Predicting When Every Undefeated Men's College Basketball Team Will Lose

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 8, 2021

Predicting When Every Undefeated Men's College Basketball Team Will Lose

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    Purdue's Trevion Williams
    Purdue's Trevion WilliamsMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    The 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs came ever so close to becoming the first undefeated men's college basketball national champion since 1976, but they fell short in the national championship game.

    Will anyone be able to carry an undefeated record into the 2022 NCAA tournament for what would be the fourth time in nine years (joining 2021 Gonzaga, 2015 Kentucky and 2014 Wichita State)?

    Heck, will anyone even make it into February with a goose egg in the loss column?

    The season is only 29 days old, and we're already down to 12 remaining undefeated teamsonly two of which (Purdue and Baylor) are ranked in the AP Top 10. And even though those might be the two best teams in the country, the rigors of Big Ten/Big 12 play will likely saddle them with at least one loss.

    It's always a fun parlor game at this time of year to try to figure out when those final few undefeated teams will suffer their first losses. But read fast, because four of them are probably going down by Thursday night.

    Teams are listed in chronological order of when the first loss is expected to happen.

Will Lose Within the Next Week

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    Iowa State's Izaiah Brockington
    Iowa State's Izaiah BrockingtonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Wyoming Cowboys (8-0)

    at Arizona, Wednesday

    It's fun that two of the remaining unbeatens will square off Wednesday night, but don't count on Wyoming to emerge the victor at Arizona. The Cowboys did win an overtime game at Washington earlier this year, but barely beating the worst Pac-12 team can hardly be considered a precursor to beating what might be the best team in that league.

    The biggest key to Wyoming's success has been its size in the paint. The Cowboys are shooting 59.1 percent inside the arc while limiting their competition to 42.8 percent. Unfortunately, Arizona is the second-tallest team in the country, per KenPom.com, and it has been even better in both of those categories59.6 and 37.6, respectively. Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis figure to feast on this mid-major frontcourt.

            

    Weber State Wildcats (8-0)

    at Washington State, Wednesday

    We could be saying goodbye to two undefeateds simultaneously, as Weber State's Wednesday night matchup with Washington State tips off at the same time as Wyoming-Arizona.

    This one is nowhere near as much of a lock for the Pac-12 team, considering Washington State already has a home loss to a Big Sky team this season (Eastern Washington). But the Cougars should also win this game in the paint.

    Marquette and Utah State fans will recognize Weber State's leading scorer Koby McEwen, as he played for both schools. If he catches fire from distance, maybe the Wildcats have a shot. However, Washington State should control the glass on both ends of the floor.

                         

    Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-0)

    vs. Michigan State, Wednesday; at Michigan, Saturday

    Before Sunday's impressive 81-76 road win over Mississippi State, offense had been a struggle for the Golden Gophers. They scored just 55 against Jacksonville and 54 against Pittsburgh in consecutive contests but somehow still managed to win those games against lackluster competition.

    Back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan will be a much different story, especially given how good the Spartans have been on defense. Maybe the Gophers will be able to work a split in what figures to be a pair of rock fights, but getting to 9-0 feels unlikely at best.

                

    Iowa State Cyclones (8-0)

    vs. Iowa, Thursday

    After going 2-22 last fall, Iowa State has been such a pleasant surprise. By no small margin, the Cyclones were the least likely candidate to win the NIT Season Tip-Off, but that didn't stop them from upsetting both Xavier and Memphis in Brooklyn. They also picked up an unexpected road win over Creighton last weekend.

    But beating Iowa is likely asking too much.

    Forcing turnovers has been a huge part of Iowa State's early success, and giving the ball away is simply not in Iowa's DNA. The Hawkeyes led the nation in offensive turnover percentage last year, and they have been even stingier with those mistakes this season. And without a significant edge in points off turnovers, I don't see the Cyclones keeping pace in this year's installment of the Cy-Hawk series.

Will Lose Before Jan. 1

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    Arizona's Azuolas Tubelis
    Arizona's Azuolas TubelisRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Arizona Wildcats (7-0)

    at Illinois, Saturday; at Tennessee, Dec. 22; at UCLA, Dec. 30

    While Arizona will almost certainly end Wyoming's undefeated dream this week, it is highly unlikely that the Wildcats will make it into 2022 with a zero in the loss column.

    And that's not a slight against them, but rather an acknowledgment of how incredibly difficult their December schedule is. True road games against Illinois, Tennessee and UCLA is a gauntlet.

    I do think Arizona will win the Illinois game, as the Illini are nowhere near what we were expecting them to be. (Get well soon, Andre Curbelo.) But either Tennessee's relentless defense or UCLA's efficient offense will likely result in an Arizona L.

