Who Will Be the Last Undefeated Team in 2016-17 CBB Season?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 8, 2016

Who Will Be the Last Undefeated Team in 2016-17 CBB Season?

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    Josh Hart has Villanova out to a great start.
    Josh Hart has Villanova out to a great start.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Less than four weeks ago, there were 351 men's college basketball teams with dreams of going undefeated.

    We're already down to nine, and it would be a surprise if there are more than four still standing on New Year's Day.

    Using KenPom.com's projected winning percentages as a guide, we've ranked each of the remaining zero-loss teams in ascending order of likelihood of lasting the longest before suffering a lossif they suffer one, at all.

    What? Just because Duke lost a game you thought you would get through the year without having to hear that a team might go undefeated?

    KenPom has Villanova projected as the favorite in every game it plays this season. KenPom also gives both Gonzaga and Saint Mary's a better than 2 percent chance of entering the West Coast Conference tournament with nothing but victories.

    We're not saying it will happen. We're just saying it could. And that's why you'll at least scroll through to the end to see just how likely that is.

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Bonzie Colson should be in the MVP conversation.
    Bonzie Colson should be in the MVP conversation.Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 5.1

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 0.01

    Upcoming Challenges: vs. Villanova (Dec. 10), vs. Purdue (Dec. 17), at Pitt (Dec. 31), vs. Louisville (Jan. 4), vs. Clemson (Jan. 7), at Miami (Jan. 12), at Virginia Tech (Jan. 14)

    First Projected Loss: Dec. 10

    Despite losing leading scorers Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from last year's team, Notre Dame somehowwithout any transfershas one of the most veteran lineups in the ACC. Both V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia have been fantastic as seniors, both averaging better than 16 points per game. Matt Farrell has come out of seemingly nowhere as a junior to average better than 12 points and five assists per game.

    But I want to talk about Bonzie Colson, because he literally should not be doing the things he's doing.

    After recording his sixth consecutive double-double in Tuesday night's win over IPFW, Notre Dame's junior "big" man is averaging 17.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. In the past seven years, there have only been two players from major-conference schools that averaged at least 17 points and 11 rebounds per game: Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Ben Simmons (LSU). Of the two, Robinson is shortest at 6'9".

    Colson, however, is only 6'5", but he's built like a bowling ball and has the rebounding instincts of Dennis Rodman. And as the only true frontcourt player in Notre Dame's starting lineup, he's hauling in a ton of boards against guys that are supposed to have a distinct size advantage against him.

    Perhaps even more impressive than Colson's double-double average is his free-throw shooting. As a physical forward, he ends up at the charity stripe often, and he's making opponents pay for it, draining 44 of his 48 attempts (91.7 percent) thus far this season.

    Feel free to vote for Frank Mason, Luke Kennard or Joel Berry II as the early National Player of the Year, but if Colson (and Notre Dame) play like this for much longer, he'll be right there in the mix. At any rate, there might not be a player in the nation who is more valuable to his team than Colson is to the Fighting Irish.

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    P.J. Dozier has been a sensational sophomore for South Carolina.
    P.J. Dozier has been a sensational sophomore for South Carolina.Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 18.2

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 0.1

    Upcoming Challenges: vs. Seton Hall (Dec. 12), vs. Clemson (Dec. 21), at Memphis (Dec. 30), at Georgia (Jan. 4), vs. Texas A&M (Jan. 7), at Tennessee (Jan. 11)

    First Projected Loss: Dec. 12

    The Gamecocks were one of the last undefeated teams standing last year, but some lot of good it did them. After a 15-0 start, they lost eight of their next 17 games and missed the NCAA tournament.

    However, their 8-0 start to this season is already more impressive than their two-month winning streak, because it comes with emphatic, marquee wins over Michigan and Syracuse.

    Leveraging one of the best defenses in the nation, South Carolina held the Wolverines and the Orange to a combined 96 points on 127 possessions. They shot a nearly unfathomable 29.1 percent from inside the arc and each coughed up the ball at least 16 times.

    What's particularly ridiculous about those numbers is that Michigan shot 70.0 percent from two-point range and committed just four turnovers in a 22-point win over SMU the game before facing South Carolina. That might be the most night-and-day pair of performances in back-to-back games that we see all season.

    With leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell suspended indefinitely, South Carolina may acquire a handful of losses before the start of SEC play, beginning with Monday's neutral-court game against Seton Hall. But if the Gamecocks survive into January with an undefeated record, they can thank their top-10 defense and the drastically improved play of P.J. Dozier.

    Rated as a 5-star recruit in last year's class, Dozier had high expectations. Instead, he was one of the least efficient players in the entire country, posting an O-rating of 78.9. Thus far, though, both his three-point percentage and his steal percentage are nearly double what they were last year. He has at least 15 points, six rebounds and three steals in each of his last three games and is quickly emerging as one of the most valuable sophomores in the nation.

