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Assessing remaining unbeatens, Gonzaga's struggles and more mail

We begin, appropriately enough, with a query from Sin City asking me to predict the future.

Which undefeated team are you most surprised about and which one will stay undefeated the longest?-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

I am happy to offer my reply, Shane, especially since we lost two members of the undefeated ranks Tuesday night when Tennessee and Louisville fell at home to Oakland and Drexel, respectively. (Please don't tell Al Davis that Oakland is located in the state of Michigan.) But I must emphasize that these predictions are purely for entertainment purpose. So please, no wagering. Besides, anyone who drops lettuce in a Vegas sports book based on my opinions is a blazin' fool.

I've offered my list in order from least surprising to most. Herewith:

Kansas (9-0)

Degree of surprise (on a scale of 1 to 10): 0Aside from their neutral-court wins over Memphis and Arizona, the Jayhawks have loaded up on home cookin'. Time to hit the road, Jack.

Projected first loss: KU has a stretch of games beginning Jan. 9 in which it plays four out of seven games on the road, with games against Texas and Kansas State at home.

Baylor (6-0)

Degree of surprise: 0 To: Scott Drew. From: Seth. Feel free to play somebody. Anybody.

Projected first loss: Either at home against Kansas on Jan. 17 or at Kansas State a week later.

Duke (10-0)

Degree of surprise: 2Most figured the Devils would still be unbeaten, but it wasn't unreasonable to think they might get clipped during that tough two-week gauntlet against Marquette, Kansas State, Michigan State and Butler.

Projected first loss: Jan. 12 at Florida State. Given the weakness of the ACC, if it doesn't happen here, it might not happen until at least the middle of February.

Northwestern (6-0)

Degree of surprise: 3The Wildcats are good, but considering their best win came at home against Georgia Tech, the jury is out on just how good.

Projected first loss: Dec. 31 at Purdue. Even if it gets by the Boilermakers, Northwestern follows that with Michigan State at home and Illinois on the road. Anyone want to predict they'll go 3-0 in that stretch?

Cincinnati (8-0)

Degree of surprise: 3It would be higher if the Bearcats had beaten somebody half-decent. Their best win so far is at home against Dayton.

Projected first loss: Jan. 9 at Villanova. That's assuming they get past Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout three days before.

Ohio State (8-0)

Degree of surprise: 4The Buckeyes were ranked in top five to start the season, but it's not easy winning true road contests at Florida and Florida State.

Projected first loss: Jan. 22 at Illinois. That kicks off OSU's toughest Big Ten stretch, which won't let up until Feb. 26, when they get Indiana at home.

BYU (10-0)

Degree of surprise: 4You have to be really good and a little lucky to be undefeated, and the Cougs have been both. Their record includes a double-overtime win over South Florida and a one-point victory over Saint Mary's.

Projected first loss: Jan. 5 at UNLV. Should BYU get past this one, it will face a couple of trap games at Utah (Jan. 11) and at Colorado State (Jan. 22).

San Diego State (11-0)

Degree of surprise: 5Like everyone else, I knew the Aztecs would be good. But considering they've played four true road games (including at Gonzaga and Cal), I thought they might have slipped up at least once by now.

Projected first loss: Jan. 26 at BYU. How fun this will be if both teams enter this game undefeated. San Diego State knows quite well that it takes some doing to win in Provo.

Syracuse (10-0)

Degree of surprise: 6Based on their early offensive struggles, I didn't think the Orange could get past Michigan State, much less win in such convincing fashion.

Projected first loss: Jan. 17 at Pitt, or at home Jan. 22 against Villanova.

UCF (8-0)

Degree of surprise: 7The Knights have played a pretty weak schedule so far, but regardless of what you think of Florida, beating the Gators at Amway Center was solid.

Projected first loss: Dec. 18 vs. Miami. If UCF can pull this out on a neutral court, the Knights will still have two road tests looming at UMass (Dec. 22) and Houston (Jan. 8).

