexperienced backcourt. You have to love a frontcourt made up of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski, but that doesn't mean you have to expect Gonzaga to remain undefeated into December.
California Golden Bears
First Projected Loss: Nov. 27 vs. West Virginia (Las Vegas Invitational finals)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 26 vs. San Diego State (LVI semis), Dec. 22 @ Virginia
We touched on this last week while ranking the early-season tournaments, but I dare you to find a more impossibly difficult stretch of games on back-to-back days than the one California will face in the Las Vegas Invitational.
The Golden Bears will definitely draw San Diego State on the Nov. 26. Thanks to a deliberately slow pace of play, a shot-blocking presence and an ensuing propensity for forcing bad shots, the Aztecs have had one of the most stagnating defenses in the country for the past several years. They have ranked second in the nation in points allowed per game in each of the last two years—finishing runner-up to Virginia both times.
Win that game and California likely runs into West Virginia the following night. The Mountaineers fall on the opposite end of the defensive spectrum, forcing a turnover on 28 percent of possessions last season and occasionally giving up easy buckets in an effort to create even more of their own, per Kenpom.com.
In a crude nutshell, to make it to December with a perfect record, the Golden Bears need to survive trench warfare and blitzkrieg on consecutive days. While the nation fights a tryptophan-induced nap before battling Black Friday crowds, California gets to deal with a brutal change in pace of its own.
Perhaps worst of all, super freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown won't get much of an introduction to college basketball before enduring this slugfest. Home games against Rice, UC Santa Barbara, East Carolina and Sam Houston State are nothing compared to what lies ahead in Las Vegas.
If the Golden Bears do make it out of Vegas in one piece, though, it'll be nearly a month before their next real challenge, as they would almost certainly bring an 11-0 record into Virginia for another defensive nightmare.
Say this much for their scheduling: By the time the NCAA tournament rolls around, they will have seen just about every form of elite defense the nation has to offer.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 1 @ North Carolina
Other Early Scares: Nov. 17 vs. Georgetown, Dec. 8 vs. Connecticut
Welcome to December! Typically without question the least interesting month of college basketball's regular season, there are actually quite a few fantastic games in the final month of 2015, beginning with the very first night of it.
Along with the Champions Classic and a couple of really intriguing neutral-site tournaments, the ACC/B1G Challenge is easily one of the best events of the first few months of the season.
Some of the games are real snoozefests—Wake Forest @ Rutgers, Clemson @ Minnesota, Northwestern @ Virginia Tech and Penn State @ Boston College won't be drawing much of a TV audience—but there's at least one gem for every dud. Indiana @ Duke, Michigan @ N.C. State, Virginia @ Ohio State, Purdue @ Pittsburgh, Louisville @ Michigan State and Florida State @ Iowa are all battles between teams that both have realistic NCAA tournament aspirations.
However, one clearly reigns supreme and just might be the best game of the entire season, as possible No. 1 seed Maryland travels to Chapel Hill to face possible No. 1 seed North Carolina.
In addition to simply being a game between elite teams, how do you like the individual battles in this one—particularly Marcus Paige against Melo Trimble? Or what about the dynamic of a former ACC team returning to a campus where it has been loathed for years? Throw in the implications for both the ACC/B1G Challenge and the NCAA tournament, and this is one game you cannot afford to miss.
Put these two outstanding teams on a neutral court and I'd be tearing my hair out trying to decide which one would emerge with a win. But because it's a home game for the Tar Heels and because they're the slightly more veteran team, North Carolina gets a mild edge in a game that someone unfortunately has to lose.
If Maryland doesn't drop this game, though, we might need to jump all the way to the road games against Wisconsin and Michigan in mid-January to find the first loss of the Terrapins' season. They host Georgetown and play a neutral-court game against Connecticut, but that concludes their list of nonconference games against teams with any hope of opening the season in the AP Top 25.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 5 @ Gonzaga
Other Early Scares: Nov. 19 vs. Boise State, Nov. 29 Wooden Legacy finals (likely vs. Michigan State), Dec. 9 vs. Fresno State
For the most part, Arizona has a cushy nonconference schedule. The Wildcats don't play any categorically awful teams, but they're also light on elite opponents—a not-so-secret way to post a strong nonconference strength of schedule without losing many games. Home games against Boise State, Fresno State, Long Beach State and UNLV all look solid on the ol' RPI, but those should all be wins by double-digit margins.
