5 Undefeated Teams Remain in Men's College Basketball. Who Falters Next?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 13, 2019

Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson
Ohio State's Kaleb WessonJay LaPrete/Associated Press

When 2013-14 Wichita State and 2014-15 Kentucky gave us two consecutive years with an undefeated team in the NCAA tournament, it began to feel like it would only be a matter of time before we finally witnessed another flawless champion—which was last accomplished by the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.

However, the past four-plus seasons have made it seem more impossible than ever.

In the first season after Kentucky's magical run, every team in the country ended up with at least five losses. 2016-17 Gonzaga is the only team since the 38-1 Wildcats to win its first 20 games of the season, though after 18 consecutive trips to the Big Dance without making the Final Four, few people gave Mark Few's club any chance of winning it all. The Zags lost to BYU in the regular-season finale anyway.

Considering the Evansville-over-Kentucky and Stephen F. Austin-over-Duke upsets that have already transpired in the first six weeks, there's no way anyone is going to flirt with perfection this year, right?

Well, 348 of the 353 D-I teams have suffered at least one loss, so we're down to just five possible candidates. Let's take a look at each one to see if the odds of running the table are not good like one out of 100 or more like one out of a million.

By the way, I just realized Dumb & Dumber debuted in theaters 25 years ago this month, so that won't be our last reference to one of the greatest, most absurd comedies of all time. Saddle up, partner!

Teams are presented in alphabetical order.

   

Auburn Tigers (8-0, No. 16 on KenPom)

Samir Doughty
Samir DoughtyKathy Willens/Associated Press

Where beautiful women flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I'm talking about a little place called Auburn.

One year after a bit of a surprise run to the Final Four, the Tigers are off to the rockiest start of the remaining undefeateds. They needed two offensive rebounds and a last-second layup to survive against South Alabama, and then they had to erase a 14-point second-half deficit just to force overtime in a home win over Furman.

Auburn has not yet to face a major-conference opponent, but it has already endured a few scares.

Still, this team is better than expected, given how much it lost from last year's magical group. In the absence of Chuma Okeke, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, it has been Samir Doughty and J'Von McCormick emerging as the senior leaders in the backcourt and freshman Isaac Okoro doing most of the scoring in the paint.

Will it hold up or will it crumble at the first sight of a real opponent?

All we know for sure thus far is it will be a different look for the Tigers. Last year's team thrived on steals and jacked up threes at an insatiable rate. This team is shooting 33 percent from downtown, is shooting the deep ball less often and ranks below the national average in steals percentage. That makes Auburn less erratic, but also less dangerous.

A perfect season isn't happening, but this hot start might last for at least another month. The upcoming home game against NC State (Dec. 19) and road game against Mississippi State (Jan. 4) could be tricky, but those are certainly winnable. It's not until the road test against Florida (Jan. 18) that things start getting tough. So perhaps they get to 16-0 before letting one slip away.

   

Duquesne Dukes (8-0, No. 67 on KenPom)

Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot
Duquesne head coach Keith DambrotKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

Out with the bad, in with the good! But let me make one thing perfectly clear: Duquesne is not going undefeated. If you can look at this team and see a 40-0 record, you've probably been sucking back on grandpa's old cough medicine.

The Dukes are 8-0 primarily because they have yet to play a true road game, nor have they faced a KenPom Top 100 opponent. Speaking of KenPom, the Dukes are a projected underdog in five of their remaining games, including probable losses at Dayton and VCU. And even the games they're supposed to win are far from guarantees. Their win probability is below 80 percent in 17 out of 22 games.

That said, this 8-0 start is worthy of recognition, because there have been a lot of seasons over the past quarter-century in which Duquesne barely got to eight wins. They did have an incomprehensible 11-game winning streak in the middle of the 2010-11 season, but this is still only the second time since 1971-72 that the Dukes have had an eight-game winning streak at any point in a season. Regardless of strength of schedule, bravo.

And the Dukes have done this despite losing Eric Williams Jr.their best player in each of the last two seasonsas a transfer to Oregon. They also lost last year's primary three-point shooter (Frankie Hughes) to a season-ending knee injury in September.

However, Keith Dambrot has been building momentum since taking over this program in 2016. They went .500 in his first season and went 19-13 last year with a roster comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. And let's just say they haven't been the type of highly touted freshmen and sophomores that Duke and Kentucky lean on every year.

Given how deplorably weak this nonconference schedule has been, it'd be a bit premature to start thinking about ending an NCAA tournament drought that dates back to 1977. It is feasible that Duquesne will be the last undefeated team standing, though.

Liberty still has two difficult road games in December. Ohio State plays a neutral-site game against Kentucky on Dec. 21, and that one could go either way. Auburn and San Diego State play challenging road games against Mississippi State and Utah State, respectively, on Jan. 4. And the first of the aforementioned five underdog games for Duquesne doesn't arrive until Jan. 22 at Rhode Island.

        

Liberty Flames (11-0, No. 72 on KenPom)

Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay
Liberty head coach Ritchie McKayEzra Shaw/Getty Images

If I know Liberty as well as I think I do, it'll invite us right in for tea and strumpets.

This team is the ultimate wild card in this endeavor.

