Perfection possible? Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State last unbeatens

01/24/2014 4:37 PM

01/24/2014 4:38 PM

It has been 10 years since a team went through the regular season undefeated. It’s been 23 years since a team advanced as far as the Final Four undefeated. And it’s been 38 years since a team completed a perfect season by winning a national championship.

Those are rare feats, of course, but consistently remain talking points every season. Fans are always curious about this time of year if a team is good enough to run the table.

Can a team go through the regular season undefeated like Saint Joseph’s in 2004 but see its perfection come to an end in its conference tournament? Or is a team good enough to reach the Final Four unbeaten like UNLV did in 1991, but not win it all? Or is there finally a team out there ready to become the first perfect squad since Indiana in 1976?

Three months into the season, three teams still have a chance to join those lofty clubs: Wichita State (20-0), Arizona (19-0) and Syracuse (18-0).

Perfection, though, is not a topic of conversation in those locker rooms.

“We never talk about it,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told CBSSports.com earlier this month. “We talk about the next game. Before the Davidson game right after Christmas, we said we wanted to be undefeated going into league play but that was it. We just focus on what’s next.”

The first perfect season came in 1956 when San Francisco went the distance without a loss behind Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. North Carolina did it the following year and then UCLA had four perfect seasons under John Wooden (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973). Indiana joined the exclusive club in 1976 and the doors have been shut since.

Will they open this year for one of those three schools should they make it to the title game at AT&T Stadium in April? No, is the safe answer. But let’s take a look at the reasons why the three remaining could pull it off.

Wichita State

Why: The Shockers return three starters and several role players from last season’s Final Four team. So they know how to win close games and can never be counted out of it. After all, they came back from a 19-point deficit against Missouri State on Jan. 11, and have won their past three games by at least 15 points.

Cleanthony Early became a star last March and is leading the team once again, and Fred VanVleet is an all-around guard who passes well (5.2 assists per game) and can knock down the 3 (43.1 percent shooter from 3-point range).

Wichita State is also in the easiest conference of the three remaining unbeatens. The Missouri Valley has always been a strong basketball conference, but suffered a blow when Creighton bolted for the new Big East. Still, only two schools have gone through conference play undefeated in the modern era — 1978-79 Indiana State team behind Larry Bird and the 1985-86 Bradley team with Hersey Hawkins and Jim Les.

Toughest games: Feb. 5 at Indiana State; Feb. 8 at Northern Iowa; March 1 vs. Missouri State.

Prediction: Pressure might get the best of them, but the Shockers have the easiest road to go into the NCAA Tournament unbeaten. The guess here is they have a perfect regular-season but stumble in the conference tournament like Saint Joseph’s did in 2004.

Arizona

Why: Going into the season, most people knew that Arizona would have one of the top frontcourts in the country. Aaron Gordon is having a phenomenal freshmen season, averaging 12.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, and sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski continue to develop.

But the backcourt has been just as good. Nick Johnson had stretches of brilliance last season, and has put it together all season this year. He leads the team in scoring (16.4 points a game) and is making more than 80 percent of his free throws. And T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, has solidified the point guard position.

The hurdle of staying perfect for Arizona, though, is the competition in the Pac-12. It’s a vastly improved conference and the Wildcats have difficult games coming up. They play Utah on Sunday and then have consecutive road games against Stanford and Cal. They also have a stretch of three consecutive road games in mid-February against Arizona State, Utah and Colorado.

Toughest games: Feb. 1 at Cal; Feb. 6 vs. Oregon; Feb. 22 at Colorado; March 8 at Oregon.

Prediction: It wouldn’t be surprising if Arizona lost its first game on the road. The Wildcats have a tough road stretch the rest of the way, including five of their final seven regular-season games away from home. We see them falling at Cal on Feb. 1, but will still be a one-seed come Selection Sunday.

Syracuse

Why: The big question going into the season was how a Big East power such as Syracuse would fit into the ACC. Turns out, it fits in just fine. The Orange’s trademark 2-3 zone defense is working well and they have more than enough athletes and depth to win.

And that’s exactly what Syracuse has done – win.

Senior forward C.J. Fair is one of the best players in the country, averaging 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. He’s not the only inside presence either. Jerami Grant has become a much-improved shooter in his sophomore season, and Rakeem Christmas is a shot-blocking presence in the paint.

Tyler Ennis has handled the point guard duties well for a freshman and is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.

All that is good, of course, but it’s important to remember Syracuse has yet to play Duke and still has a road game at Pitt left on its schedule. This road to perfection is the toughest of the three remaining unbeatens.

Toughest games: Feb. 1 vs. Duke; Feb. 12 at Pittsburgh; Feb. 22 at Duke; March 1 at Virginia.

Prediction: The ACC might be in a “down year” but it’s still one of the best leagues in the country. It’s near impossible to formulate a plan that has Syracuse staying unbeaten. If the Orange somehow win Feb. 12 at Pittsburgh, they’ll leave Cameron Indoor on Feb. 22 with their first ‘L.’ But they’ll still be a popular Final Four pick when brackets come out.

Rising

Michigan Last year’s runner-up is showing it has the potential to get back on the Final Four stage. The Wolverines have two straight victories against top-10 teams, Wisconsin and Iowa, and can make it three straight today against Michigan State. Guard Nik Stauskas has been the star, scoring 23 points against Wisconsin and 26 against Iowa.

Falling

Baylor The Bears seemed like a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Texas might have emerged as the state’s best chance. Baylor has lost four of its past five games, including an inexplicable 10-point loss to Texas Tech on Jan. 15. The road doesn’t get much easier. The Bears face Texas on Saturday, West Virginia on Tuesday and then have a three-game stretch at Oklahoma State, vs. Kansas and at Oklahoma.

Games to watch

Duke at Pittsburgh (6 p.m. Monday, ESPN) These schools should challenge for the ACC title and it might come down to this game. The Blue Devils are rolling after a loss to Clemson on Jan. 11, and the Panthers got back on track after their loss to Syracuse.

Michigan State at Iowa (6 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN) The Big Ten has produced some of the best games so far this season, and this has the makings of yet another. The Spartans could go into this game on a 12-game winning streak if they beat Michigan on Saturday, while the Hawkeyes haven’t lost at home yet.

Projecting the top seeds

Arizona (West) The top-ranked team in the country remains undefeated. Until they struggle, it’s hard to leave them out.

Syracuse (East) The Orange has had no trouble thus far in their first ACC season.

Michigan State (Midwest) The Spartans are one of the most experienced teams in the country and have lost only once.

Wichita State (South) If they stay unbeaten, they deserve a one-seed.

Key dates

March 16 Selection Sunday

March 18-19 First-round (Dayton)

March 20, 22 Second-third rounds (Buffalo, Orlando, Milwaukee, Spokane)

March 21, 23 Second-third rounds (Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis)

March 27, 29 South Regional (Memphis) and West Regional (Anaheim)

March 28, 30 Midwest Regional (Indianapolis) and East Regional (New York)

April 5 National semifinals (Arlington)

April 7 Championship (Arlington)

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