The college basketball world is all about perfection these days. Everyone is talking about whether or not any of the three remaining undefeated teams, Arizona (18-0), Syracuse (18-0) and Wichita State (19-0), can finish the regular season with an unblemished record.
Perhaps the better question should be: Do fans of these teams want them to go unbeaten?
The rationale is simple. A team trying to complete a perfect season for the first time since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 would face such intense media attention that the distractions and pressure would be too much to bear.
Then a wide receiver catches a pass against his helmet and your shot at history goes up in flames.
Is is true? Does going undefeated make it harder to win the NCAA tournament? We don’t really know because only one team has tried it in the last three decades.
The only team to enter the Big Dance with a perfect record in the shot clock (introduced in 1986) / 3-pointer (also ’86) / six-round tournament (‘85) era is UNLV in 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels advanced to the Final Four that season before losing to Duke by two points. Did the pressure prevent them from winning those last couple games? Or was it not a factor since UNLV won four tournament games by an average of 18 points?
Either way it’s been 23 years since a team successfully navigated the pre-Madness waters without getting torpedoed. In 2004 Saint Joseph’s went undefeated during the regular season but lost in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Stanford (2004) and Illinois (2005) were both perfect until their regular season finale.
None of those one-loss teams won the national championship.
What if we expand the list of barely-blemished teams? Here are all the teams in the past ten seasons that entered the NCAA with two or fewer losses:
|Year||School||Record||1st Loss||2nd Loss||Tournament|
|2013||Gonzaga||31-2||Dec 8||Jan 19||L in Rd. of 32|
|2012||Kentucky||32-2||Dec 10||Conf. Tour.||Champions|
|2012||Syracuse||31-2||Jan 21||Conf. Tour.||L in Elite 8|
|2011||Ohio St.||32-2||Feb 12||Feb 20||L in Sweet 16|
|2011||Kansas||32-2||Jan 22||Feb 14||L in Elite 8|
|2010||Kansas||32-2||Jan 10||Feb 27||L in Rd. of 32|
|2010||Kentucky||32-2||Jan 26||Feb 27||L in Elite 8|
|2008||N. Carolina||32-2||Jan 19||Feb 6||L in Final 4|
|2008||Memphis||33-1||Feb 23||-||L in Champ.|
|2005||Illinois||32-1||Mar 6||-||L in Champ.|
|2004||St. Joseph's||27-0||Conf. Tour.||-||L in Elite 8|
|2004||Stanford||29-1||Mar 6||-||L in Rd. of 32|
|2004||Gonzaga||27-2||Nov 14||Dec 20||L in Rd. of 32|
Putting this together was very sobering. In the last decade 13 teams have had truly elite regular seasons and only one won the title. Only four of them even made the Final Four.
This just in: It is really hard to win a championship.
The last Arizona team to come close to this kind of season was the 2003 squad that went 17-1 in the Pac-10 and finished the regular season with a 25-2 record and No. 1 ranking. That team lost in the first round of the conference tournament then lost in the Elite Eight to Kansas.
What can we learn from the teams that did win it all? Here are the last ten national champions and when they last suffered the agony of defeat:
|Year||School||Record Pre-Tour.||Last Loss|
|2009||N. Carolina||28-4||Conf. Tour.|
|2005||N. Carolina||27-4||Conf. Tour.|
Six of the ten lost in March and the other four were beaten for the final time in February so there’s nothing conclusive about the optimal timing for a last loss. The true takeaway from the last decade, to prepare for another common debate, is that unless you’re Roy Williams you do want to win your conference tournament and build momentum going into March Madness.
When I sat down to write this I thought I wanted the Wildcats to lose before the tournament. I felt going in undefeated would place an unnecessary burden on a coach and players who have never been to the Final Four.
It turns out losing doesn’t help either.
At the end of the day I don’t think any of this alters Sean Miller’s mindset either way. The Arizona coach and Kentucky’s John Calipari are very close. Calipari went 38-2 one year at Memphis and he’s on record saying his goal is to coach an undefeated season.
I think Miller is wired the same way and he’s not going to think twice about trying to win every single game on his schedule.
It’s still not likely. Pac-12 road trips are too tough. Forget 40-0, 18-0 has never been done in the 35 years of Pac-10+ basketball. So even if you want it to happen, don’t get your hopes up.
But go ahead and hope for it.
Root for the Cats to run the table as long as making history is still on the table.
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