Three Teams Chasing Perfection…

Posted by rtmsf on January 19th, 2011

As of Wednesday, January 19, we are down to three unbeaten teams in college basketball — #1 Ohio State, #2 Kansas and #5 San Diego State.  Previously undefeated Duke lost last week at Florida State and Syracuse lost Monday at Pittsburgh, proving once again that conference play is a completely different animal than the non-conference slate.  With only a little over six weeks left in the regular season (which seems rather impossible), it is at least feasible that one of these three schools could run the regular season table and join 1991 UNLV and 2004 St. Joseph’s as the only two teams to have done so since Bob Knight’s dominant Indiana Hoosiers way back in 1976. 

If you look at the above teams and hoped to draw a conclusion from it, you might note that UNLV and St. Joe’s played in high mid-major conferences when they ran the regular season table.  Although there were a few decent opponents who could challenge the Rebels and Hawks in those leagues, they generally enjoyed more ‘nights off’ where they didn’t have to bring their best stuff to win the game.  Does this give Steve Fisher’s Aztecs an inherent advantage over OSU and Kansas by virtue of its Mountain West affiliation?  You might initially believe so, but not according to Pomeroy’s projections. 

We talked about how difficult it is for any team to run the table in the regular season back in December when Duke was gettting some buzz in that respect prior to Kyrie Irving’s toe injury.  There are any number of factors that can cause an off night, but the biggest confounding factor is how the schedule lays out in front of them.  According to the Pomeroy data, SDSU will be favored in all but two remaining games, Ohio State all but one, and Kansas will be the favorite in each of its final thirteen games.  But that’s just the math — it doesn’t account for the increasing attention and pressure that builds on a team as it approaches March with a zero in the right-hand column, nor does it consider all the other issues (injuries, team chemistry, tiring out, etc.) that teams face as the season wears on.  That’s what we’re here for, the analysis. 

Let’s take a look at the three unbeaten teams and make an educated prediction as to when each will finally lose.  It’s going to happen; the only question is the when and where.  Last year we went 3-1 in this exercise, and if we can do so well as to keep our head above .500 again this year, we’ll be pleased. 

San Diego State (19-0).  The Aztecs have already had a phenomenal season, quite possibly the best in school history no matter what happens from here on out.  They’ve reached the top five in the national rankings, gotten off to its best start ever, and suddenly become every analyst’s darkhorse school to make a run at the Final Four in April.  Steve Fisher’s team is very good, but it’s not great, and even though the Aztecs might seem to fit the same model that UNLV and St. Joe’s took en route to their perfect regular seasons, the Mountain West is better than the ACC, SEC and Pac-10 among its top four teams and all of its tough road games are still ahead of it.

  • Will Lose: Jan. 26 @ BYU.  This is the obvious choice, and the right one.  It’s been six seasons since the Aztecs won in the Marriot Center and perhaps in another year, this would have been the season for the road win.  But BYU is arguably playing better basketball than SDSU right now, having pounded its way to a 4-0 MWC record thus far behind the dynamite play of Jimmer Fredette.  Already one of the toughest venues in all of college basketball, we can only imagine what it will be like next week when San Diego State gets to town with the MWC lead and a top five ranking on the line.  SDSU, while very talented and already with road wins at Gonzaga and New Mexico this season, will run into a buzzsaw in Provo. 

Ohio State (18-0).  Even though OSU is #1 in all of the polls and Jared Sullinger is a NPOY candidate with his dominant play in the post, there’s still a lingering sense that the Buckeyes are flying a little bit under the national radar.  It sounds weird, but Thad Matta’s team isn’t on the tip of casual fans’ tongues as a primary contender yet, and maybe that speaks more to the relative weakness of the Buckeyes’ non-conference schedule (best win: @ Florida State) than anything else.  We happen to think that they’re totally legit, weak schedule to date or not.  Ohio State has all the pieces that a team needs to win a national title — scoring, defense, length, athleticism, coaching, multiple options and the best low post player in America.  But they’re not going unbeaten because the Big Ten is too rugged and teams know how to grind it out with the Bucks (even if they eventually lose). 

  • Will LoseJan. 22 @ Illinois.  Let’s not overthink this one either.  The Buckeyes have won their last four games against Big Ten bottom-feeders (Minnesota excepted) by an average of 4.7 points.  The Illini represent not only the toughest road game they’ve had all season, but also the most difficult team they’ve faced, period.  Bruce Weber will have his guys sky-high for this one, and the Orange Krush will be as rowdy as they’ve ever been.  If you can think back this far, the last time a #1 team visited Assembly Hall was in 2004, when #1 Wake Forest (of Chris Paul fame) came in and got obliterated.  That Illini team was better than this one, but the 2010-11 version is plenty good enough to pull off the big-time win if they can keep Jon Diebler under control and throw the bodies of both big Mikes at Jared Sullinger all night long. 

Kansas (18-0).  Kansas is perhaps the most interesting of the remaining unbeatens in that the Jayhawks have plenty of good teams in their conference, but their remaining Big 12 schedule breaks about as nicely as Bill Self could have asked for.  The two best teams in the Big 12 South (Texas and Texas A&M) visit Lawrence, where the Jayhawks are nearly unbeatable, and they’ve already got the road trip to Baylor out of the way.  Among the North teams, trips to rising Colorado and Nebraska await as well rivalry games against Kansas State and Missouri.  Despite the 15% chance that Pomeroy gives KU to run the table and the ridiculous play of the Morris twins lately, the Jayhawks will lose — the only question is when. 

  • Will LoseJan. 25 @ Colorado.   We fully expect Texas to give Kansas yet another home scare over the coming weekend, but we think that ultimately the old ghosts of Phog Allen Fieldhouse (and the Morris twins) will vanquish the young Longhorns.  Instead, we like for Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes to spring the upset next Tuesday night.  Remember last year that an unbeaten KU team went to Boulder and barely escaped with an overtime victory; this year they will face a more experienced team with revenge on their minds.  KU was ready for a road trip to preseason-hyped Baylor on Monday night, but we think that they might overlook the talent that CU brings to bear, especially since the Buffs just lost at Nebraska last night.  Alec Burks did not play in last year’s game in Boulder, so we expect  he’ll be looking very much forward to this opportunity. 

It says here that nobody is getting out of January unblemished.  Such is the nature of college basketball. 

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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