Quinn Buckner felt no joy as the dominoes fell. First Wyoming. Then Arizona. Then Duke. Then Michigan. One by one, the last remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball suffered their first losses, all in the course of five days. We hadn't even reached the midway point of January, yet we were ensured that there would be no perfect season in 2013.
Buckner, of course, knows all about perfection. He was a 6-foot-3 senior guard on the last team to run the table without a blemish, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. It has now been 37 years since that mission was accomplished. Yet, when I spoke to Buckner on the phone Wednesday afternoon, he claimed to have experienced neither vindication nor elation. "Coach [Bob Knight] put it in the best perspective," he said. "The '76 team is never going to be beaten. It stands on its own life. So I'm comfortable with the idea that some other kids might be able to have that experience someday.
"But as you well know," he added, "it's difficult."
Not difficult, I say. Impossible.
It is no accident that so many years have passed without a repeat. Only two teams have come close. In 1991, UNLV reached the Final Four without having lost a game, but the Rebels were upset in the semifinals by Duke. In 2004, Saint Joseph's went 27-0 during the regular season, only to crap out in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Hawks eventually lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.
You're never supposed to say never in sports, but this is one case where we can make an exception. Write it down: There will never be another perfect season in college basketball. The Indiana 76ers will forever remain the last team standing. Here's why:
What's striking is that Buckner doesn't even remember being asked about it by the media. Then again, there wasn't much "media" back then. That world is vastly different today. Think of all the attention that descended on Michigan, the last unbeaten team, as it took the court at Ohio State on Sunday. The young Wolverines were so choked by the enormity of the challenge that they immediately dug themselves a 21-point hole. Imagine if that game were being played on March 13 instead of Jan. 13. The players would hardly be able to breathe.
Thus, not only were the 76ers supremely talented, they also had wisdom that only comes through experience. It's hard to imagine today's elite players copying that template. They simply don't stay around long enough.
"We knew how hard it was to win a championship because we had been through so much adversity," Buckner said. "We knew that we couldn't afford to do any kind of thinking ahead. We were seasoned."
Likewise, the '91 UNLV squad had three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup. That's because it came before the watershed moment in 1995, when Kevin Garnett jumped from high school to the number five pick in the draft. Ever since then, the best players in college have stampeded to the draft at the first opportunity. Now, a team might be able to assemble the requisite talent to win every game, but not the experience. And experience is just as important.
The challenge of staying unbeaten is so great, in fact, that I have long argued that a team is far better off losing a game before it enters the NCAA tournament. It's hard enough to win those six games without also having to lug around the weight of history. The best thing that happened to Kentucky last year was losing to Indiana in December. Even though the Wildcats only lost one game the rest of the way, that early setback removed the specter of perfection. If those young Cats had entered March or even late February without a loss, there's no way they could have handled it.
Not surprisingly, Buckner took exception with that argument. "I don't subscribe to that at all," he said. "You can learn by winning just as must as you can learn by losing, as long as you've had to overcome some adversity." I understand a competitor's pride, but I also understand where this game came from, where it is now, and where it is heading. With each passing year, with each cultural change, the prospect of this happening again gets less likely, not more.
That's why this is one time where we really can say never. The pursuit of perfection just isn't worth it. At the end of the day, it's far more important to win your last game than all the ones that preceded it.
Other Hoop Thoughts
?UNLV served some serious notice with its win at San Diego State Wednesday night. It not just the fact that the Rebels won but the way they won that impressed me. They did it with rebounding, hard-nosed defense, and unselfishness. Remember, the Rebels didn't have Khem Birch available until mid-December, and when he came back, Mike Moser dislocated his elbow. Moser is now fully recovered, so this is the first time the Rebels have been at full strength. Prepare for liftoff.
?On the flip side, the Aztecs have got to find themselves some inside scoring, somehow, some way. They just don't shoot it well enough otherwise.
?Big stretch coming up for Kansas State. They've got the league's other two undefeated teams coming to Little Manhattan over the next few days: Kansas on Saturday, and Oklahoma on Monday. A split is the bare minimum.
?I know it was a blowout at home, but Phil Pressey only took six shots in Missouri's win over Georgia Wednesday night. Perhaps Frank Haith is starting to tighten the reins a little bit.
?Michigan State point guard Keith Appling's shooting woes just won't go away. He went 3-for-11 in the Spartans' win over Penn State Wednesday, making him 9-for-36 from the field (and 1-for-9 from three) in his last four games. He also missed the last six shots against Minnesota, which means he's actually made 9 of his last 42 attempts. I think Appling is a terrific player, but I maintain that he is out of position at the point, and that is taking a toll on his scoring abilities.
?Tough break for Georgetown, which lost 6-8 sophomore forward Greg Whittington due to academics. No word yet on when -- or if -- he'll be back.