7. UCLA Bruins

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    Lonzo Ball has UCLA near the top of the AP rankings.
    Lonzo Ball has UCLA near the top of the AP rankings.James Crisp/Associated Press

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 16.9

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 1.9

    Upcoming Challenges: vs. Michigan (Dec. 10), vs. Ohio State (Dec. 17), at Oregon (Dec. 28), at Colorado (Jan. 12), at Utah (Jan. 14)

    First Projected Loss: Dec. 28

    We expected UCLA to be much better than it was last season, but no one thought the Bruins would be "Win at Rupp Arena" good.

    There is not a more enjoyable team in the country to watch right now. UCLA plays at a fast, efficient pace and shares the rock like its life depends upon it. Five guysincluding 6'10" power forward T.J. Leafare shooting better than 41 percent from three-point range. Everyone on the roster is shooting at least 50 percent from inside the arc.

    Aside from occasional spurts where Lonzo Ball tries to do too much or the slightly sloppy play when he's not on the floor, there's not a single rational complaint you can make about this offense. Those shooting percentages will eventually regress to some degree, but UCLA's offense could give 2014-15 Wisconsin a run for its money as the prettiest of this generation.

    When the Bruins eventually lose their first game, though, it'll be because of their defense. UCLA doesn't force turnovers, it isn't particularly strong on the defensive glass and it hasn't defended well on the perimeter in nearly a decade.

    In close wins over Nebraska, Texas A&M and Kentucky, the Bruins forced an average of 9.0 turnovers (one for every 8.2 defensive possessions) and corralled less than two out of every three possible defensive rebounds. Fortunately, those three opponents shot a combined 30.0 percent from three-point range while the Bruins shot better than 43 percent, but eventually an opponent will make the Bruins pay in all three of those areas.

    Even at that point, though, it just becomes a race to see which team can outscore the other. As long as the offense keeps showing up, UCLA can keep beating anyone, anywhere.

6. USC Trojans

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    Jordan McLaughlin and USC are defying expectations for a second straight year.
    Jordan McLaughlin and USC are defying expectations for a second straight year.Leon Bennett/Getty Images

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 13.8

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 0.3

    Upcoming Challenges: at Oregon State (Dec. 28), at Oregon (Dec. 30), vs. Stanford (Jan. 5), vs. California (Jan. 8), at Utah (Jan. 12), at Colorado (Jan. 15)

    First Projected Loss: Dec. 30

    Back in September, Rob Dauster of NBC Sports wrote a painfully premature eulogy for USC's 2016-17 season, citing unexpected transfers and draft decisions as the main reasons "USC is still a year away from hitting [its] peak."

    But adding Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron and stud freshman De'Anthony Melton was just what the doctor ordered. They are two of six Trojans averaging at least 10 points per game in the process of scoring wins over Texas A&M, SMU and BYU.

    Melton has been particularly valuable on the defensive end, ranking fourth in the nation in steal percentage. He has multiple steals in all but one game, multiple assists in every game and at least five rebounds in six of USC's eight wins. That's one heck of a total package to be able to bring in off the bench night after night.

    Unfortunately, the Trojans will be without one of their six primary guys for at least another month, as the team announced last week that Bennie Boatwright will miss up to six weeks with a knee sprain. This is where all those lost transfers and draft declarers will be most missed. More playing time for freshmen Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic should be beneficial in the long run, though.

    And as long as their starting backcourt duo keeps performing, the Trojans will be in good shape. Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart aren't exactly setting the nets on fire, but they have been consistently strong as the veteran juniors in this rotation.

    USC still has a lot to prove in Pac-12 play, but this team is alive and well, defying expectations for a second straight season.

5. Creighton Bluejays

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    Marcus Foster is thriving in his new home.
    Marcus Foster is thriving in his new home.Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 21.1

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 0.2

    Upcoming Challenges: at Arizona State (Dec. 20), vs. Seton Hall (Dec. 28), vs. Villanova (Dec. 31), at Providence (Jan. 7), vs. Butler (Jan. 11), at Xavier (Jan. 16)

    First Projected Loss: Dec. 31

    Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster is lighting up the scoreboard for Creighton. He's averaging 19.4 points per game and has scored at least 15 in each of his eight outings. The entire team is shooting well, but he has been particularly impressive, converting on 43.4 percent of three-point attempts and 59.3 percent of two-pointerscompared to 37.3 and 44.7, respectively, with the Wildcats.

    But everyone expected Foster to make a major impact. Maybe we didn't realize he'd be battling Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss) and Rodney Pryor (Georgetown) for title of highest-scoring, major-conference transfer in the country, but Foster's arrival was one of the main reasons Creighton appeared on most of the preseason AP Top 25 ballots.