Truly, the only time before Pac-12 play that they should be in any danger of suffering a loss is during the week that November bleeds into December. If all goes according to plan, Arizona will draw Michigan State in the Wooden Legacy championship game on a Sunday before traveling to Spokane to face Gonzaga the following Saturday.
And, well, the Zags don't lose in the Kennel. They're 58-2 at home since December 2012 with one of the two losses coming in a 35-point performance for Illinois' Brandon Paul and the other a grudge match at the end of this past season that BYU absolutely had to win to make the NCAA tournament.
Will Arizona be able to match the level of individual excellence or sheer desperation apparently necessary to win at Gonzaga? The Wildcats nearly lost at home to Gonzaga last year, and they lost much more from last year's roster than the Bulldogs did.
Don't expect San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefsen to offer much insider information in this one, either. In three career games at the Kennel, he has 19 points on 22 field-goal attempts. The Wildcats might need some real magic from other new pieces such as Kadeem Allen, Ray Smith and Allonzo Trier in order to pull off what Vegas will probably consider a significant upset.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 7 vs. Villanova (in Hawaii)
Other Early Scares: Nov. 17 @ Memphis, Nov. 29 vs. Wisconsin, Dec. 25 Diamond Head Classic finals (likely vs. BYU)
Only time will tell whether this neutral-court game against Villanova will be Oklahoma's first loss of the season, but it may well be the only game before January that the Sooners aren't favored to win by at least a touchdown.
Outside of the road game against Memphis and the Diamond Head Classic—which should consist of games against Washington State, Hawaii and BYU—this Pearl Harbor memorial game with Villanova is their only game away from home until January. They host Creighton, Oral Roberts and Wisconsin in games that will provide a wide range of degrees of difficulty (or lack thereof), but it should be relatively smooth sailing until Big 12 play begins.
But for one night in Hawaii, Oklahoma could be in some trouble.
The Sooners were almost unbeatable at home last season, but they were beyond mortal in road and neutral games. They went 14-1 at the Lloyd Noble Center, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from three-point range. Everywhere else, they were 10-10 and shot 40.2 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from downtown.
It's natural for teams to shoot a little better at home, but that's extreme. Villanova, for example, shot 48.2/40.8 percent at home and 46.1/37.6 percent everywhere else—and those splits were even closer before the embarrassing offensive display in the tourney loss to North Carolina State.
Unless Buddy Hield and the rest of the Sooners suddenly find a way to bring their offense on the road this season, this showdown between top-10 teams might actually get a bit out of hand.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 8 vs. West Virginia (in NYC)
Other Early Scares: Dec. 1 @ Ohio State, Dec. 19 vs. Villanova, Dec. 22 vs. California
For just about every other team on the list, our first projected loss is a true road game, is against another team in the consensus top 25 or both. However, we see Virginia—a team that might open the season ranked in the top five—faltering in a neutral-court game against a team that only appeared in one of the four top-25 rankings.
Simply put: It's not a great matchup for the Cavaliers.
Virginia thrives on controlling the ball, controlling the tempo, preventing second chances, preventing fast breaks and digging in its heels on defense. It's an art that drives opposing teams (and fans of high-scoring affairs) insane, because they know that every possession is both crucial and challenging.
West Virginia, on the other hand, thrives on chaos. The Mountaineers forced more turnovers than any team in the country and corralled offensive rebounds on more than 40 percent of their own misses. If Virginia is a paint by numbers, West Virginia is Dan Dunn's Paintjam—who, ironically, I only know about because he did a halftime show at a UVA game two years ago.
Lest you think that order should prevail over chaos, Virginia really struggled with turnover-forcing defenses last season.
Louisville wasn't nearly the steals machine it was with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, but the Cardinals beat Virginia in the 2015 season finale and came within five points of winning in Virginia in January. Per Kenpom.com, Syracuse ranked 14th in steal percentage last year and forced 20 turnovers in its only game against Virginia. And though the Cavaliers beat VCU by 17 last December, they committed 16 turnovers when they weren't busy shooting a ludicrous 68.3 percent from the field.
