Mailbag: When will the 10 remaining undefeated teams fall?
‘Tis the season for unrestrained optimism and overwrought storylines. So it’s appropriate to begin this week’s Twitterbag with some unfettered unrealism, which is understandable given the way the football and basketball programs in East Lansing are taking over the sports world:
Any chance MSU can go undefeated?
— Nathaniel Bott (@Nathaniel_Bott)
Let’s start with the obvious answer: Heck no. Followed by the obvious reason: The Spartans aren’t good enough. And: The Big Ten is murderous. Ain’t no one going perfect in that league. I could see the first-place team finishing with four losses, as was the case three years ago when Indiana won it with a 14-4 record.
Still, as we near the end of the nonconference portion of the schedule, there are 10 Division I teams that have yet to lose a game. (Two previously undefeated teams, Houston and West Virginia, lost on Tuesday night.) We know it’s not a question of whether they will lose so much as when. Here are my guesses, in chronological order:
UNC Wilmington (5–0): Dec. 12 at Georgetown
For some reason, the Seahawks have only played four games against Division I opponents. Their only chance to win this one would be if the Hoyas criminally overlook them. That’s not likely to happen considering the Hoyas already lost at home to Radford to start the season.
It is hard to have much confidence in Cal these days, and the Gaels have been playing surprisingly well. Their 6–0 start includes a 17-point win at home over Stanford. But they have yet to play a game outside of Moraga. There won’t be any home cooking in Berkeley.
The 6-2 Tigers aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but if you meet your big in-state rival with a bagel on the right side of its record, you have to pounce.
I’ll give the Musketeers a win over Cincinnati on Saturday, but with games coming up at Villanova and home against Butler, this one in Winston-Salem is a classic trap game against a good-but-not-great team playing at home and hunting for a résumé-builder.
Even if the Trojans win at DePaul this weekend and follow that up with wins over Central Arkansas and Northern Arizona, I see them losing to a pretty good Red Raiders team. Tubby Smith’s crew has neutral court wins over Mississippi State and Minnesota, and it played then-No. 16 Utah tough before losing by 10.
Iowa State (7–0): Dec. 22 at Cincinnati
Iowa shouldn’t give the Cyclones much trouble in Ames on Thursday, but with these rivalry games you just never know. Winning on the road against the Bearcats would be a tall order, but even if it remains perfect afterward, Iowa State also has to play at Oklahoma on Jan. 2. The Cyclones will get clipped in at least one of those games, if not both
Oklahoma (6–0): Jan. 4 at Kansas
Bill Self’s teams rarely lose at home, especially against a highly ranked, undefeated league opponent.
SMU (7–0): Jan. 7 vs. Cincinnati
The Mustangs are undefeated, but they’ve flirted with disaster a couple of times. They darn near lost at home to Yale in their third game, and they only won by five at TCU. If they get by the Bearcats, the schedule is light enough that they could go into February still perfect, but I think it’s likely they will get tripped up somewhere before then.
Wouldn’t this be the most Bo Ryan thing ever?
Purdue (9–0): Jan. 24 at Iowa
I was tempted to go with the Butler game a week from Saturday, but it looks like the Boilermakers are going to get their best perimeter defender, Rapheal Davis, back before then. I figure by the time they get to Iowa City they’ll be ripe to be plucked.
Who is the most surprising team thus far this season? Why?
— Chris Yarbrough (@CoachYarbrough)
Lists, lists, we love lists!
1. Xavier (9–0, AP No. 12). The Musketeers lost their best interior scorer and overall passer, Matt Stainbrook, as well as point guard Dee Davis, from a Sweet 16 team. Yet, they are tougher, faster and deeper than they were last year. Keep your eye on redshirt freshman point guard Edmond Sumner, who is a better version of Semaj Christon.
2. Miami (8–1, No. 17). Jim Larrañaga gets better with age. So do his teams. The 66-year-old coach returned most of his core group from last season, and aside from a toe stub at home against Northeastern, the Hurricanes have benefited from stellar, veteran perimeter play.
