We Salute You: Paying Homage to the Nation’s Undefeated Teams in League PlayPosted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 6th, 2014
Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist for Rush The Court and spent way too much time on these articles.
With the calendar turned to February and the meat of conference play upon us, the most dominant and least effective teams are showing their colors against equal competition. And with the halfway point of conference season rapidly approaching for many – and already here for others – now is a good time to take stock of both teams that are undefeated in conference and those who have yet to win. Tuesday’s installment took a look at the less fortunate teams among us, ranked from least likely to most to not win a game in conference play. Today, we do the same, but with the 10 teams still undefeated in conference play.
Note: All statistics dutifully harvested from kenpom.com.
Syracuse (22-0, 9-0 Atlantic Coast Conference)
- Odds: 1.8 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 22 at Duke, 67 percent; March 1 at Virginia, 59 percent
- Biggest strength: Top 10 offense; defensively, second in block rate and steal rate
- Achilles’ heel: Middle-of-the-road free-throw shooting
- Key player: Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (12.1 points per game, 5.6 assists per game, 2.3 steals per game; plays more of his team’s minutes than any other power conference freshman)
- Outlook: Syracuse’s chances of going undefeated are not equal to their chances of beating the teams on this list. (In fact, I’d take the Orange in each match-up, and I hope that the team most likely to go undefeated and this Syracuse squad end up facing off in the NCAA Tournament, because that would be one hell of a game.) But the Orange still have to go into Cameron Indoor Stadium to face a Duke team that took them to overtime in Syracuse in an instant classic this past weekend. They also have to travel to Virginia and former Big East rival Pittsburgh in the regular season, which are the three toughest away games on their entire schedule. Syracuse has played a grind-it-out slow tempo this season, its seventh straight in which its pace of play has slowed down, going from 27th in tempo in 2007-08 to 344th of 351 teams in 2013-14. That slow tempo lets coach Jim Boeheim play six to seven players regularly, and his starters have played tons of minutes, which could be a big problem as the season drags on or, heaven forbid, a core player gets hurt.
Cincinnati (21-2, 10-0 American Athletic Conference)
- Odds: 3.0 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 8 at SMU, 59 percent; March 1 at Connecticut, 59 percent
- Biggest strength: Fifth-ranked per-possession defense, thanks to seventh-ranked turnover rate and 12th ranked shooting defense
- Achilles’ heel: Ranked in the mid-200s in effective field goal percentage (points off field goals divided by double the amount of shot attempts)
- Key player: Senior guard Sean Kilpatrick (19.4 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals per game; a positive assist-to-turnover ratio despite taking 30 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor)
- Outlook: The Bearcats might be one of the hardest teams in the country to watch (remember that 44-43 prime time rock fight against Pittsburgh on national television in December?), but they’re also one of the hardest-working teams, both on offense and defense. The stats to back that up? Sixth in offensive rebounding rate, seventh in turnovers created. Apart from Kilpatrick, who accounts for so much of his team’s scoring, Cincinnati’s play this season is embodied by senior post Justin Jackson, who is seventh nationally in block rate, 35th in steal rate and just outside the top 50 in offensive rebounding rate. Though Jackson is the leader in steals, the five Bearcats who play most often all rank in the top 400 in steal rate nationally, which I can’t recall ever seeing before. Cincinnati cleared its biggest road hurdle with a 69-66 win over Louisville last week, but they still have to face the Cards at home, as well as a trip to SMU and two games against Connecticut, which is why their winning streak seems destined to end before the season does.
Saint Louis (21-2, 8-0 Atlantic 10 Conference)
- Odds: 4.6 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: March 1 at VCU, 60 percent; March 9 at Massachusetts, 53 percent
- Biggest strength: Nation’s second-best per-possession defense, thanks to top-5 shooting defense and top-15 turnover rate
- Achilles’ heel: Poor shooting team that doesn’t offensive rebound well either
- Key player: Senior point guard Jordair Jett (12.7 points per game, 4.9 assists per game, 4.1 rebounds per game; top 25 nationally in assist rate)
- Outlook: The Billikens are a veteran-laden team built around a stifling man-to-man defense. Five of Saint Louis’ six most-frequently played players are seniors, each a part of last season’s team that earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament before getting dumped in the round of 32 by Oregon. Its only losses this season came to Wisconsin and to Wichita State. Saint Louis’ offense is often somewhat stagnant and is dependent on inside shooting because only one regular shoots better than 34 percent from three-point range, but the Billikens get their shots blocked at one of the nation’s worst rates. Two games against VCU remain on the Billikens’ schedule, as does a season finale at Massachusetts and a road game against a George Mason team, though winless in conference, that took Saint Louis to overtime last weekend.
