THE UNDEFEATEDS: Which of those seven teams will last the longest?
There are now just seven undefeated teams left in college basketball after TCU, Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Butler lost last week.
Today, we’ll take you through each of those seven teams, letting you know whether or not they are truly contenders or simply a product of their schedule while letting you know precisely when they are going to take their first loss.
TOP 25 TEAMS
No. 16 South Carolina (8-0): The Gamecocks are the easiest team on this list to pick. They’ve been steadily climbing in the polls because they’re undefeated and own wins over the likes of Michigan and Syracuse, and their defense is legit. As of today, they’re ranked fifth in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric, and that’s not a fluke. Frank Martin’s club has veteran, tough and athletic guys at every spot on the floor that thrive in his overplaying, half-court man-to-man defense. The Gamecocks are real in the sense that they’re probably the second-best team in the SEC this season, but A) that isn’t saying all that much and B) those wins over Syracuse and Michigan looked much more impressive at the time than they do right now.
- First loss will be 12/12 vs. Seton Hall, 8-0: The Gamecocks will be playing a game in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against a good team from New Jersey without their best player in Sindarius Thornwell. Seton Hall isn’t going to be intimidated by over-aggressive defenses.
No. 24 USC Trojans (9-0): Once again, the Trojans are playing above their heads. For a team that entered the season with just four players that had played a second of basketball for USC prior to the season, it’s impressive that Enfield has managed to steer them to a 9-0 with wins at Texas A&M, at home against SMU and over BYU on a neutral court. It’s worth noting they’ve won four of those games without Bennie Boatwright, their starting four-man who has dealt with knee an back injuries.
- First loss will be 12/30 at Oregon, 13-0: The Trojans will playing their second road game in three days when they play in Eugene, and by then, it’s probably fair to assume that this Oregon team, who was in the top five in the preseason will get things figured out. The key? When does Boatwright get back.
THEY CAN MAKE A FINAL FOUR
No. 4 Baylor (8-0): Baylor has been the most surprising team in college basketball this season. The Bears have piled up wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier, which is impressive of a résumé as you’ll find at this point in the season. If they can find a way to beat Kansas at some point during the regular season and win either a share of the Big 12 regular season title or the Big 12 tournament, the Bears could realistically end up getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. I’m not yet ready to say that Baylor is in the same class as the likes of KU, Kentucky, Duke, Villanova or UCLA, but I am ready to say that every single one of us missed wildly on how good Baylor would be this season.
- First loss will be 1/10 at West Virginia, 15-0: The Mountaineers are another team we missed on in the preseason, and I think they provide a nightmare matchup for Baylor. The Bears strength is their front court, but that can get taken away by the pressure WVU provides. As good as he’s been this season, I’m not totally sold on Manu Lecomte yet. I think pressure can beat the Bears, and no one has a tougher press than Press Virginia.
No. 10 Creighton (10-0): Through the first month of the season, the Bluejays look like they might be the second-best team in the Big East as Xavier continues to try and figure out how they are going to make threes this season. Creighton doesn’t have that issue, as they rank second nationally in both effective field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Their top six three-point shooters are all shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the are, and three of those six are knocking down more than half of their three-point attempts. This team is more talented than the team Creighton had during Doug McDermott’s senior season.
- First loss will be 1/16 at Xavier, 18-0: Xavier is still trying to find themselves, but there are two things you can count on with a program run by Chris Mack: toughness and defense will never, ever be an issue. They’re hard to beat in the Cintas Center and there’s a chance that Myles Davis will be back by then. I don’t want to bet against Xavier in a situation like that were they really need a win.
THEY CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE
No. 1 Villanova (10-0): The Wildcats managed to remain unbeaten thanks to a masterful performance from Josh Hart, who had 37 points and 11 boards to send No. 23 Notre Dame to their first loss of the season. Villanova is the reigning national champion, so of course they have the ability to repeat as national champs; like Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine last season, Hart has really improved as a senior.
Villanova is also playing without Phil Booth, who has a knee injury. This group deserves to be in the same conversation as the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA, the biggest brands with the most talent in the sport. Jay Wright may not have NBA scouts beating down the doors of practice to get a look at the guys on his roster, but this veteran group is greater as a whole than the sum of their parts.
- First loss will be 12/31 at Creighton, 13-0: Creighton has always been a tough matchup for Villanova because Creighton plays the same kind of small-ball, four-around-one style. What’s traditionally made Villanova so difficult for opponents to matchup with is that they create mismatches offensively because their players are versatile defenders. Creighton, however, can do the same thing. Cole Huff, the Bluejays four-man, can play as a small forward and is most comfortable on the perimeter. He will have no issues defending the lines of Eric Paschall or Kris Jenkins. Throw in the fact that Creighton packs 17,000 fans into their home games, and I think they can hand the Wildcats their first loss.
No. 8 Gonzaga (10-0): Of the seven teams left without a loss, I think Gonzaga probably has the best chance to get to the NCAA tournament unblemished. Part of that is because they play in the West Coast Conference, a league every road game is their opponent’s Super Bowl but those opponents are decidedly mid-major competition. Gonzaga? They’re as high-major as high-major gets and have a roster that is stocked with talent.
Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have played really well together in the back court, while Jordan Mathews works as a floor-spacer and Silas Melson has seemed to embrace his role within the team. But the front court is where this team is so exciting. Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III are veterans that fit well together, but there’s an argument to be made that their freshmen backups - Killian Tillie and Zach Collins - are the second-best front court pairing in the league. I think this is the best team that Mark Few has had in Spokane, and that includes the Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk years.
- First loss will be 2/11 at Saint Mary’s, 25-0: This year is the first time that the Zags have reached 10-0 since joining Division I. They’ll have three real tests before their road trip to Moraga - they’re at Tennessee this weekend, they host the Gaels in mid-January and visit BYU in early February - but if they can get to this game unscathed, they’ll likely have a shot to be undefeated when the postseason comes around.
No. 2 UCLA (10-0): We mentioned earlier how Creighton’s offense is a powerhouse. Well, UCLA is the only team in the country that has a higher effective field goal percentage, a higher three-point percentage and they play at a faster pace. In fact, UCLA is currently shooting 47.1 percent from three. Only one team since 1997 has shot better than 45 percent from three, and that was Northern Colorado in 2011-12. That UNC team shot 16 threes per game. This UCLA team shoots 24.
In other words, it’s not crazy to say that this UCLA team could end up being the best three-point shooting team in college basketball history if they can find a way to keep up this pace through league play. But even if they don’t, this is not a team that relies entirely on the three-ball. They have a guy named Lonzo Ball - I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, he’s not bad - that makes them lethal in transition and has transformed that roster into one of the most unselfish in the country.
- First loss will be 2/25 at Arizona, 28-0: I think UCLA can get past their road trip to Oregon three days after Christmas mostly because I think that the Bruins will have a bit of an advantage over USC; they play the Ducks on the first day of the road trip. The trip to play the Mountain teams (Colorado and Utah) is always tricky given the altitude, and that starts a stretch where they play five of seven on the road, including at USC and capped with a visit to Markelle Fultz and Washington. But I think this group gets through all that mostly because I think the Pac-12 is down this year. Where I think they get tripped up is at Arizona, who should have Parker Jackson-Cartwright (and maybe/hopefully Allonzo Trier) back and who should be getting the best out of Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins. That’s a fierce rivalry that only has fuel added to the fire by T.J. Leaf, a UCLA player that was originally an Arizona commit.