Crank the defensive pressure up to 11 and throw in some aggressive offensive rebounding, and West Virginia has a good formula for pulling off the upset.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 12 @ Wichita State
Other Early Scares: Nov. 16 vs. San Diego State, Nov. 21-22 Puerto Rico Tip-Off semis/finals (likely vs. Miami and Butler), Dec. 2 vs. BYU, Dec. 19 vs. Duke
Utah's nonconference schedule is an intriguing mix of extremely challenging and borderline laughable.
Assuming the Utes do draw Miami and Butler in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, 50 percent of their games during the 2015 portion of the season will come against teams that are likely to make the NCAA tournament. But the other 50 percent come against teams with virtually no hope of sniffing any sort of postseason, most (un)notably including Southern Utah, Savannah State, Idaho State and Delaware State. I'll be interested to see what their RPI/SOS numbers look like in March.
Long before then, though, the first three weeks of their season is riddled with land mines. Utah should be favored at home against San Diego State and BYU and is probably the favorite to win in Puerto Rico, but this team could easily have multiple losses before this road game against Wichita State.
Even if the Utes do make it into mid-December without a loss, they have little chance of getting past the Shockers to enter the Sweet 16 rematch with Duke with a zero in the loss column.
Even with Darius Carter fouling out in just 17 minutes, Jakob Poeltl posting a double-double and Delon Wright tallying 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds, Utah needed overtime to eke out a home win over Wichita State this past season. How many tricks will the Utes need up their sleeve to win this one on the road?
Granted, Utah didn't have Jordan Loveridge for that game, but the Utes are expected to be a little worse off without Wright in the picture. Meanwhile, the Shockers might be better than ever with the additions of grad transfer Anton Grady and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp—who will just become eligible for the first time in this game.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 19 @ Virginia
Other Early Scares: Dec. 7 vs. Oklahoma (in Maui)
Now we're getting serious.
Two or three weeks into the season, undefeated teams are a dime a dozen. Despite all the early-season tournaments wrought with carnage, 29 undefeated teams were still standing on Dec. 1, 2014.
Once we get a full month into the season, though, the number of remaining undefeated teams dwindles to the point where we can really dig into the individual schedules and set odds on who lasts the longest without a loss. By mid-December last year, only nine undefeateds were left.
Thus, it speaks volumes to the weakness of Villanova's nonconference schedule that the Wildcats only have one hurdle worth mentioning before mid-December. Certainly, every game on the schedule is a potential stumbling block, but a neutral-court game against Oklahoma is the program's only game against a projected NCAA tournament team until the sixth weekend of the regular season. (Keep this NC SOS in mind when Villanova wins the Big East with a 29-5 record and "still has something to prove" to earn a No. 2 seed.)
To be fair, if I had to pick one team in the country to go into John Paul Jones Arena and upset the Cavaliers, it would probably be Villanova.
To beat Virginia's pack-line defense, you must drive, dish and sink three-pointers. Villanova was one of two teams in the country in 2014-15 to rank in the top 30 nationally in assist percentage, three-point percentage and percentage of field-goal attempts taken from three-point range. The other was Davidson, and those Wildcats darn near messed around and beat Virginia on its home court.
However, after consecutive 30-win seasons and ACC titles, we simply refuse to project a home loss for the Cavaliers. They've earned at least that much respect.
First Projected Loss: Dec. 22 @ San Diego State
Other Early Scares: Nov. 17 vs. Michigan State, Nov. 24-25 Maui Invitational semis/finals (likely vs. UCLA and Indiana), Dec. 12 vs. Oregon State
Kansas has its hands all over this list, as the Jayhawks are the ones responsible for the first projected loss of Michigan State, Indiana and one more yet to come. At some point along the way, though, they need to lose a game of their own.
Like most top teams, Kansas doesn't do much travelling for the first two months of the season. Outside of the Maui Invitational opener against Chaminade, this game against San Diego State is the Jayhawks' only true road game until the second week of the Big 12 schedule.