Florida (20-2, 9-0 Southeastern Conference)
- Odds: 6.1 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 15 at Kentucky, 58 percent; Feb. 11 at Tennessee; 48 percent
- Biggest strength: Seventh-ranked per-possession defense; top 10 in field-goal defense, plus in top 25 in not putting opponents on the free throw line
- Achilles’ heel: A cool 290th in free-throw shooting percentage
- Key player: Senior small forward Casey Prather (15.7 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game, 62.3 percent field-goal shooting; scored only 6.2 points per game as a junior last season)
- Outlook: Billy Donovan’s Gators could have been deflated after losing at Connecticut in early December on a last-second Shabazz Napier three-pointer, but instead they’ve won their next 14 games, including wins against Kansas, Memphis and Missouri. Florida has the nation’s 26th-ranked per-possession offense, thanks to strong offensive rebounding and two-point shooting, a complete reversal from the team led by the Kenny Boynton-Erving Walker-Bradley Beal backcourt from two years ago that was three-point dependent and relatively averse to defense. Going undefeated in the SEC is unlikely with two match-ups remaining against the league’s usual overlord, Kentucky, but this Florida team has the potential to get past the Elite Eight this year after losing there in each of the last three seasons.
Georgia State (16-6, 9-0 Sun Belt Conference)
- Odds: 6.8 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: March 4 at Arkansas State, 45 percent; Feb. 27 at Texas-Arlington, 36 percent
- Biggest strength: Nation’s least turnover-prone offense is also a top-25 shooting team
- Achilles’ heel: Bottom-50 shooting defense, bottom-25 defensive rebounding team
- Key player: Junior point guard Ryan Harrow (18.1 points per game, 4.6 assists per game; in first year with program after seasons with North Carolina State and Kentucky)
- Outlook: Obliquely speaking of Kentucky, Georgia State is led in part by former Wildcats point guard Ryan Harrow, whose scoring output has nearly doubled in his move to Atlanta. Between him and coach Ron Hunter’s son RJ, who averages 20.2 points per game and shoots better than 42 percent from three-point range, the Panthers have an embarrassment of backcourt riches in a conference where lock-down perimeter defenders are in short supply. Georgia State has its own supply issue, however: size. After the academic suspension of forward Denny Burguillos, only one rotation player, 6’9” center Curtis Washington is taller than 6’6” or weighs more than 205 pounds. The Sun Belt is certainly a one-bid conference, but if the Panthers make the NCAA Tournament, their wide-open, three-point-heavy offense seems perfect to lead a surprising upset. The only trick is getting there.
Delaware (18-7, 10-0 Colonial Athletic Association)
- Odds: 10.2 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 17 at Towson, 56 percent; March 1 at College of Charleston, 42 percent
- Biggest strength: Seventh-lowest turnover rate on offense
- Achilles’ heel: Having to replace suspended junior point guard Jarvis Threatt, who averages 17.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game
- Key player: Senior guard Devon Saddler (21 points per game, 3.2 assists per game; program’s all-time leader in scoring has only scored in single digits three times since Dec. 7, 2011)
- Outlook: The Blue Hens have pulled two rabbits out of their collective hat in the past six days, beating winless-in-conference UNC Wilmington after trailing in the last minute, then overcoming a 19-point deficit with fewer than nine minutes left in Newark to beat College of Charleston, outscoring the Cougars 36-13 in that span to get a 67-64 win. That was the second close call in four games without suspended point guard Jarvis Threatt and reserve forward Marvin King-Davis. Until the two are un-suspended, which CBS Sports reported wouldn’t be until at least March, the uptempo Delaware squad is vulnerable to teams throughout the Colonial, especially in its upcoming trip to Towson, the conference’s second-best team.