Cleveland State (12-0)

Degree of surprise: 7I'm not doubting the Vikings are good, I'm simply withholding judgment. Still, to be undefeated to this point despite having played five true road games is darn impressive.

Projected first loss: Saturday at West Virginia. If the Vikes pull this one off, then circle Jan. 7 on your calendar. That's when they travel to Hinkle Fieldhouse to play Butler. It will be the game of the year in the Horizon League.

Connecticut (8-0)

Degree of surprise: 8The only reason I'm not more surprised is because of that crotchety Irish guy on the sidelines. How silly we all were to doubt him.

Projected first loss: Dec. 27 at Pitt. This starts a brutal stretch in which the Huskies play three out of four games on the road. (The other two road games are at Notre Dame and Texas.)

Now on to the rest of your e-mails.

Do you think there is a particular style of basketball (post-up, flex, dribble drive, Princeton, etc.) that appears to be more effective than the others? How would you rank them? Please assume you can recruit the players needed for that particular style.-- Eric, Huntsville, Ala.

The basic answer is no, I don't believe one system is more effective than another. The bottom line is, the team with the greater talent usually wins. If a team with lesser talent wins, it has more to do with that coach's ability to teach his guys his system, rather than which system he has chosen to teach.

Jim Boeheim is a great example. Syracuse doesn't win so often because a zone is a better way of playing defense than man-to-man. After all, Bob Knight won 902 games and you can count on two hands the number of possessions when his teams played zone. The reason Boeheim's teams win is because a) he recruits great players, and b) he is totally committed to playing zone all the time. He knows the system and he teaches it very, very well.

This is largely a matter of taste, but if I were a coach -- or if I were looking to hire a coach -- I would favor a high-possession, high-scoring attack over ball-control systems like the flex (Gary Williams, Bo Ryan) or the Princeton (John Thompson III, Bill Carmody). A running game is easier to recruit to and more fun to watch. Plus, you have a chance to keep guys from transferring because you can play a deep rotation. I'm thinking Bruce Pearl, Mike Anderson, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino. There's lots of ways to skin a cat, but that's how I'd skin mine.

On Monday, I assessed the free-throw performances for 26 of the nation's top teams. That's a healthy number, but as usual, for my devoted readers it was not enough.

I enjoyed your article comparing free-throw shooting among top teams. However, it would have been nice if you had included 17th-ranked BYU in your analysis of 26 top teams. I recall them being a very good free-throw shooting team last year and wondered how they compared this year.-- Alan LeVar, Arkadelphia, Ark.

Why did the Buckeyes get left out of your free throw analysis? Simple oversight and should we start the conspiracy theories?-- Jim Young, Longview, Wash.

I generally looked for teams that were either really good or really bad from the foul line. Both these teams fell somewhere in between. However, since Alan and Jim took the time to write, I'm happy to oblige.

BYU

FT percentage: 69.0 (156th nationally)FT rate: 38.4 (173)FT distribution: 20.5 (205)

Inside the numbers: The Cougars' numbers aren't exactly off the charts, but through their first 10 games they attempted 44 more free throws than their opponents, so they must be doing something right. More important, The Jimmer, who has the ball in his hands the most at the end of games, is converting a cool 88.2 percent.

Ohio State

FT percentage: 70.0 (126)FT rate: 34.6 (233) FT distribution: 17.9 (281)

Inside the numbers: The Buckeyes' biggest problem is that their two leading scorers, Jared Sullinger and David Lighty, are both sub-70 percent foul shooters. (Lighty is actually shooting 60 percent.) On the plus side, they are ranked first nationally in defensive free-throw rate. So even if they're not capitalizing the way they should, at least they're doing a great job keeping their opponents off the line.

