Saturday, January 7, 2012

A very exclusive fraternity

The last team to come close to finishing a regular season undefeated was St. Joe's back in 2004. In fact, they did technically go unbeaten in the regular season (27-0), before losing the quarter-final round game of the A-10 conference tournament heading into March Madness.

As talented as Syracuse, Baylor, Missouri and Murray State may be, all four of the nation's currently undefeated teams have just started conference play and have a ways to go in terms of proving themselves.

16 teams have finished the regular season undefeated but lost in the NCAA Tournament (or a different post season playoff) and only seven have gone unbeaten throughout the season and playoffs to win the national championship. Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to accomplish that feat back in 1976.

I'm giving you the history lesson because I don't know if we will EVER see an undefeated college team in men's basketball again. Could it happen? Sure, of course it could, but I'll believe it when I see it.

For discussion's sake, lets take a look at the four (of 345) remaining Division I unbeaten men's basketball teams. We'll go in order from lowest to highest AP poll ranking.

No 19. Murray State 15-0, Ohio Valley

Should Murray State go undefeated, nobody will give them any credit for it anyway because they are in a mid-major conference. The truth is that undefeated is undefeated, whether its in the NFL, college hoops, synchronized swimming or little league baseball, it should always be regarded as a major accomplishment. If anyone can do it at this point, it's probably the Racers given their schedule. But even in the Ohio Valley conference, going unbeaten won't come easy for Murray State.

The Racers beat Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday in their first game without the team's leading rebounder, forward Ivan Aska. The senior is out indefinitely with a broken right hand. The Racers will have to account for his 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. In fact, Aska is one of only three Racers who averages double figures in scoring.

Murray state is among the country's best in terms long-distance shooting, hitting 43.7 percent from 3-point range. But you know what they say; Live by the 3, die by the 3.

While losing Aska indefinitely worries me a lot, the good news for the Racers is that not only are the other teams in the Ohio Valley conference not "big name" programs, but many of their OVC opponents look horrendous this season. Only 7 of the 11 teams are .500 or better, but most are on the lower end of that spectrum.

No. 7 Missouri 14-0, Big 12
I feel like Missouri will always let you down when it counts so several years ago I decided never to count on them. But damn, they look good this season! Whoa. They rank first in D-1 in field goal percentage (shooting 52%) and second overall in scoring, averaging 86.2 points per game. The Tigers also dish the ball out around 17 times per game, good for 16th in the nation in assists. This Mizzou offense is FOR REAL.

The Tigers dropped 92 points on then-ranked No. 18 Cal, and held the Golden Bears to only 53 pathetic points. To humiliate another ranked team 92-53 is mighty impressive (even if it was Berkeley, coming from a weak Pac-12 conference).

I like the Tigers because they have been somewhat tested in playing two ranked teams thus far (Mizzou squeezed out a four-point win over then-No. 24 Illinois), which cannot be said for Murray State, Baylor or Syracuse. Then again, neither Cal nor Illinois are currently ranked.

It's hard to know just how good their defense is because to use the phrase, "they held Niagra to 52 points" would be an oxymoron; I could probably hold Nigara to 60 by myself. I can't gauge their defense just yet, but once the Tigers have more than one conference game under their belt, we'll get a much better picture of the D.

I would say that Saturday's game against No. 23 Kansas State should be a great measuring stick for the Tigers since the Wildcats has showed such strong defense all season. Unfortunately, KState got hammered by Kansas on Wednesday, allowing the Jayhawks the freedom to do whatever they desired in a 67-49 win over the Wildcats. Should Missouri beat Kansas State this weekend, it might not mean as much as we thought it would have before the Kansas game.

The Tigers' problem will be the same as Baylor and Syracuse; they play in a strong conference that will make an undefeated regular season incredibly hard to pull off. Mizzou reminds me a little bit of the Patriots in that you really aren't sure what you'll get on the defensive end, but you can't really root against them because of the strength of the Tigers offense.