    Khyri Thomas and Justin Patton as the second- and third-leading scorers, though, has been a pleasant surprise and the biggest reason the Bluejays have been unbeatable thus far.

    Thomas played well as a freshman, averaging 6.3 points and shooting 41.8 percent from downtown as a starter for most of the season. However, no one was projecting this type of breakout campaign. He has been their best shooter, their best on-ball defender and arguably their most important asset.

    And the only reason there might be an argument on that last point is because Patton has been just as great in his own right, making 81.1 percent of his two-point attempts while leading the team in rebounds and blocks. The redshirt freshman has scored in double figures in every game, even though he's only averaging 23.6 minutes per night.

    Because of the emergence of that duo, Maurice Watson Jr. has finally gotten the opportunity to settle into the role of pass-first point guard. The former transfer from Boston University has always been an assist machine, but he's taking it to a whole new level this year with 11.8 assists per 40 minutes. He's still one of their leading scorers, but Creighton doesn't need him to be both its top passer and top scorer, as was the case last year. And everything is flowing exponentially smoother as a result.

    *Stats on this slide do not include Wednesday night's win over Nebraska.

4. Baylor Bears

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    Manu Lecomte is killing it for undefeated Baylor.
    Manu Lecomte is killing it for undefeated Baylor.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 52.9

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 1.7

    Upcoming Challenges: at Oklahoma (Dec. 30), vs. Iowa State (Jan. 4), at West Virginia (Jan. 10), at Kansas State (Jan. 14)

    First Projected Loss: Jan. 10

    Based on difficulty of schedule, Baylor is one of the last major-conference teams I thought we'd be discussing among the undefeateds in early December.

    The Bears caught a bit of a break by facing Oregon without Dillon Brooks, but considering they won that game by 17 points and proceeded to beat VCU, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier, they probably would have beaten the preseason Pac-12 favorites either way.

    What's most impressive about Baylor's hot start is this is currently the worst three-point shooting team Scott Drew has had since inheriting a program in shambles in 2003. The Bears are shooting just 34.3 percent with Manu Lecomte (17-of-43) and Al Freeman (12-of-31) serving as the only remotely reliable sources for long ballsand Lecomte went 1-of-12 in the Battle 4 Atlantis and wasn't doing much of anything until draining 6-of-9 against Xavier this past Saturday.

    Rather, Jo Lual-Acuil has been their knight in shining armor, leading the nation in block percentage while making better than 64 percent of his two-point attempts. The big JUCO transfer has yet to record a double-double at the D-I level, but it wouldn't be too shocking if he eventually puts up a triple-double, as he is averaging 9.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game.

    Ish Wainright has also been an unsung hero for the Bears. The senior doesn't shoot much and is only averaging 5.8 points per game, but his assist, rebound, steal and turnover rates have each improved drastically from last year. He's the type of player whose impact can only properly be summed up with advanced stats, so it bears (no pun intended) mentioning that his 13.7 box plus/minus is a 65 percent increase from last season and puts him in third place in the Big 12 in that category.

    And, oh by the way, Johnathan Motley is one of the most dominant power forwards in the entire country and is going to absolutely feast on Big 12 opponents for the next several months.

    It does need to be noted that Baylor has yet to play a true road game, which is where weaknesses tend to get exposed. From what we've seen thus far, though, the Bears are a strong candidate for the 2017 Final Four.

3. Saint Mary's Gaels

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    Joe Rahon drives baseline against Stanford.
    Joe Rahon drives baseline against Stanford.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 62.1

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 11.3

    Upcoming Challenges: at Loyola Marymount (Dec. 29), vs. BYU (Jan. 5), at Portland (Jan. 12), at Gonzaga (Jan. 14)

    First Projected Loss: Jan. 14

    If you live east of the Rockies, there's a good chance you haven't seen Saint Mary's play yet this year.

    The Gaels didn't play in an early-season tournament. Their season opener against Nevada wasn't nationally televised and tipped off at 11 p.m. on the East Coast. Their best game of the season (at Dayton) started in the middle of a Saturday afternoon during a big week of college football. And unless you're one of the lucky few that gets the Pac-12 Network, last Wednesday's game at Stanford wasn't even an option for you to watch.

    But let it be known that this is one of the most efficient offenses for a second consecutive season.

    This shouldn't be a surprise, since the Gaels have almost entirely the same roster as last year. They still shoot lights out from the field at a snail-like pace. They don't force many turnovers, but they don't commit them, either. And they share the rock about as well as any team in the country, averaging an assist on better than two out of every three made field goals.

    The one big difference that should elevate them from 2016 NIT to 2017 NCAA contender is Jock Landale. The big man led the team in points per 40 minutes last year, but he only played 14.5 minutes per game. His playing time has more than doubled this season and he is averaging 19.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting a mind-boggling 79.4 percent from inside the arc.