?You could do a lot worse than watch nothing but Mountain West games the rest of the season.
?On Nov. 28, Wisconsin lost at home to Virginia. On Jan. 15, the Badgers won at Indiana. You think Bo knows what he's doing?
?Although even Bo's magic is not able to help Ryan Evans with his free throw shooting. I've never seen a player go from making 73 percent from the line as a junior to making 39 percent as a senior. As Yogi Berra would say, 90 percent of his problem is half-mental.
?I realize that nitpicking Kansas is like spotting a mole on Megan Fox's face, but I'm concerned that Elijah Johnson hasn't progressed into a more confident and effective point guard. That has hurt the Jayhawks' ability to score in the halfcourt.
?We had two awesome buzzer beaters this week. On Tuesday, Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson hit an end-of-regulation bomb against Vanderbilt, which allowed the Rebels to prevail in overtime. And last night, Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova drilled a 30-foot game-winner at BYU. You know what those two shots had in common? Neither was preceded by a time out. Ball don't lie.
?It's fair to say that Pitt freshman center Steven Adams has been a disappointment. He has reached double-figure scoring just twice in his last 12 games, and even though he's seven feet tall he's only averaging about six rebounds a game. I hope Adams is not having any more thoughts about entering the NBA draft. He could really benefit from an off-season of strength and conditioning work as well as a more productive sophomore season.
?That goes double for North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo. If he were having this kind of season at, say, Virginia Tech, would anybody be talking about him as a first-round pick? McAdoo has talent, but if he plays this softly in the ACC, what would those NBA guys do to him? Eat him alive, that's what.
?I don't like that Indiana's guards have so much trouble creating their own shots. Most of their looks have to come through patterned sets. That's a problem that needs to be fixed.
?It's natural to focus on the ups and downs that Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer has experienced as a scorer. But his biggest problem is that he's a huge liability on defense. Perimeter D is already a big concern on this team. Having Wiltjer on the floor just makes it worse -- and all the league coaches know it.
?Anyone else want to throw out Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk's name for All-American?
?The only thing more overrated than depth is "bench scoring." Who cares where a team's points come from?
?In the wake of Rotnei Clarke's scary neck collision, Butler coach Brad Stevens said it was time to figure out a way to move basketball stanchions further off the court. I had never thought of that before, but it's a great suggestion. There has to be a way to design baskets to give the players more room. Even a few feet could make a world of difference. And if there's a way to hang them from the top of an arena, all the better.
?I don't think poll rankings are hugely important, but I don't agree that they are meaningless. To wit: VCU showed up at number 25 in the AP poll this week. That's the first time the school has been ranked since the 1984-85 season. That tells you something.
? Purdue is in the midst of a rebuilding season, and it's 50/50 at best that the Boilermakers will make the NCAA tournament. And yet, every time I turn on a Purdue game, Mackey Arena is packed to the gills, and the joint is rocking. That's how real fans roll.
?Looks like Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon has hit the freshman wall a little early. Let's see if it knocks him back, or if he can break through it.
?Here's hoping that Xavier freshman guard Semaj Christon spends his entire off-season living in the gym and getting up shots. If that kid ever develops a long-range touch, he's gonna make a lot of dough.
?Those alleged details of Wyoming guard Luke Martinez's bar fight are pretty disquieting. According to published reports, Martinez admitted to kicking a man in the head "like it was a football" while he was lying on the ground. Martinez broke his hand in the fight and has been suspended indefinitely. If those details are true, he'll be lucky to avoid jail time.
?Notre Dame has to be careful about not letting its jump shooting dictate how well it plays in every other area of the game. That's no way to get Capone.
Dipping Into The Mailbag
The timing of this email was too delicious to pass up. Shehab obviously wrote to me before N.C. State lost at Maryland on Wednesday night. He demands respect for his team on the basis of its win over Duke. Yet, his team was so over-the-moon thrilled, it was not emotionally prepared to beat a conference road opponent that was also in dire need of a win. I wonder if I'll be getting his mea culpa in my inbox this morning?
Even if Ryan Kelly were playing, I would have picked the Wolfpack to win. They're a very good team, they were playing at home, and the Blue Devils were due for a loss. But anyone who think Kelly's injury wasn't a big factor is just wearing red-tinted glasses. The bigger concern for N.C. State is the poor way they handled that success. Wolfpack fans were all over me again Wednesday night because I wrote on Twitter that the team's excessive celebration of the Duke win may have contributed to its loss to the Terps. My take: "If you act like you've been there before, maybe you'll get there again."