It's quite the brutal singular road game, though, as the Aztecs are 90-7 at home over the past six seasons. Granted, hardly any of those wins came against a team of Kansas' caliber, but San Diego State did pull off a bit of a shocking upset at Allen Fieldhouse two years ago, so it's far from unthinkable for Steve Fisher to best Bill Self once again.
Will Kansas be able to deal with San Diego State's size? Skylar Spencer is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, and based on the final few weeks of Malik Pope's freshman season, he might not be all that far behind. The Aztecs almost never foul and almost always contest shots, so scoring so much as 60 points against them can be a real challenge.
If Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene, Frank Mason and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk are draining threes, Kansas has a much better chance at winning the game. However, in the past two seasons, 2013-14 Washington is the only team to waltz into the Viejas Arena, attempt at least 10 three-pointers and make at least 40 percent of them, so best of luck relying on the long ball.
Iowa State Cyclones
First Projected Loss: Dec. 22 @ Cincinnati
Other Early Scares: Dec. 10 vs. Iowa, Jan. 2 @ Oklahoma
On the exact same day that Kansas travels to San Diego State, another potentially undefeated Big 12 team has the displeasure of playing a true road game against an elite defense.
For Iowa State, it's the only true road game until that Big 12 opener at Oklahoma. And though the Cyclones have been just about untouchable in Hilton Coliseum over the past several years, they've been quite beatable elsewhere.
Regardless of the location, this is a tough pairing for new head coach Steve Prohm. Even under the new leadership, Iowa State is a team that will continue to thrive in uptempo games. The Cyclones were at their best last season when they could get out and run, posting the second-shortest average possession length on offense and converting on 54.3 percent of their two-point attempts—at least partially due to that propensity for beating the defense down the court.
In the opposite corner, you have the Bearcats. One of the slowest-paced teams in the country, Cincinnati didn't play in a single game with more than 66 possessions in regulation. No matter who they faced, the Bearcats forced them to play at their preferred snail-like pace.
And while Iowa State ranked 11th in the nation in two-point percentage on offense, Cincinnati ranked 11th in the defensive counterpart, holding opponents to 42.2 percent shooting inside the arc. Cincinnati also ranked seventh in the nation in block percentage and rarely committed fouls.
Few teams are capable of slowing down the Cyclones, but the ones that do have the best chance of beating them. They played 10 games last season with 67 possessions or fewer. The results? Four losses, four wins by five points or less and a pair of blowouts over not very good teams (UMKC and Texas Tech).
North Carolina Tar Heels
First Projected Loss: Jan. 4 @ Florida State
Other Early Scares: Dec. 1 vs. Maryland, Dec. 6 vs. Davidson, Dec. 12 @ Texas, Dec. 19 vs. UCLA, Jan. 9 @ Syracuse
Going undefeated into January is an exclusive club. Only six teams got in last year, and three of them (Colorado State, TCU and Villanova) promptly lost on January 3. For teams in power conferences, it isn't quite time to get serious about the 40-0 talk, but it's definitely out there as a possibility if you've lasted more than one-third of the season without a blemish.
If North Carolina can pull it off, it would be both familiar and unfamiliar territory. The Tar Heels haven't even made it into December without a loss in any of their past six seasons, seemingly always suffering an upset in the early-season tournaments. However, in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, they were undefeated at least until the start of ACC play—eventually advancing to the 2008 Final Four and winning it all in 2009.
(It's probably just a coincidence, but how North Carolina fares in November might be worth keeping in mind when filling out those brackets in March.)
Now, the Tar Heels don't have a cakewalk getting into January. In addition to the previously mentioned must-see game against Maryland, they travel to Texas, Coastal Carolina and Northern Iowa, host Davidson and play neutral-court games against UCLA, Temple and Northwestern. They should have at least a 60 percent chance of winning each of those games, but the odds of winning all eight are probably less than 10 percent.
Still, with the game against Maryland already projected as the first loss for the Terrapins, it's tough to pinpoint a specific game that North Carolina will probably lose until travelling to Florida State.
The Seminoles have been giving North Carolina fits for years. Even in that 2009 championship season, the Tar Heels won at FSU by just three points before proceeding to lose to the Seminoles in the ACC semifinals. In fact, the last time North Carolina won at Florida State by more than a six-point margin (in regulation) was in 2005.
