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Era of the unbeaten champ is over
It’s something of a January tradition in college basketball: If you’re still riding your undefeated high horse coming into conference play, be prepared to get knocked off.
In five of the past 10 Januarys, college basketball lost its final undefeated team. This January, it happened again. Last week college basketball’s three remaining undefeated teams all lost in the span of four days. First it was Arizona losing Thursday at Oregon. Then Duke, ranked No. 1 at the time, lost at North Carolina State on Saturday. On Sunday, Michigan made a furious comeback after being down 21 at Ohio State, but a Trey Burke 3-pointer to tie the game rimmed out, and our final unbeaten went down.
Which brings us to the big question: Will we ever again have a college basketball team that makes it all the way through April without losing a game?
It was a Herculean task 37 years ago when Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers waltzed all the way through the regular season and the NCAA tournament, posting a perfect 32-0 record on the way to the national championship. That was before college basketball saw the sort of parity it experiences today, and before dozens of games were shown on television every night so that there can no longer be a truly surprising team, and before the all-encompassing sports media made it so the outside media pressure bears down on a team more and more with each unbeaten week.
“Nobody’s unbeaten anymore and you’re 16, 17 games in,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose 12th-ranked team has only one loss, said Monday. “That’s college basketball today. There’s parity.”
“There’s just too many good players,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Monday, agreeing with rival coach Mark Gottfried of North Carolina State that we’ll never see another undefeated national champion.
Maybe it’s better for a team to have a bit of early-season adversity.
Last season Murray State made it until Feb. 9 before losing to Tennessee State, then was upset by 11th-seeded Marquette in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32. The year before, Ohio State almost made it to Valentine’s Day without losing, then lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky’s 2008-09 team lost its first game Jan. 26 at South Carolina and came up one game short of the Final Four, and in 2007-08 Wake Forest didn’t lose until Jan. 21 but was knocked out of March Madness in a first-round upset.
The only team in the past decade to make it through the regular season undefeated? St. Joseph’s in 2003-04. That team lost its first game to Xavier in their conference tournament and ended up making the Elite Eight. (Sports Illustrated later named it the single-season team of the decade.) Deron Williams’ Illinois squad almost pulled off the regular-season run-the-table in 2004-05 before losing its final game of the regular season at Ohio State; that team made the national championship game, where it lost to North Carolina.
An undefeated season was almost routine for John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins in the 1960s and ’70s, when they tore off four in nine years. Now? Few coaches think it’ll happen again. Larry Bird’s Indiana State team of 1978-79 couldn’t do it; that team lost to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad in the title game. UNLV’s historically great 1990-91 team came close, losing by two to Duke in the Final Four.
I asked Kentucky head coach John Calipari if he thought it was possible for a team in today’s college basketball to run the table. Last year’s Wildcats came awfully close — a December loss at Indiana on a buzzer-beater and an SEC tournament loss to Vanderbilt were the only losses for the eventual national champions. Does he think an undefeated team could ever happen again?
Surprisingly, Calipari does.
“Yeah, I think so, and I hope it’s us,” Calipari said. “But it’s a very difficult thing. One, you have to have a talented team. Two, you have to have veterans on that team. And three, you have to be a mentally tough team that’s really in tune with each other. All the players have to buy in.”
All that, plus a little luck.
In other words, Calipari said, it would have to be a team with the makeup of last year’s national championship team. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who’d become the top two picks in the NBA draft a couple months after winning the national title as freshmen, took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the team. They bought in on winning more than personal accolades, Calipari said.
Even then, what Calipari accomplished with his Wildcats last year seemed somewhere between a magical formula and an all-time coaching achievement. Calipari took a bunch of uber-talented freshmen and sophomores and coached them to play like unselfish teammates instead of one-and-done superstars. This year’s Kentucky team isn’t nearly as talented as last year’s, but the bigger problem is the players are not buying into the system.
If they begin to buy in, though, look ahead to next year. Kentucky is bringing in by far the nation’s best recruiting class. Calipari has commitments from five of the nation’s top 18 recruits, and the Wildcats still are in play for the nation’s top two recruits, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle. Sign those two and Calipari’s squad next year not only will have a historically great recruiting class, it will have a legitimate shot at going unbeaten. They’ll have both the talent and the veterans.
“I’m worried about today’s practice and you’re talking about next year,” Calipari replied when I asked the question.
But I have a sneaky feeling that next January, Calipari is going to be answering these types of questions pretty frequently.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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