There is no doubt this Wolfpack team has a lot of talent -- more talent than any other ACC team, including Duke -- but it has not handled the burden of expectations well. The Pack came into the season as the favorite to win the ACC, but it was run out of the gym at Oklahoma State and was lucky to hang on to beat UNC Asheville. (Although it did score a solid win over UConn that looks even better in retrospect.) Only when N.C. State dropped off everyone's radar (and my AP ballot, briefly) did the players regain their focus. Now they have to regain it again.
By the way, I made the same observation about Maryland after Terps fans rushed the court Wednesday night. The players and coach Mark Turgeon also showed a lot of elation (although Turgeon later expressed displeasure with the way his team played in the postgame interview). I realize this program hasn't had something to get excited about for a while, but a big win can do a lot of damage to a team's competitive edge. We'll see how the team responds in the coming days and weeks, but the initial signs were not encouraging.
The message here is the same as my first answer. The way a team handles both success and adversity will dictate how it responds to such situations in the future. Colorado's loss at Arizona was a major bummer, but that does not excuse the Buffaloes were reacting so poorly. I'm talking specifically about Tad Boyle, who I think is a terrific basketball coach. Instead of saying his team should take responsibility for blowing a 16-point lead at Arizona and missing a ton of free throws, he focused on the refs' decision to wave off an apparent game-winning three-pointer. Boyle said afterward that his players "deserved" to win, and he argued that college basketball should get rid of replays altogether. Boyle also complained to the league office that the refs had made an illegal substitution late in the game.
Of course, if Sabatino Chen's three-pointer had counted, Colorado would have had to deal with the challenge of the elation. Such is the nature of sports. Maybe if Boyle and his players had handled their disappointment better, they wouldn't have lost two days later at Arizona, and the following week at home to UCLA, and Wednesday night at Washington. This team has some good players, but the reality is, it's currently 1-4 in the Pac 12. The Buffaloes have some growing up to do.
Withey might be getting overlooked elsewhere, but not on this website. Luke Winn and I included him on our first team All-America squad. To be candid, Luke was the one who argued for Withey to be on the first team. I had him on the second team. Still, he has been my runaway choice for defensive player of the year for quite some time. What he is doing in Lawrence is truly remarkable. Not only is Withey second in the nation in blocks at 4.7 per game, but he has committed a grand total of 20 fouls in 16 games.
It will be hard for Withey to garner National Player of the Year consideration because he is not a great offensive player. My pick right now is McDermott. But anybody who follows this sport knows that Withey is one of the most valuable players in the country, and that Kansas would not be nearly as good without him.
The young Wolverines won't face the pressure of being undefeated in this one. They'll just face a Minnesota team that is experienced, tough and playing at home. The Gophers are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and they have their own perimeter sharp shooter in Andre Hollins. For the second straight game, Michigan's rubber will hit the road ... on the road.
Kansas guard Ben McLemore twisted his ankle toward the end of Monday's win over Baylor, but it sounds like he'll be available for this one. That's bad news for a Texas that is off to an 0-3 start in the Big 12.
Louisville probably won't hold on to the number one ranking the rest of the way, but I do think this is the best team in America. The only time the Cardinals have been threatened this season is when they have had injuries or foul trouble. In this case, it's Syracuse who is short-handed, as senior forward James Southerland remains ineligible for academic reasons.
This should be a trap game of sorts for Arizona, but I think they'll be ready for it. The Wildcats were humbled by a disappointing loss at Oregon last week, they're playing an in-state rival, and they're well aware that the Sun Devils are 14-3.
If Rotnei Clarke were playing, I would have gone with Butler, mostly because this game is in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Without Clarke, however, I don't think Butler has enough weapons to counter Gonzaga's red-hot center Kelly Olynyk.
It's a shame Laurence Bowers isn't playing, because the Tigers would have given the Gators a run for their money in Gainesville. I know Erik Murphy is slowed by a cracked rib, but I'd still like to see him play a more prominent role in Florida's offense.
Tom Izzo keeps saying he has a "weird" team. But they do seem to keep winning, don't they? Ohio State had no midweek game, so that should enable the Buckeyes to reset their emotions after the big win over Michigan, but I still think the Buckeyes are too offensively challenged to win in the Breslin Center.
UCLA has terrific chemistry right now. The rotation is set, the players know their roles, they share the ball, and they are clearly loving the up-tempo style that Ben Howland has put in place. The young Ducks are going to have a hard time mustering the defensive intensity they will need to pull this one off on the road.
This has the potential to be one of those really ugly Big East games, so watch at your own risk. Marquette is 4-0 in the Big East, but two of those wins were in overtime, and another was by a point. They're not due, they're overdue.
As I wrote in my mailbag, the Terps scored an important and emotionally draining win at home over N.C. State on Wednesday night. Now they're hitting the road to play a desperate conference opponent. I spy a swinging pendulum.