We have reached December, and it becomes the time of year when teams start to think about going undefeated as their numbers slowly dwindle. Now, we all know that teams like UNC and Memphis will be factors in March Madness, but every year a few teams make undefeated runs that surprise the college basketball world. With that in mind, let’s look at the current ranks of undefeateds in college basketball. We will ignore North Carolina, Duke, Georgetown, Memphis, Texas, Kansas and Washington State for now, as they have already justified themselves with big-time wins in the early season. That leaves only 10 undefeated teams to analyze. After the jump, I will proceed in order of surprise that the team is undefeated so far, from most to least.
Quick, name the league that is tied for the most teams on this list!
I’m sure you all guessed that the powerhouse that is the Southland Conference has two undefeated teams, UT-Arlington and Sam Houston State.
UT-Arlington, Justify Thyself!
Sadly, they cannot. The 7-0 Mavericks have played the 334th-ranked schedule in the nation, beating 3 non-DI opponents and only 1 team with a winning record. That team, North Texas, is not a bad team, but certainly not a win to hang one’s hat on.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: Wichita State tomorrow and Oklahoma State in 10 days. If those two things happen (far from likely), then we can start thinking about the Mavs in the NCAA Tournament (just doesn’t sound right, does it?).
Sam Houston State, Justify Thyself!
Well, they are more real than UT-Arlington, with an impressive win over Texas Tech that looks better and better by the day. Unfortunately, the Bearkats (yes, with a k) have also beat a wopping 4 non-DI opponents. They were the preseason favorites in the Southland, and are certainly a good team, but that scheduling is just terrible.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: San Diego State. 8-1 SDSU looks to be the only challenging non-conference game remaining on their schedule (on December 28th). If they beat SDSU, look for Sam Houston to start getting some pub, as they could be undefeated into late January.
Saint Mary’s, Justify Thyself: The other remaining mid-major undefeated (Memphis doesn’t count) is a dangerous team out of the WCC that should make it a two-bid league with Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s has a bona fide star in freshman Paddy Mills from Australia, and a pair of formidable big men that will serve it well in league play. St. Mary’s already has a big-time win over Oregon, and will look for more in the rest of their non-conference schedule.
They Might Go Undefeated If They Beat: Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that St. Mary’s will go undefeated, as they have a killer non conference schedule. Their next two games are against aforementioned SDSU and Southern Illinois. If they survive that gauntlet, they will play the hottest team in the nation, Texas, on January 5th. While St. Mary’s won’t go undefeated, they will have the consolation of playing well into March.
Miami (Fl.), Justify Thyself!
Miami was picked to finish dead-last in the ACC this year, but they are proving that prediction wrong. After winning a preseason tournament in Puerto Rico, Miami is a solid 6-0 with wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Providence. While there is absolutely no way that they will escape ACC play unscathed, their non-conference schedule could allow them to enter it undefeated. Miami will be lucky to get 8-8 in conference, so it needs every win it can get.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: If Miami can duplicate Clemson’s feat of beating Mississippi State in Starkville, they could enter ACC play undefeated. Their only other tough game is Winthrop on December 28th.
Clemson, Justify Thyself!
Speaking of Clemson, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: middle of the pack ACC team starts off undefeated, but without a signature win. Continues into ACC play undefeated, and then proceeds to miss the NCAA Tournament. Yes, Clemson is duplicating its undefeated start of last year down to a T; it has beaten several eh teams, but lacks a real win. Hopefully, Clemson has learned from last year’s collapse and will continue its strong play from the non-conference. With a healthy James Mays, its hard to see this team missing the tournament again.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: Honestly, the Tigers should be favored until they start ACC play with UNC at home in what could be a program-changing game. They do play fellow unproven undefeated Ole Miss in Puerto Rico on December 21st, but other than that, every non-conference game is eminently winnable.
Pittsburg, Justify Thyself!
Much like Clemson, Pitt has fattened up on cupcakes in the early non-conference schedule, as they are wont to do. Their best win might have been over Duquesne on Wednesday, which was not convincing to say the least. The Panthers usually play well in conference and are a perennial Sweet Sixteen team, but until they beat a tourney-quality team, I cannot classify them as for real.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: If Pitt can win their next three games, they will take their rightful place in the top-15. The first two, against Washington and Oklahoma State, should be wins, but both teams are dangerous. If Pitt can beat Duke, however, even I, one of their harshest skeptics, will be forced to admit that Jamie Dixon has done it again.
California, Justify Thyself!
Cal is one of the most overlooked unbeaten teams remaining in the nation. Picked 8th in the Pac-10, the Bears have ridden DeVon Hardin to impressive wins over Missouri and San Diego State. They seem to be a tournament team right now, but the grist mill that is the Pac 10 could wear them down throughout conference play in a conference where 9 out of 10 teams harbor NCAA tournament thoughts.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: Kansas State on Sunday. K-State has been disappointing this year, but a win by Cal would still carry a lot of weight. Kansas State is Cal’s last challenge until conference play.
Mississippi, Justify Thyself!
Ole Miss is another team that has gone under the radar as an undefeated this season. Their sole good win is over Steve Alford’s surprising New Mexico team, which does not figure to be much of a resume come Selection Sunday. That is why it is imperative that they do not stumble in non-conference play.
They Might Be For Real If They Beat: Clemson in Puerto Rico. Again, Clemson is the only good opponent remaining on Ole Miss’s non-conference slate. Regardless of the Clemson game, we will not know if the Rebels are for real until SEC conference play.
Vanderbilt, Justify Thyself!
Gary Parrish at Cbs.sportsline.com said that Vanderbilt might just be the best team in the SEC. I might have to agree with him. Behind Shan Foster and Andrew Ogilvy, Vandy has jumped out to an 8-0 start with wins over Bradley, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest. The Commodores look well on their way to another NCAA Tournament berth.
They Might Go Undefeated If: Vandy really does not have another challenging non-conference game on its schedule, so if they are for real, they will head into SEC play undefeated. The week of January 12th figures to be the acid test; if Vanderbilt can win at Kentucky and at Tennessee, they can start to think about running the table.
And Finally, Butler, Justify Thyself!
Butler is perhaps the most unsurprising undefeated team of the group to astute basketball fans. They return so much from their Sweet Sixteen team of last year, and have not disappointed so far. They have good wins over Virginia Tech and Texas Tech. They are the prohibitive favorite in the Horizon league, and will almost certainly be participants in March Madness. But could they go undefeated?
This Butler team reminds me of a slightly worse St. Joe’s 2004 team, which rode Delonte West and Jameer Nelson to a long undefeated streak and a Number 1 seed. However Butler faces challenges in the non-conference schedule, principally from Florida State (whom they should beat), and Southern Illinois, a team that plays a very similar style. Also, they could be tripped up by Bradley in between the two games. If they reach conference play undefeated, we can start to dream.