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.
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.
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.
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.
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Projecting the top seeds