4. Baylor (7–1, No. 16). Yet another bad year for the Scott-Drew-can’t-coach crowd. Could he be the most underrated coach in sports?
Is there any way joining the rest of D-I and having a conference tourney is a bad thing for the Ivy League?
— Elliot Olshanksy (@TAFKARR)
This might surprise you, but I’ve been advocating for years that the Ivy League go to a postseason tournament. I know this offends purists (old and young) who claim such events invalidate the regular season. Why would a mid-major league send its tournament champ to the NCAAs when it might not be the best team that season?
The answer is that conference tournaments are great fun. It gives everyone a chance to make the Big Dance, so they still have something to play for. It is an opportunity for players, coaches and fans from all the teams in a league to get together and celebrate. It is also great theater. One of the most gripping weeks in the entire sports calendar is the first week of March, when teams from mid-major square off with everything on the line. The games are riveting, and many of the finishes are sensational.
Many people don’t realize that it is up to the individual leagues to determine who represents that conference in the NCAAs. A conference has every right to hold a postseason tournament yet send its regular season champ to the next round. The reason why they don’t is because they want to make the postseason tournament more interesting—and therefore more financially rewarding. If you want to see the regular season count more, then copy the leagues that have the higher seeds host their games, or even the entire championship. Or that do the really cool thing and just have the whole thing happen in Las Vegas.
I respect the Ivy for being the lone holdout, but they’ve made their point. Go ahead, guys. Have a conference tournament. Join the fun.
How do you feel about Utah as they get punished harshly for one loss? They are arguably better than the Sweet 16 [team last year].
— Pac’s Uncle (@UteChap)
You make a fair point, although Utah wouldn’t have gotten punished so harshly if that loss weren’t so punishing. The Utes lost by 24 points to Miami in Puerto Rico. I mean, the ‘Canes are good, but they’re not that good.
I definitely do not agree with the idea that Utah is better than it was last season. Delon Wright was a special point guard, and as much as I like Brandon Taylor, he is not nearly as effective without Wright alongside him. To wit, Taylor is shooting 21.4% from three-point range this season, down from 43.9% as a junior. You think he misses Wright drawing the attention of opposing defenses or setting him up for open looks?
But where the Utes really miss Wright is on defense. Last season, they were sixth overall in kenpom.com’s defensive efficiency rankings. This season, they are 89th. The drop, not surprisingly, has come on the perimeter. They were 36th nationally in three-point defense last year. Now they are 337th. They are also 316th in defensive turnover percentage. Yes, they still have one of the top centers in the country in Jakob Poeltl, but if you don't have terrific guard play in college hoops, you are going to endure some punishment.
Of course, if Utah wants to earn some national respect, all it has to do is beat Duke in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19. Simple, right?
Who is your man crush with [former Murray State guard Cameron Payne] in the NBA now?
— John Poynor (@Breds20)
I was sad to see Payne leave early for the NBA, but hey, we’ll always have Murray. I have yet to decide who the lucky fella is this season. These things have to happen organically, but I am, shall we say, looking around. I reserve the right to choose someone who is not on this list (it’s just lunch!), but here are the players I’m scoping out from across the crowded room so far:
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State. A senior who has gotten better every year he has been in college, excels in all facets of the game and kills it with charisma at the postgame press conference. Be still my beating heart.
Georges Niang, Iowa State. Smart, sophisticated, classy and versatile as all get-out. He can play for me any day.
Roosevelt Jones, Butler. Tough as cuss, smart as a whip, funniest looking jump shot on planet Earth. Winner, winner, winner.
Rapheal Davis, Purdue. He defends, he leads, he wins, he has a great last name. Hubba hubba.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma. Not just a volume shooter but a volume maker. Comes from the Bahamas and carries the beautiful spirit of the islands.
Kris Dunn, Providence. Kicks butt and takes names at both ends of the floor. Has overcome enormous obstacles in his life, including the absences, for a time, of both of his parents. Plus, I kind of have a thing for Ed Cooley, a great coach with a huge personality coaching at his hometown school and alma mater. That’s a crushing combo.