The Flames are, by far, the least likely to make it through the rest of December with a zero in the loss column. Not only do they have a likely loss at LSU on the 29th, they also have a coin-flip game at Vanderbilt on the 14th and a potentially tricky neutral-site game against Towson on the 20th.

Per KenPom projections, there's only a 9.1 percent chance they go 3-0 in those games. Every other remaining undefeated team has at least a 30 percent chance of still being a part of this club on January 1.

And yet, Liberty has the best odds of getting to its conference tournament with an undefeated record, because it is going to be the clear favorite in every Atlantic Sun game.

Using KenPom projections again, Liberty has a 6.3 percent chance of winning every regular-season game on the 2020 portion of its schedule. The next-closest is San Diego State at 0.7 percent.

Multiply that 6.3 percent chance for January-March with the aforementioned 9.1 percent chance in December and it's 0.57 percentotherwise read as a 1-in-173 possibilitythat Liberty goes undefeated into its conference tournament. The next-best odds belong to San Diego State at 0.485 percent (1-in-206).

But if we're talking odds of becoming an undefeated national champion, Liberty goes right back near the bottom of the pile.

Duquesne is certainly in last place in that category, but the Flames effectively have a zero percent chance, as well. Maybe they could make it into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, because their defense is no joke. But their odds of winning four consecutive neutral-site games against title contenders must be significantly worse than their 1-in-173 odds of not losing between now and early March.

      

Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0, No. 1 on KenPom)

Luther Muhammad (1) and Duane Washington (4)
Luther Muhammad (1) and Duane Washington (4)Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Nice set of shooters you got there.

The Buckeyes couldn't buy a bucket last year and haven't been a particularly good perimeter shooting team since leading the nation in three-point percentage in 2010-11. They have been on fire early on in this season, though.

Duane Washington Jr. is the team leader in both makes (22) and percentage (53.7) on three-point attempts, but Ohio State has five guys shooting at least 38 percent while making at least one per game. It's almost as if the Buckeyes pulled some aliens-from-Space-Jam stunt when they blew out Villanova a month ago, because they have been doing a fine Wildcats impression in shooting better than 40 percent while taking more than 40 percent of their shots from downtown.

But defense is this team's calling card. Penn State put up some points against the Buckeyes in Saturday's 106-74 blowout, but they held each of their first eight opponents below 60. Kaleb Wesson and freshman E.J. Liddell have been spectacular on that end of the floor.

Hard to argue that there is a more well-rounded team in the country right now.

How far can the Buckeyes make it through the Big Ten gauntlet, though?

They'll have two games against Maryland, the first of which is a road game on January 7. Also two games against Michigan, two games against Indiana and a rematch at Penn State, which won a home game against previously undefeated Maryland on Tuesday. Don't forget the home game against Purdue, too. And even if they somehow make it through all that, the Buckeyes close out the regular season with a road game against Michigan State.

Hell, it's not even safe to assume Ohio State makes it to January with an undefeated record. It wraps up 2019 with the game against Kentucky in Las Vegas and a neutral-site game against West Virginia in Cleveland. Throw in this weekend's road game against Minnesota and, great as it may be, Ohio State only has about a 40 percent chance of getting to 13-0.

This is easily the best of the five undefeateds, but it's still a longer than long shot to go 40-0.

      

San Diego State Aztecs (10-0, No. 32 on KenPom)

Malachi Flynn
Malachi FlynnDavid Becker/Associated Press

Mal! Yeah!

A! Yeah!

Chi! Yeah!

Yeah! Yeah!

Malachi Flynn everybody have you heard...

Listen, I know it's bad, but it was either that or some play on Aztec/Aspen or Dutcher/Du Jour. Sparks flew. Emotions ran high. And Flynn has been every bit as good with San Diego State as he was with Washington State two years ago.

In the big wins over Creighton and Iowa in the Las Vegas Invitational, Flynn went for 49 points on 27 field-goal attempts with seven rebounds, seven assists, five steals and just three turnovers.

It's largely because of Flynn and former Vanderbilt center Yanni Wetzell that these Aztecs currently have their highest teamwide effective field-goal percentage (52.6) of the KenPom era.

And it's largely because of the schedule that this is arguably the team most likely to get to Selection Sunday without a loss. (Granted, "most likely" is still extremely unlikely.)

The only game San Diego State is projected to lose is on Jan. 4 at Utah State, and even that's a coin flip with a projected score of 68-66. The Aztecs already survived their two toughest tests of the season, winning at BYU and the 10-point win over Iowa in Vegas. They should continue stacking up W's at this point.

Life in the Mountain West can get rockier than you might expect, though.

Since its inception in 1999-2000, there has never been a team that went undefeated in MWC play. 2004-05 Utah with national player of the year Andrew Bogut is still the only team to make it through conference play while only suffering one loss. Just last year, Nevada was supposed to be a 40-0 candidate, but it went 15-3 and lost in the conference tournament.

Maybe the Aztecs can break the mold, but it's more likely that the MWC will eventually break them.

In conclusion, no one is going undefeated, but you already knew that. However, hopefully you learned a little something about the five teams that will be popping up on ESPN's in-game graphics on a nightly basis until they suffer that first loss. If not, my friend Harry and I have every intention of reimbursing you with I.O.U.'s.

                                  

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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