    By the way, if the Wildcats do happen to survive those three tests, a road game against USC is waiting for them on Jan. 2. Stranger things have happened, but the odds of winning all four of those games are slim to none.

               

    Colorado State Rams (9-0)

    vs. Alabama, Dec. 21

    Colorado State has a very "2019-20 BYU" sort of vibe going on with the super high shooting percentages, the minimal turnover rates, the complete disregard for offensive rebounding and the defense that leaves something to be desired. And just so we're clear, that's a compliment. That BYU team was likely headed for a No. 5 seed and felt like a Final Four sleeper before the pandemic shut everything down.

    This team led by David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens has the potential for a deep run in March.

    But a road game against Alabama sure profiles as a bad matchup for the Rams. The Crimson Tide will gladly take advantage of a defense that allows a lot of three-point looks, they will likely dominate the rebounding battle and they will make it difficult for Colorado State to get open looks from the perimeter.

    But if I'm wrong and Colorado State wins in Birmingham, it might be a good while before the Rams do lose. Both Utah State and San Diego State could beat them, but they don't play their road games against the Aggies and the Aztecs until Feb. 26 and March 1, respectively.

                  

    LSU Tigers (8-0)

    at Auburn, Dec. 29

    LSU has not yet played a true road game, nor has it faced a KenPom Top 50 opponent. It won't do either of those things until opening SEC play at Auburn in late December in what might be a rude awakening for the Bayou Bengals.

    Thus far, they have been aggressively outstanding on defense, feasting on blocks and steals against opponents scoring 53.8 points per game. But Auburn is also thriving with turnover-forcing and shot-altering defense, and it is doing so with several more NBA-bound players than LSU has.

    Freshman Jabari Smith has been sensational, North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler is a shot-blocking phenom and Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson has been a revelation in the backcourt. That trio at home against an LSU team that hasn't been all that efficient on offense should be enough for an Auburn win.

San Francisco Dons

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    San Francisco's Jamaree Bouyea
    San Francisco's Jamaree BouyeaYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    First Projected Loss: at Saint Mary's (Jan. 1) or at Gonzaga (Jan. 6)

    Other Feasible Losses: vs. Fresno State (Wednesday), vs. Grand Canyon (Dec. 18), at Arizona State (Dec. 19)

    San Francisco (9-0) could lose any of the games on the docket in the next four weeks. Even the Academy of Art won a game at UC Davis by 19 points earlier this season and might not be a walk in the park.

    But the Dons will at least make it into January before suffering their first loss.

    Fifth-year lead guard Jamaree Bouyea has been a sensational leader for this veteran rotation, averaging nearly 20 points per game. They're one of the best in the nation at limiting second-chance opportunities, and they do a great job of aggressively defending the perimeterthey don't force many turnovers, but they make you work for every inch of space to get off a shot.

    It's just a question of when the deep ball lets them down.

    If you'll recall, San Francisco shot 13-of-28 from downtown in a stunning upset of Virginia early last season, and launching threes is still this team's M.O., averaging 28.3 attempts per game. The Dons have made at least 33 percent of those shots in each game, but that luck will run out. And it'll probably happen on New Year's Day against a Saint Mary's defense that has consistently ranked among the best in the nation in defensive three-point rate and defensive assist rate.

    Even if the Dons get past the Gaels, the subsequent road game against Gonzaga is all but doomed to be a loss. San Francisco is better than usual, but it has also lost 32 consecutive road games against the Zags, who are also quite good this year.

Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Arkansas' JD Notae
    Arkansas' JD NotaeMichael Woods/Associated Press

    First Projected Loss: at LSU (Jan. 15)

    Other Feasible Losses: vs. Oklahoma (Saturday), at Mississippi State (Dec. 29), at Texas A&M (Jan. 8)

    The incredible thing about Arkansas' 8-0 start is that it has had some dreadful luck in the three-point defense department. The Razorbacks' first three opponents shot a combined 43-of-99 from beyond the arc. By comparison, the Hogs have made just 48-of-166 attempts for the season.

    Outside that, there's not much fault to be found here. Transfers Au'Diese Toney (Pitt) and Chris Lykes (Miami) have been great additions for a team that is winning both the rebounding and turnover battle in just about every game.

    The big unknown for Arkansas is whether JD Notae can lead the way against quality competition.

    Notae was a microwave scorer off the bench last season, averaging nearly 23 points per 40 minutes. And he has pretty well maintained that pace while playing considerably more minutes per game. However, against Arkansas' only two opponents of noteKansas State and Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classiche scored just 24 points on 34 field-goal attempts.

    If that happens against Oklahoma, Mississippi State or Texas A&M, Arkansas has minimal hope of making it into mid-January with a zero in the loss column.

