Editor’s Note: Joe Nelson’s college basketball selections can be purchased daily on VegasInsider.com. Click to win!
Not since Indiana in 1975-76 has there been a college basketball team to go the entire season undefeated. The Hoosiers are one of just six teams still without a loss as we approach the conference season following the holiday break this year. The chances are not good for any of these six teams to make it all the way but here is a closer look at the remaining teams with perfect records.
Syracuse (13-0): Despite being in the headlines for the wrong reasons early in the year the Orange have rattled off a perfect start to the season. A brutal Big East slate is waiting but Syracuse sits on top of the polls, mainly by default with the top preseason contenders North Carolina, Ohio State, and Kentucky all taking an early loss. At this point the 13-0 mark for Syracuse is not terribly impressive. The Orange have a few decent wins but they have faced just one true road game all season and mainly have beaten up on light competition. The best win of the season has been a four-point win against a Florida team that seems to be emerging and there are a few other decent victories, beating Virginia Tech and Stanford in the NIT Tip Off as well as scoring a few minor wins over George Washington and NC State so far in December.
Given the size of the Big East, all schedules are not created equal but Syracuse will face a fairly tough draw. Of the three teams that Syracuse plays twice in conference play, two of them are top contenders with Louisville and Connecticut. Syracuse does benefit with the lone meeting with Marquette, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Georgetown being at the Carrier Dome and Syracuse conceivably could keep the undefeated run going for a while as they should be favored in every game until at least February as the early season road games are against some of the lesser teams in the conference.
The Orange have had some close calls already with three wins coming by six points or less but this is a team with four returning starters. Losing Rick Jackson, who was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, is a big loss but he is the only significant contributor gone from a team that went 27-8 and lost in the Sweet 16 a year ago. This team has balanced scoring with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche leading a veteran backcourt and senior forward Kris Joseph has led the team in scoring so far. Sophomore guard Dion Waiters has made a big jump this season nearly doubling his scoring average at this point in the season and this is a team that could still get better as highly skilled freshmen Rakeen Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams get more experience. Of the teams that are undefeated Syracuse does have the best shot to stay there for a while as the schedule is manageable and the Big East does not look as strong as usual this season.
Louisville (12-0): Also in the Big East Louisville brings a perfect record to the table through a dozen games. Louisville has had some real close calls however, beating Ohio by just five, needing overtime to dispose of Vanderbilt and also playing Memphis and College of Charleston down to the wire. The Cardinals have played a very light schedule overall so far this season so the record is likely a bit inflated. Louisville is just 4-4-1 ATS on the season as this team does not look capable of sustaining the perfect start.
There are a few big tests coming up with the conference opener against Georgetown next week and then a huge New Year’s Eve game with highly ranked Kentucky. The Big East schedule presents some challenges having to play Pittsburgh and Syracuse twice each as well as drawing tough road games at Marquette and at West Virginia. It would be a surprise for Louisville to still be undefeated when the calendar turns to 2012 and while this is certainly a team that will stay high up in the rankings, the Cardinals look more like a top 15 team than a top 5 team where they currently sit.
Since Rick Pitino took over at Louisville this has been a very successful program and this year the returning players should be motivated after a first game NCAA tournament exit last season. Two of the best players from last year’s team did not return this season as Preston Knowles and Terrence Jennings accounted for over 24 points per game. Smallish point guard Peyton Siva leads the offense flanked by sharp shooter Chris Smith. There is depth in the post and senior forward Kyle Kuric has led the team in scoring so far this season. The Cardinals could improve from the early season numbers with Rakeem Buckles and Kevin Ware finally in action after missing much of the early season and as usual there is great depth on this team and a great defensive intensity. Louisville will have a fine season and could certainly be fighting for a top seed in the NCAA tournament and a Big East title but this likely won’t be an undefeated team for long.
Baylor (12-0): The Bears are a team that the statistically oriented feel is greatly overvalued but at 12-0 this team continues to rise in the rankings and the ATS numbers also remain strong. Baylor lacks a marquee win but the Bears have five wins over roughly top 50 teams, beating San Diego State, Northwestern, BYU, St. Mary’s, and West Virginia. The rest of the schedule has been filled with fluff and several wins have come by slim margins including the recent overtime win over the Mountaineers. Baylor looks like a team that could be prone to a surprise upset but they have also played well in some of its biggest games and have two relatively impressive road wins at Northwestern and at BYU.
Baylor has one more key non-conference game with Mississippi State next week in Dallas before taking on a wide open Big XII. Missouri and Kansas appear to be the main threats in the conference but the Jayhawks haven’t looked quite as formidable as usual this season and Missouri is also still somewhat unproven. With the conference pared down to ten teams there is a true round-robin 18 game schedule so there are not any breaks with uneven scheduling. The game at Kansas is in early January and early February features a gauntlet of tough road games but Baylor won’t be more than a slight underdog in any game the rest of the way if it keeps its current pace.
Losing Lacedarius Dunn figured to be a huge blow to this squad but this was a disappointing team last season that went just 18-13. The best news was that Perry Jones III, a probable NBA lottery pick returned for his sophomore season and so far he has had a great start. The size on this team is very tough for anyone to match with seniors Anthony Jones and Quincy Acy joining Jones for a monstrous front court but the key to success for Baylor will be getting reliable guard play. Junior A.J. Walton does not need to be a great scoring threat but he needs to improve his assist to turnover ratio and it appears he is already losing time to Pierre Jackson a junior college transfer and Boston College transfer Brady Heslip has also been a very pleasant surprise. California transfer Gary Franklin also just recently became eligible and could take on a serious role in the rotation. Baylor appears on track for a special season and while this does not look like a team that can run the table the Bears should make amends for the ugly finish to last season.