San Diego State (20-1, 9-0 Mountain West Conference)
- Odds: 12.5 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 22 at New Mexico, 46 percent; Feb. 11 at Wyoming, 33 percent
- Biggest strength: Top-10 defense plays top-15 shooting defense while being one of nation’s best 15 teams at keeping opponents off the free-throw line
- Achilles’ heel: 298th in nation in effective field-goal percentage
- Key player: Senior point guard Xavier Thames (18.1 points per game, 1.8 steals per game, 44.7 percent three-point shooting; second nationally in offensive rating for players who use more than 28 percent of their team’s possessions, behind only Creighton’s Doug McDermott)
- Outlook: The Aztecs, having survived a scare at Boise State on Wednesday night with a Dwayne Polee three-pointer with four seconds left to notch a 67-65 win, still only have one loss, a 69-60 home defeat to Arizona in the season’s second week. Xavier Thames’ surprising growth into a super-effective star has taken his team’s fortunes to similar heights, peaking with the first non-conference road win for a Kansas opponent in 69 attempts. San Diego’s strong season comes in a down year for the Mountain West, which has no other teams in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50, but two games against conference No. 2 New Mexico are still on the schedule. Perhaps the Aztecs should get used to Albuquerque; if they continue their current torrid play, they will likely end up there during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Harvard (17-3, 4-0 Ivy League)
- Odds: 13.2 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 22 at Princeton, 42 percent; Feb. 14 at Columbia, 36 percent
- Biggest strength: An uncharacteristic-for-the-Ivy smothering, athletic defense that’s in the top 25 nationally
- Biggest weakness: Below 200th nationally in offensive turnovers
- Key player: Junior forward Wesley Saunders (15.2 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 3.9 assists per game, 2.2 steals per game, 0.9 blocks per game; box-score-stuffer missed Crimson’s close loss at Connecticut in December)
- Outlook: The Crimson look to be on track for their third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid after never having had one before, thanks to their 4-0 Ivy League start and Princeton’s 0-3 performance out of the gate. Tommy Amaker’s team is the best the conference has seen since Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2009-10, led by do-it-all junior forward Wesley Saunders and sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers, both of whom assist on more than a quarter of their teammates’ baskets while on the floor. The Crimson are one of the nation’s most accurate three-point shooting teams – thanks almost entirely to senior gunner Laurent Rivard, who is 45-of-107 from three-point range and has only 16 two-point attempts – though their offense gets under 23 percent of its points from behind the arc, which ranks in the bottom third nationally. If it weren’t for a bad loss to Florida Atlantic, the Crimson could have had a shot at a single-digit seed come March.
Stephen F. Austin (20-2, 9-0 Southland Conference)
- Odds: 31.7 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 15 at Sam Houston State, 36 percent; Feb. 27 at New Orleans, 20 percent
- Biggest strength: Third nationally, forcing a turnover once every four opponent possessions; top 25 in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing 38 percent of their own misses
- Achilles’ heel: Opponents shoot free throws at an alarming rate
- Key player: Junior forward Jacob Parker (15.6 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game; shoots 54.5 percent from the field, 83.3 percent from the free-throw line and 17 for 34 from three-point range)
- Outlook: The Lumberjacks are owners of what I believe is the fourth-longest winning streak in the country, behind only Syracuse, Wichita State and San Diego State, having not stumbled since a Nov. 23 trip to East Tennessee State; their other loss is at Texas. Stephen F. Austin has the 11th-slowest offense in Division I, but its defense forces the fourth-quickest possessions in the country, which explains why its opponents so frequently find themselves at the free-throw line if they haven’t turned the ball over already. This year’s run is all the more impressive, given that coach Brad Underwood has had to replace the Lumberjacks’ top three possession users from last season, including the nation’s best shooter, Taylor Smith, who made nearly 70 percent of his shots last year. And Underwood has led this strong season while himself replacing 11-year coach Danny Kaspar, who left for Texas State. Stephen F. Austin’s best win is at home against a middling Towson squad, so it has to win the Southland tournament to get an NCAA berth. That proved a stumbling block last year after a 14-2 conference season; the Lumberjacks then lost to Stanford in the NIT’s first round.
Wichita State (24-0, 11-0 Missouri Valley Conference)
- Odds: 55.6 percent chance to go undefeated
- Most likely losses: Feb. 8 at Northern Iowa, 20 percent; Feb. 19 at Loyola-Chicago, 8 percent
- Biggest strength: Fifth in defensive rebounding rate, ninth in defensive efficiency
- Achilles’ heel: Average shooting team, especially from three-point range
- Key player: Senior forward Cleanthony Early (16.3 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game; was recruited to Wichita State from a Division III junior college)
- Outlook: The Shockers have only played one game that finished within a possession this whole season, an overtime win at Missouri State early in January. Other than that, they’ve won every game – including victories over Saint Louis and Tennessee – by at least five points. Wichita State dodged its biggest conference bullet Wednesday by knocking off Indiana State in Terre Haute, and no remaining opponent is ranked within Ken Pomeroy’s top 100. The team’s star players, including Cleanthony Early, are already seasoned from last year’s run to the Final Four, in which they led champion Louisville by 12 during the second half. Depth isn’t much of an issue, as the Shockers go eight or nine deep with their rotation. Let’s just watch this, #CheerForTheEars and see what happens in the rest of the Missouri Valley season.