    If the Razorbacks do get that far, though, the road game against LSU figures to be their undoing. This offense struggled with the physical defenses of Kansas State and Cincinnati, and LSU is considerably more imposing than either of those teams. Trying to score in the paint against the Tigers is a nightmare, and Arkansas doesn't appear to have the perimeter game to shoot its way to such a road win.

Baylor Bears

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    Baylor's Kendall Brown
    Baylor's Kendall BrownTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    First Projected Loss: at Alabama (Jan 29) or at Kansas (Feb. 5)

    Other Feasible Losses: vs. Villanova (Sunday), at Oregon (Dec. 18), at Iowa State (Jan. 1), at West Virginia (Jan. 18), at Oklahoma (Jan. 22)

    One year removed from winning a national championship while ranking among the best in the nation at steals, offensive rebounds and three-point percentage, Baylor is doing its darndest to follow that same blueprint despite substantial roster changes.

    The Bears definitely still have the steals and the rebounds down pat. They're averaging 11.5 of the former and 13.8 of the latter, resulting in nearly 15 more field-goal attempts per game than they allow. And while the three-point shooting isn't nearly what it was last year, it's coming along nicely after a slow start.

    So how do you beat that team?

    You keep live-ball turnovers to a minimum, you capitalize on the aggressive/physical style of play by drawing fouls (and making your free throws) and, frankly, you hope the Bears don't catch fire from distance. Kansas can do those things, especially at Allen Fieldhouse.

    Or you simply out-shoot the Bears from three-point range, which is something Alabama could do on its home court in the SEC-B12 Challenge.

    Let's be sure not to look too far into the future, though, because the home game against Villanova this Sunday will be a challenge. Those teams met in the Sweet 16 last year, and Baylor was able to force quite a few turnovers with Collin Gillespie sidelined with a knee injury. With him back, the Wildcats have had a turnover-averse offense once again, and they can shoot it as well as any team in the country.

    Should be a great one, even though we're projecting the home team to survive it.

USC Trojans

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    USC's Isaiah Mobley
    USC's Isaiah MobleyYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    First Projected Loss: at Arizona (Feb. 5)

    Other Feasible Losses: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 21), vs. Arizona (Jan. 2), at Colorado (Jan. 20), at Utah (Jan. 22)

    USC might be the last undefeated team standing this season, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Trojans are one of the top candidates to reach the Final Four.

    Rather, they're a pretty good team that should benefit from this not being anything close to a vintage year for the Pac-12.

    USC and Arizona are still undefeated and UCLA is ranked in the AP Top Five, but it gets ugly in a hurry from there. Washington State might be the fourth-best team in the league; however, it already lost a home game to Eastern Washington, it hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2008 and USC doesn't travel to Pullman again this season anyway.

    In addition, it's a back-loaded schedule for the Trojans. Their games against UCLA are on Feb. 12 and March 5. The road game against Oregon—which might be competent by then?isn't until Feb. 26. So with nothing particularly daunting remaining on the nonconference schedule, it sure feels like Arizona is the only thing standing in the way of USC carrying an undefeated record into mid-February.

    And those two Arizona-USC games should be awesome. They're two of the biggest teams in the nation, both stingy in the paint on defense and overpowering down low on offense. However, USC's reluctance to shoot the three, its poor free-throw shooting and its lack of turnovers forced on defense might be a lethal combination on the road against the Wildcats.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    Purdue's Jaden Ivey
    Purdue's Jaden IveyMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    First Projected Loss: None

    Most Likely Losses: at Michigan (Jan. 11), at Illinois (Jan. 17), at Indiana (Jan. 20), at Iowa (Jan. 27), at Michigan State (Feb. 26), at Wisconsin (March 1)

    Just to be clear, I'm not projecting Purdue to go undefeated.

    Not in this league.

    The last time a team made it through Big Ten conference play with fewer than two losses was in 2007, and those Greg Oden-led Ohio State Buckeyes only had to play 16 conference games, not the 20 Purdue will face this year. And the last Big Ten team to go undefeated in league play was the 1975-76 Indiana squad that won it all with a 32-0 record.

    Somewhere along the way, Purdue will lose at least once; probably multiple times. That's just the way it goes in the Big Ten.

    However, it's tough to home in on one particular team most likely to beat the seemingly unstoppable Boilermakers.

    A full-strength Iowa is probably best suited to pull it off, since the Hawkeyes have by far the best turnover margin in the Big Ten and since Purdue's lack of a true/conventional point guard might be its Achilles' heel.

    Plus, it's likely going to take at least 85 points to beat Purdue, and Iowa is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation. It just wasn't able to get the job done last Friday without leading scorer Keegan Murray, who sat with an ankle injury. Perhaps things will be different in Des Moines next month.

                

    Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom, unless otherwise noted.

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

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