Thursday, January 17, 2013

Can College Basketball Produce an Undefeated Champion?

When the Indiana Hoosiers completed the 1975-76 season as undefeated NCAA Champions, few people probably thought that it would be 30-plus years (at least) before we saw another perfect championship team. After all, it was the fifth time in 13 seasons that the national champion had finished with an unblemished record.

However, in the 37 years since Bob Knight's squad pulled off the feat, no college basketball team has been able to match the level of perfection. Already this season, every Division I team has suffered at least one loss.

The 13-year stretch between 1964 and 1976 that produced five unbeaten champions is definitely the exception, rather than the norm, for two reasons: 1) the UCLA factor; and 2) there have actually only been seven undefeated champions since 1939, when the NCAA Tournament began.

UCLA had four unbeaten national championship seasons from 1964 through 1973. John Wooden's teams went undefeated in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973. Led by Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, those teams had no rival that could match their talent at the time. UCLA won seven straight championships and 10 of 12 during Wooden's run in Westwood.

While UCLA's feat is indeed impressive, keep in mind that the NCAA Tournament field was only 22-25 teams in those days, meaning the Bruins only had to win four games to claim the championship, rather than the six (or seven) that teams would have to win today. That's two extra games, one likely against a pretty good team, that today's teams have to navigate which UCLA didn't.

Outside of UCLA's four unbeaten seasons, only three other teams have accomplished the feat. In 1956, San Francisco, led by center Bill Russell, won its second consecutive championship, with a 29-0 record. The next year, North Carolina and head coach Frank McGuire went 32-0 en route to the title. And in 1976, Knight's Indiana Hoosiers were also 32-0 in claiming the national title.

Since the 1976 season, several teams have come close to completing an unbeaten record. In 1979, Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, won its first 33 games before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national championship game.

In 1991, UNLV was unbeaten heading into the Final Four before being upset by eventual national champion Duke.

In 2004, St. Joseph's had an unbeaten regular season before losing in their conference tournament. In 2008, John Calipari's Memphis team won its first 26 games before suffering their first loss.

So, what has changed in today's game that makes it so tough to go unbeaten? There are several factors.

First, in 1986, the shot clock was instituted in college basketball. This eliminated the deliberate style that could keep stronger teams from milking the clock to preserve a win.

In 1987, the three-point shot came to the college game. The long ball gave lesser teams a fighting chance, and made deficits easier to overcome late in games.

The NCAA scholarship reductions, from 15 to 13, also leveled the ground for lesser teams. Big-time teams could no longer load their roster with such superior talent that it was hard to overcome.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, the NBA has changed college basketball. Players leaving school early has depleted the talent in the college game. Players that would have stayed in school and developed into outstanding players are now leaving school early for the riches of the NBA.

Take a look back at Wooden's UCLA teams. Experience is the common them among nearly all of his 10 championships. And in 1976, Knight started four seniors and a junior on his unbeaten team.

Today's norm is much different. For example, the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats started three amazingly-talented freshman (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague) and a pair of super sophomores (Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb). Coming off the bench was a senior playmaker (Darius Miller). That team was able to go 38-2 en route to the national title.

Kentucky's team was as talented as any in recent memory. All of its top six were taken in the NBA Draft, including all five starters in the first round. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were the top two overall picks in the draft.

Yet, Kentucky had a few flaws. Their only regular season loss came at Indiana, in front of a hostile crowd in Bloomington and on a last-second shot by Christian Watford. Experience, or the lack of it, played a big role in the loss. Kentucky missed a few free throws down the stretch that could have iced the game.

Secondly, despite such massive talent in its first six players, Kentucky lacked depth. That proved to be an Achilles heel in the Wildcats' second loss of the season, to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament Championship. Kentucky was playing for the third time in three days, and the Wildcats didn't have much left in the tank.

That being said, can college basketball produce an unbeaten champion in today's atmosphere? I think it would be tough, but there is a formula in which it could happen.

Take out all of the power conferences. With the level playing field of today, it's highly unlikely that a power conference team could go unbeaten. There are as many as nine road games within the conference for those teams, and winning on the road, in the conference, is always tough.

However, take teams like Gonzaga, Memphis or UNLV. These teams play in lesser conferences, but they almost always seem to have top-level talent. If a school like one of these were to put together a non-conference schedule in which they could remain unbeaten, and then ran the table in conference play and the conference tournament, they would head into the tournament with not only and unbeaten record, but with a ton of momentum (and a number one seed).

From there, the anything-can-happen NCAA Tournament could give such a team a chance to win it all. Granted, there would be significant pressure, being undefeated and likely ranked number one in the country. And there would be challenges, facing battled-tested teams from power conferences along the way. But that's the scenario, in my mind, that could produce an unbeaten national champion.

I don't see any teams with the talent of the 1990s UNLV teams at this time, so this is not likely to happen for at least a couple of years. But if college basketball is to have an undefeated champion, that's the way it could happen.

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