No. 4 Baylor 14-0, Big 12
What a year for Baylor University. First, Robert Griffin III goes berserk, leading Baylor to only its second 10-win season in school history en route to a bowl game victory AND the school's first ever Heisman Trophy. Who thought there would be room for another top team within the same school? Apparently, there's plenty of room at the top as Baylor is the only D-1 school currently ranked in the coaches polls in football, men's and women's basketball.

If the Baylor men's basketball team goes deep into the tournament, much less finishes the regular season undefeated, the Bears would easily be the best story of a young 2012 year.

It feels like just yesterday when I first heard the news that Baylor forward Patrick Dennehey went missing and was subsequently found murdered at the hands of his friend and Bears teammate Carlton Dotson, who is now serving a 35-year prison sentence. Investigations into the 2003 incident uncovered drug use among the men's program, cover-ups by then-head coach Dave Bliss, illegal payments from coaches to players and other violations resulting in several sanctions (probation, loss of non-conference games, reduced scholarships and recruiting visits, etc.) levied by both the university itself and the NCAA.

Had this scandal occurred at a school with a more storied basketball program in this age of the internet and social media, it would've taken on a magnitude of Penn State/Sandusky proportion.

Thankfully for Baylor, the only small, private school in the Big 12, the worst is behind them and the men's basketball program has recovered in a truly incredible fashion.

From RGIII on the football field to Perry Jones III on the hardwood, Baylor basketball is now off to its best start in school history to match it's highest poll ranking ever at No.4 AP.

For whatever its worth, Jones, a 6'11 sophomore, was voted the Big 12 preseason player of the year and hasn't disappointed as he leads the team in scoring with 13.4 points per game in nine games (he served a six-game suspension for taking improper benefits before arriving at Baylor) and ranks second in rebounding with 7.3 per contest.

The great thing about Baylor is that they aren't a one-trick pony as FIVE guys on the team are averaging double figures in scoring and no player is averaging more than 14 minutes per game. The team is pretty well-balanced in most areas.

The problem here is that the Big 12 is quite competitive this season with three other teams ranked in the top 25 (including unbeaten No. 7 Missouri, as mentioned above), none of which Baylor has faced yet. Even the unranked teams are decent, if not pretty good, which has my instincts telling me the Bears could easily suffer an upset by Texas or Oklahoma.

If any team were to finish the season undefeated, or come close to doing so, Baylor would be at the top of my wish list.

No. 1 Syracuse 16-0, Big East

For starters, the 'Cuse is second to none in the name game as the Orangemen have the nation's best-named team with a roster full of gems like Christmas, Fab, Scoop and Mookie

The team is deep in great names and solid ability, with ten players averaging between 15 and 16 minutes of playing time per game. No player averages more than 16. That's pretty impressive and tells you that with every point scored and every rebound grabbed, "there's more where that came from." The Orangemen might not have the most talented roster pound-for-pound, but they are deep as hell with a second unit just as strong as their starters which is a rare luxury to have.

If you're a stats junkie, this team sure look good as it's ranked in the top 15 nationwide in points, assists and field goal percentage per game. The Orangemen have hot hands, shooting nearly 50% from the field.

Unlike Murray State, Syracuse plays in the Big East, a perennial power house year in and year out. Thing is, they've only played 3 conference games thus far and only played one ranked school, Florida.

Sure, against crappy programs (sorry if that sounds harsh, but you guys know what I mean), the Orangemen have won by a fairly large margin, but the same cannot be said in games against more reputable teams. At the end of the day, a win is a win, but yes, margin of victory does help me gauge where a team is in it's development and how it's evolving throughout a season.

Is the margin of victory smaller to begin the season, and larger toward the end, proving that a team is gelling and running like a well-oiled machine? Or are the wins harder to get, perhaps indicating stamina issues, health problems, etc.?

Assuming the Orangemen are still undefeated by February, perhaps their real test will come with a three-game stretch at the start of the month playing No. 9 Georgetown and No. 8 Connecticut at home followed by No. 10. Louisville on the road. If Syracuse can make it through that, they would be at 26-0 with only four games to play, including rematches with UConn and Louisville. With an experienced coach like Jim Boeheim, if the Orangemen do make it to 26-0, I would give them a pretty damn good shot in finishing the regular season unbeaten.