Kentucky, Duke ... TCU? Tracking the 10 remaining unbeaten teams
It’s hard to imagine right now, but almost a third of the college basketball season is already over. The road is leading right into conference play, and teams are running out of chances to grab those elusive quality non-conference wins.
Although it’s incredibly difficult to finish the regular season unbeaten (which makes Wichita State’s 34-0 through the Missouri Valley tournament last year so incredible), without fail every year there are a few teams -- like Syracuse last year -- that get out to hot starts and stay unbeaten well into conference play.
Here is a look at the 10 remaining unbeatens and a prediction for when (if at all) they’ll get tripped up.
Bear in mind the potential slip-up below is in no way indicating that the Wildcats will lose. It’s time to take the approach with Kentucky that college football writers do with Florida State: do not pick them to lose. Just go with it and enjoy the ride. Kentucky is that video game team you create when you constantly maneuver and trade around to stockpile draft picks until you end up with every good young player (real or pretend) out there. Then you look up and you’ve had a simulated season where everything went right. Except this isn’t a video game. This is real life. And John Calipari is making it work despite the fact these are prized recruits with egos.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: North Carolina (Dec. 13)
Duke Blue DevilsRecord: 8-0
KenPom Rating: 2
Notable Wins: Michigan State, Stanford, Wisconsin
Yes, Jahlil Okafor really is that good. And that shouldn’t have been a surprise. What has been relatively surprising is how quickly Justise Winslow translated his game to the college level. The freshman from Houston was supposed to be a little rough around the edges, but he has already shown flashes of brilliance and the potential to take over games. The Blue Devils don’t need Winslow to do everything – they’ve got plenty of talent to share the load as he develops.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Connecticut (Dec. 18)
The Cavs march on with efficient offense and some of the best defense in the country, and it’s time to wonder if last year’s 30 wins weren’t an aberration but instead a harbinger of things to come. Virginia really shouldn’t be this good, this fast after losing a player as critical to its success as Joe Harris, but there are so many ways the Cavaliers can beat you, from Malcolm Brogdon to Anthony Gill to Justin Anderson to even Mike Tobey. If all else fails, trust the pack-line.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Harvard (Dec. 21)
When Rick Pitinio hinted that the Cards would be fine at point guard even though Russ Smith was gone, there was the sense he knew something everyone else didn’t. And even though Chris Jones averaged 10.2 points per game last season, sliding into a major contributing role isn’t always a smooth transition. He’s handled it well, but he needs to become more of a distributor and less reliant on his 33 percent shooting. Luckily Jones has plenty of complementary weapons to choose from, including potential player of the year Montrezl Harrell.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Kentucky (Dec. 27)
How’s this for a KenPom prediction: As of Dec. 12, Villanova is predicted to win the rest of its games. None of the other unbeatens can say that right now, not even Kentucky (which is currently slotted in for a one-point loss at Louisville). That’s a testament to ‘Nova’s balance and depth, as the Wildcats have eight players averaging at least five points per game. They’ve upped their play on the defensive end of the floor this season so far, having beaten a variety of styles. With the emergence of Daniel Ochefu, Villanova is no longer defined just by “good guard play.” There’s still the potential the team goes cold and drops a couple here or there, but there are too many experienced players on this team to think Villanova won’t be the class of the Big East.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Syracuse (Dec. 20)
The Wildcats started last season 21-0, so it’s really no surprise to see them streaking once again despite losing Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon to the NBA. Sean Miller has been recruiting at an extremely high level, and do-it-all freshman Stanley Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance (and occasional youthful mistakes). Putting him with a group of extremely solid veterans in Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and T.J. McConnell seems almost unfair. With the way Arizona plays defense, they should be in every game.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Michigan (Dec. 13)
Northern Iowa PanthersRecord: 9-0
KenPom Rating: 32
Notable Wins: Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern, Richmond
Now’s the time to start finding your mid-major darlings, and the Panthers should be right near the top of the list. The primary reason: forward Seth Tuttle, who is shooting a ridiculous 64 percent through Northern Iowa’s first nine games. The senior put on a little weight in the offseason and does a little bit of everything. He’s helped the Panthers become one of the nation’s surprise unbeatens with a chance to challenge Wichita State for the Missouri Valley title.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: VCU (Dec. 13)
If you like smothering defenses and teams that block a lot of shots, then maybe it’s time to roll the dice on Lorenzo Romar’s bunch this year. Washington doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, but it makes getting a good shot tough on opponents and alters a lot of attempts near the rim with the size of sophomore Robert Upshaw and senior Shawn Kemp Jr. (yup, that Shawn Kemp’s son). Add in a heck of a well-rounded point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss (14.7 points, 6.9 assists, 5.6 rebounds) and there’s a dangerous basketball team.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: Oklahoma (Dec. 20)
Colorado State RamsRecord: 9-0
KenPom Rating: 60
Notable Wins: Georgia State, UTEP, Colorado
Colorado State is a great story this year. After going 26-9 in Larry Eustachy’s first year after Tim Miles left for Nebraska, the Rams dipped to 16-16 last season with a 7-11 record in Mountain West play. This year they’re getting it done at the free throw line and winning a bunch of close games. (The Rams have already won three games by three points or fewer). Those wins over Georgia State and Colorado should hold up and boost their tournament résumé, and the Rams have a good shot at finishing at or near the top of a crowded Mountain West along with San Diego State, Wyoming and Boise State.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: New Mexico State (Dec. 20)
TCU Horned Frogs
KenPom Rating: 62
Notable Wins: Mississippi State, Mississippi
While the Horned Frogs scheduled November and December like an old Big East team, there’s still reason to be excited. TCU boasts a solid defense and swept the SEC’s Mississippi Teams. The Horned Frogs are really going to need to do some damage in Big 12 play, as beating teams like New Orleans and Mississippi Valley State isn’t impressing anyone. The Horned Frogs are the least likely of the 10 teams to remain unbeaten, as KenPom gives them zero (!!) percent chance to finish undefeated overall and in conference play. In fact, they’re predicted to lose 13 games down the stretch. Come on, Mr. Pomeroy, at least Lloyd Christmas had a chance.
Soonest Potential Slip-up: West Virginia (Jan. 3)