Missouri (12-0): While Missouri figures to be one of the better teams in the Big XII the current 12-0 mark comes with very few significant tests. Wins over California, Villanova, and Illinois present some promise but Missouri has played zero true road games and the rest of the schedule has been embarrassingly bad, currently ranking #336 overall in the Sagarin strength of schedule ratings. By virtue of the weak slate the statistics are excellent, scoring 87 points per game on nearly 52 percent shooting both placing 2nd in the nation at this point.
While Missouri has flaws this is a team that could keep the undefeated run going for some time. They play at Baylor and at Texas in late January but they don’t play Kansas until February and not in Lawrence until late February. The Big XII looks up for grabs this season and Missouri will be favored in most conference games. The first road game of the season is coming up with a non-conference test at Old Dominion but even being untested the Tigers should be favored in the first three road games this season. Wins over Notre Dame and California came in neutral sites, albeit a very favorable venue in Kansas City and the Tigers beat Villanova in New York City so there are some building blocks for road success.
The reason Missouri is a Big XII and a national contender is five returning starters on this squad. Last year Missouri went 23-11 but saw an early NCAA tournament exit and Coach Mike Anderson departed for the Arkansas job. Frank Haith takes over a veteran team after coaching at Miami the last several years though his track record has not been great for the Hurricanes. It was a hiring that has met some criticism especially with the Nevin Shapiro scandal revelations but winning can wipe out a lot of the negative feelings. There are familiar names on the on the roster led by Kim English and Marcus Denmon in the backcourt and this is team that still plays nine to ten deep despite some changes in the philosophy. Missouri doesn’t have the size to match up well with the other top contenders in the Big XII but they will not be an easy out in any game and could be in the best position to break the reign on the conference that Kansas has held.
Indiana (12-0): It has been a while since Indiana has had a national presence in college basketball despite being one of the more storied programs in the nation. The Hoosiers have gone through a painful rebuilding process but the breakthrough year appears to be here in Coach Crean’s fourth year. Indiana only has one win that truly impresses but it was one of the most memorable wins of the season to date, upsetting then #1 Kentucky with a last second shot. Indiana also won at NC State and while wins over state rivals Butler and Notre Dame were important for the rebirth of the program, both of those teams appear to be down significantly this season. Even with the win over Kentucky the schedule has rated as one of the weakest in the nation and after going 3-15 in the Big Ten last season the Hoosiers still have a lot to prove.
Indiana draws some breaks in the Big Ten schedule which should help this team put together a reasonable record and return to the NCAA tournament. They have to play Ohio State twice but they play Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern just once each. The Hoosiers will close the season with five of the final seven games at home so they could get the late push they need if they fall to being a borderline case. Indiana must be able to keep its composure after a very tough start to the Big Ten season however. Indiana opens the conference season in East Lansing and then hosts Ohio State and Michigan in the first three games of the season. If the Hoosiers start 0-3 they must avoid falling into a losing streak like they have in past conference seasons.
This is a veteran team with four starters back in action and freshman Cody Zeller has made an immediate impact, leading the team with 15 points per game. Upperclassmen Verdell Jones, Jordan Hulls, and Christian Watford lead the team and all have plenty experience to help this team emerge as a contender for the postseason. Indiana has been a great early season story but this team is far from a lock for the NCAA tournament and the big win over Kentucky only carries so much weight. If they can hold home court in the conference season it will be a successful finish but given the opening slate of Big Ten games this team won’t be undefeated for long and still might be a long shot to even have a winning Big Ten record given how strong the conference looks this year.
Murray State (13-0): The Racers have been a force in the Ohio Valley and a postseason team the last two years, losing in the NIT opener last season to Missouri State and two years ago narrowly losing to Butler in the NCAA tournament before Butler went all the way to the championship game. Murray State is off to a perfect start and there are a few quality wins on the resume, beating Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, Dayton, and Memphis in four consecutive games at one point. The schedule so far is actually rated as the strongest of the six remaining undefeated teams as Murray State has five road wins and two neutral site wins but unfortunately for the Racers the Ohio Valley slate will turn the Racers into a very borderline NCAA tournament bubble case should they fail to win the conference tournament, even if they maintain an extremely strong record.
Only one other team in the Ohio Valley has a winning record at this point as Tennessee Tech is 6-5 and with four returning starters the Golden Eagles were the preseason favorite for most. Austin Peay and Tennessee State also figure to be very competitive despite poor records through incredibly tough non-conference slates at this point. Murray State has two top 50 wins so far this season but they will have virtually no margin for error the rest of the way. Murray State should be able to keep its undefeated run going into the New Year but they play at Austin Peay in a big game in early January that will be much tougher than it looks based on the 2-10 current record for the Governors. If the undefeated run continues, pressure will build late in the year, especially if the Racers are the lone undefeated team left in the nation. The final two games of the season could be the toughest, playing at Tennessee State and at Tennessee Tech in the span of three days to close the regular season.
Murray State was 14-4 in conference play last season but with just two starters back most projected this team to finish third or fourth in the conference. The Racers lost both starting guards from last season and junior Isaiah Canaan has picked up the load, leading the team with nearly 19 points per game. Murray State has shot 43 percent from 3-point range so far this season and nearly 49 percent overall, numbers that simply will be hard to keep up which leaves some concerns for this team. This is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the nation and this is a deep team with eight players generally playing close to 20 minutes a game but value may be going against the Racers playing with a target on its back against familiar foes in the Ohio Valley.