    In last Wednesday's 15-point road win over Stanford, Landale was 6-of-6 from two-point range and led all players with eight defensive rebounds, and it was arguably his least impressive performance of the season.

    According to KenPom.com, there are only two games left in the regular season in which Saint Mary's has less than an 82 percent chance of winningboth games against Gonzaga. The Gaels missed out on the NCAA tournament with a 27-5 record last year, but 30-2 would more than do the trick this Selection Sunday.

2. Villanova Wildcats

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    Kris Jenkins (2), Josh Hart (3) and Mikal Bridges (25) have repeat on the brain.
    Kris Jenkins (2), Josh Hart (3) and Mikal Bridges (25) have repeat on the brain.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 42.6

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 6.1

    Upcoming Challenges: vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 10), at Creighton (Dec. 31), at Butler (Jan. 4), at Marquette (Jan. 24), vs. Virginia (Jan. 29), at Xavier (Feb. 11)

    First Projected Loss: Feb. 11

    The newly minted No. 1 Wildcats got more of a fight than they bargained for against La Salle on Tuesday night, but they improved to 9-0 to remain in the hunt for the title of last undefeated team standing.

    To the surprise of no one, Josh Hart has been marvelous. Kris Jenkins had the most valuable play of the national championship game, but Hart was the MVP for Villanova last year. That hasn't changed one bit, as he's currently averaging 17.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, including a triple-double against Saint Joseph's this past weekend.

    A lot of people forgot about or neglected Hart in their preseason player of the year nominations, but KenPom.com has him at No. 1 early in the season after finishing No. 5 last year

    Not far behind Hart in terms of value to this team is his presumed successor, Mikal Bridges. The uber-versatile sophomore forward is the definition of a stat-sheet stuffer. He doesn't take many shotsless than 10 per 40 minutesbut he impacts the game in so many ways, averaging 11.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals. And when he does shoot, he's lethal. Bridges has made 40.7 percent of his three-point attempts and 81.8 percent of his shots from inside the arc.

    That versatility has become a trademark of this team. Hart, Bridges, Jenkins and even Eric Paschall are virtually interchangeable, capable of playing any of the wing or frontcourt positions. With the exception of Darryl Reynoldswho has been a solid replacement for Daniel Ochefu in the paintevery regular in Villanova's rotation is averaging at least 3.0 three-point attempts per game.

    Pray tell, how do you stop the Wildcats other than hope they start missing their jumpers? Opposing teams almost need a sixth defender to be able to contain all of the options in this spread offense. They'll eventually have a game or four where they can't buy a triple and suffer a loss, but there's a very real possibility Villanova repeats as national champs.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Nigel Williams-Goss (5) and Josh Perkins (13) just might run the table.
    Nigel Williams-Goss (5) and Josh Perkins (13) just might run the table.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Jan. 1: 57.4

    Percent Chance Undefeated on Feb. 1: 18.0

    Upcoming Challenges: vs. Tennessee (Dec. 18), vs. Saint Mary's (Jan. 14), at BYU (Feb. 2), at Saint Mary's (Feb. 11)

    First Projected Loss: March?

    Entering Wednesday night's game against Washington, there were six Bulldogs averaging at least 9.0 points per game.

    Five of those guys weren't even playing for this team 12 months ago.

    Transfers were the big story for Gonzaga coming into this season. Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (California) and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) were each expected to be major contributors from major-conference schools, and they have not disappointed. Mathews started hot, draining nine triples in his first two games. Williams was the MVP in the quality win over Florida. And Williams-Goss has at least 10 points or eight assists in every game this season.

    Big fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski has also been a major "addition," returning from back surgery that cost him all but five games last season. He had 22 points in 20 minutes earlier this season against Bryant and was an unstoppable force in Saturday's win over Arizona.

    The best pickup, though, was 7'0" freshman Zach Collins. Karnowski's backup is only playing 16.8 minutes per game, but he has averaged 26.6 points and 13.7 rebounds per 40 minutes. Between Karnowski and Collins, Gonzaga's center is averaging 37.2 minutes, 22.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 blocks per game.

    Factor in Josh Perkins leading the team in scoring as a sophomore and this is more than just one of the best teams that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. This is one of the top candidates to win the 2017 national championship.

    Now that the Zags have survived their early tests against San Diego State, Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, it's time to start entertaining the possibility that this team could go undefeated.

    They only scheduled 12 non-conference games, so their best-case scenario is 39-0 rather than 40-0. But with little more than a few games against Saint Mary's and BYU standing in their way before the NCAA tournament, Gonzaga has a better chance of winning 39 games this year than any other team does.

    *Stats on this slide do not include Wednesday night's win over Washington.

                      

    Percent chance undefeated data calculated from KenPom.com projections on morning of Wednesday, December 7.

    Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports-Reference.com. Recruiting information is courtesy of Scout.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.