What's going on with my Gonzaga Bulldogs? Three straight losses and a sub-.500 record -- this ain't right. I knew the loss of Matt Bouldin would hurt, but we still have talent on this roster. Should I be concerned about this team missing the tourney for the first time since 1998? Please tell me, "It's still early ..."-- Danny, Yakima, Wash.

It's still early ... but it's getting late a lot earlier than it used to. Gonzaga has a close win over Marquette in neutral-court Kansas City, but beyond that the Zags came up short in all of their other significant nonconference tests. Their game against Baylor in Dallas on Saturday is critical. If they lose, their best chance for a decent nonconference win comes at home against Xavier next Wednesday.

The Bulldogs' problems are not hard to pinpoint. I spy three. The biggest issue by far has been their defense. Check out these national rankings: Defensive efficiency, 108th. Scoring defense, 256th. Field-goal-percentage defense, 224th. Three-point defense, 314th. Blocks, 258th. Steals, 197th.

The second concern is the play of junior point guard Demetri Goodson. He is a starter who plays nearly 25 minutes a game, yet he is only averaging 4.6 points. Goodson does a pretty good job of taking care of the ball, but on the whole Gonzaga is committing 15.2 turnovers per game. If you're not going to lock up opponents on D, the least you can do is limit your opponents' possessions.

Finally, sophomore forward Elias Harris suffered a bruised Achilles tendon a few weeks ago, and he is clearly not the same player he was last year. Harris is averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, down from 14.6 and 6.7 as a freshman.

Finally, as usual, I got several questions regarding my AP ballot:

What quality teams has Washington beaten? Like you said you need to earn a spot in the Top 25. Texas A&M won against Temple and beat Washington, yet you aren't going to rank them.-- Jon White, Austin, Texas

What do you define as a "quality win"? I ask because of your comment that BYU's only quality win is over Arizona (ranked No. 17 by Pomeroy and No. 34 by Sagarin). Yet BYU has also beat Saint Mary's (ranked No. 33 by Pomeroy and No. 32 by Sagarin) and Utah State (ranked No. 42 by both Pomeroy and Sagarin). Do you disagree with those ratings of Saint Mary's and Utah State? Or do you simply have a higher threshold for "quality win"?-- Joseph, Wilmington, Del.

You state that teams need to beat someone to be ranked. Well, who has Purdue and Memphis beaten? Don't say Virginia Tech, because they are the most overrated team in the land. Old Dominion has beaten Xavier and Clemson on a neutral court, Dayton and Richmond at home. ODU's RPI is 13. What gives?-- Joe, Virginia Beach, Va.

These are all reasonable questions, and they speak to the subjectivity of the rankings. Generally, two answers come to mind. The first is that I only have 25 spots and there are many more teams that are worthy of consideration. Second, while I try not to be totally beholden to my rankings from previous weeks, it is hard to really shake things up in the absence of significant losses. Thus, teams like the ones listed above can amass "quality wins," but they might not move up in a given week because the teams above them don't deserve to be knocked down.

With respect to Joseph's question, my main definition of a "quality win" is one that happens a) against another team that I have ranked, and b) away from home. I thought about ranking Texas A&M, but I just didn't think a one-point win at home, even against a good team like Washington, warranted a ranking. I do not have Temple ranked right now, so it was hard to rank them based on that. Plus, I had to account for the Aggies' neutral-court loss to Boston College. Texas A&M is good and I considered ranking them, but I just didn't have the room.

Meanwhile, Washington may have lost to Texas A&M, but I watched the game and the Huskies passed my eye test, just as they did when they played Kentucky and Michigan State tough in Maui before losing. Like I said, it's a subjective exercise.

Finally, I actually did take a close look at Old Dominion. The Monarchs lost a close one to Georgetown, but it was at home. They also dropped one on the road at Delaware, which Joe from Virginia Beach conveniently forgot to mention. The good news is, ODU can still convince the voters it deserves to be ranked. All it has to do is win at Missouri on Dec. 30. Easy, right?

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