Now consider that this might be the most talented roster Florida State has had in several decades. The Seminoles—who have a history of great interior defense, as they ranked in the top six in the nation in block percentage in four consecutive years from 2009 to 2012—have one of the biggest frontcourts in the country, and the Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon backcourt tandem is arguably their bigger strength. They're going to surprise a lot of people this year, but it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone if and when they put an end to North Carolina's quest for a perfect season.
First Projected Loss: Jan. 30 @ Kansas
Other Early Scares: Nov. 17 vs. Duke, Dec. 3 @ UCLA, Dec. 19 vs. Ohio State, Dec. 26 vs. Louisville, Jan. 5 @ LSU
Here we go again.
This Kentucky roster isn't quite as good as the ones that probably should have gone undefeated in 2011-12 and 2014-15, but assuming the Wildcats escape the Champions Classic with a win over Duke, who is going to stop them before the end of January?
UCLA, Ohio State and Louisville are tournament-worthy teams, but they're fringe preseason top 25, at best. The Bruins will be looking for revenge for last year's 41-7 halftime deficit against Kentucky, but there's a not-so-fine line between Skal Labissiere/Jamal Murray and Thomas Welsh/Isaac Hamilton. And anything can happen when the Wildcats and Cardinals get together, but Kentucky is both the better team and at home for the best annual nonconference grudge match in the world.
Maybe Ben Simmons and company can upset the Wildcats on Jan. 5, but so long as they get that far without a loss, this is still the spot they would occupy on our list, as North Carolina is projected to fall on Jan. 4. Also, if (when) Kentucky is going to lose some conference games this year, they're much more likely to come when it plays road games against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida in a span of 10 days at the end of the season.
Even if both teams have already suffered multiple losses, Kentucky @ Kansas is going to be the most hyped-up game of the entire regular season. So, just try to imagine how amped Allen Fieldhouse will be if the Jayhawks have a chance to end Kentucky's perfect season in that one. Even seasoned vets have fallen to pieces in that environment, so how could Kentucky's freshmen possibly be ready for that stage?
Presumably, Cheick Diallo will be playing his 21st game of the season and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will have already established himself as a serious threat on the wing, making Kansas one of the five best teams in the country. We're not expecting a Jayhawks blowout to make up for last year's Champions Classic, but it would be a big surprise if Kentucky is still undefeated in February.
Wichita State Shockers
First Projected Loss: Well...um...
Other Early Scares: Nov. 17 @ Tulsa, Nov. 27 Advocare Invitational Semis (likely vs. Xavier), Nov. 29 Advocare Invitational Finals (likely vs. Notre Dame), Dec. 12 vs. Utah
Here we go again, Part II.
To be the last projected undefeated team in the country requires a certain blend of impeccable talent and favorable scheduling, and the Shockers are loaded in both categories.
On the talent front, Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel are still around for what feels like a 10th straight season. And though they lost Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter, they should be even better off with Cleveland State transfer Anton Grady, Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and freshman forward Markis McDuffie.
They might have had a little more talent in 2012-13 with Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead and the young trio of Baker, VanVleet and Cotton, but the amount of veteran, postseason experience now pulsing through the veins of this backcourt adds an extra dimension of strength and poise that Wichita State has never had before.
Whether you view the Shockers as a top-five or top-15 team, they have a schedule against which any Final Four contender should be capable of running the table. Give a team such as Villanova or Arizona a schedule where a home game against Utah and a possible neutral-court game against Notre Dame are the biggest challenges before playing 21 Missouri Valley Conference games, and we would already be penciling that team in as our third straight 34-0 team.
Why shouldn't Wichita State receive the same treatment, especially considering the Shockers will be out for revenge against both Notre Dame and Utah for losses suffered last season? This is an excellent team facing an unremarkable schedule, and I am already dreading another March spent debating whether Wichita State deserves a No. 1 seed.
(Apologies to Wichita State for all but ensuring a loss to Tulsa on Nov. 17, but someone had to get the kiss of death.)
Stats courtesy of kenpom.com.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.