Syracuse and Wichita State seek to remain undefeated in the regular season. Will either of them finish the NCAA Tournament with the all-too-rare perfect season?
On February 23, 2008, only 20 days after the 2007 New England Patriots saw their potentially perfect season collapse at Super Bowl XLII, there was a college basketball team that also seemed to be staring an undefeated season dead in the eyes before a marquee match-up, and that was the 2007-08 Memphis Tigers. Led by head coach John Calipari and future NBA supernova Derrick Rose, the University of Memphis were a phenomenal 26-0 going into a home game on ESPN against the #2-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. It was not that often that #1 played against #2 in the regular season, but the fact that Memphis was nearing the month of March without a loss made this game one of the most memorable in college hoops history and it garnered high ratings. But just like the Patriots’ unbeaten record was tarnished in the Super Bowl three weeks earlier, Memphis lost to Tennessee in the Fed Ex Forum 66-62. The Tigers would finish 33-1 going into the NCAA Tournament and get all the way to the national title game before losing to Kansas thanks to Mario Chalmers’ epic three-pointer to force overtime. The NCAA later vacated all of Memphis’ wins that season because of academic violations involving Rose, but the message was still the same: It is insanely difficult to win the NCAA Tournament with only one loss, let alone do it with no losses at all.
There seems to be a unique relationship between men’s college basketball and a perfect season as there is certainly a lot of background for it. In college football, women’s college basketball, and other miscellaneous sports, going undefeated has occurred multiple times. While pulling it off in college football is a bit easier given the fact that schools play only 13 to 14 games in a given season, the NFL still holds the ’72 Dolphins as the only team in the modern era to never lose a game in the regular season or postseason. It is clearly impossible in the NBA and NHL, where teams play 82 to 100 games, and in Major League Baseball, where teams play nearly double that, to never lose a single game. But college basketball’s history with that mystical goal goes a ways back. We actually witnessed the first battle of unbeaten teams in a college basketball tournament in 1939, but it was not in the NCAA Championship, which began its tournament that year. In fact, it was in the second-ever National Invitational Tournament, which was in the more attractive Madison Square Garden. The two schools that put their unblemished records on the line in the N.I.T. championship game were the 20-0 Long Island Blackbirds, coached by the pioneering Clair Bee, and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, coached by Lenny Sachs. In a game to become the first-ever undefeated tournament champion, Long Island defeated Loyola-Chicago 44-32.
One year later, another school in the New York-New Jersey area matched the mark when the Seton Hall Pirates, coached by John “Honey” Russell, went 19-0. Unfortunately, the team was not invited to the eight-team NCAA Tournament or the four-team N.I.T. Seton Hall went undefeated once more in the regular season in 1941 and, this time, was invited to the N.I.T. where they lost to Long Island. C.C.N.Y. Army went 15-0 in 1944, but was not invited to the postseason. They would have likely declined the invitation anyway because of their duties during World War II. By the time we reached the 1953-54 season, Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky Wildcats had already won three NCAA Championships in ‘48, ‘49, and ‘51. The 1948 team was the first to be dubbed the “Fabulous Five” after they won the collegiate title and all five starters and their coach helped the U.S. men’s national team win a gold medal in the Summer Olympics in London. It was in 1954 that Rupp’s Cats went unbeaten but three of their players were ruled ineligible by the NCAA because they were fifth-year players. The decision was so controversial that it caused seven schools to leave the Southern Conference and form the Atlantic Coast Conference. Kentucky could have still played in the tournament without Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos, but Rupp decided against it and finished the season undefeated, albeit without a trophy to show for it (The ’54 Tournament was won by La Salle led by Hall of Famer Tom Gola).
There were two more schools that finished with perfect seasons in the 1950’s. They both, in different ways, involved the two Paul Bunyans of the early days of the NBA: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The story for Wilt and Russell in college was, in many ways, the same as it was in the NBA with Russell holding the gold and Chamberlain, despite his individual greatness, falling just short. Russell, along with eventual Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, led San Francisco to its second straight national title, and it was during the latter that the Dons went 29-0 after beating Iowa in the championship game (Russell’s 27 rebounds in that game is still a Final Four record). The following season the North Carolina Tar Heels, led by New York City coaching legend Frank McGuire and assistant coach Dean Smith, mustered through two of the most famous games in college basketball history on consecutive nights. In the national semi-finals matchup, North Carolina went to triple overtime in a 74-70 win over Michigan State. The next night in the championship game they had to face the Kansas Jayhawks, whose best player was Wilt the Stilt. The Tar Heels went to three overtimes again, but came out victorious against Wilt and Kansas with a 54-53 win and the school’s first ever national championship. The Heels would not win another NCAA Championship until Michael Jordan’s shot sank the Georgetown Hoyas in the Superdome in 1982.
The next flirtation with perfection in college hoops was in 1961 by the defending champion Ohio State Buckeyes, who had four Hall of Famers in Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried, and Bobby Knight. But it was against a state rival whom they hadn’t played in 39 years, the University of Cincinnati, that Ohio State met its demise in the championship game, losing to Paul Hogue and the Bearcats 70-65 in overtime. All of these undefeated teams were the beneficiaries of dominant runs of their own, but it was not until 1964 that college basketball witnessed its most outstanding dynasty. It was that season that John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins won the first of their 10 national championships in the 1960’s and 70’s. The 1964 squad went 30-0 thanks to Wooden’s revolutionary offense and great players like Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard. The Bruins’ third national title in 1967 also went without a single loss thanks to the debut of sensational sophomore center, Lew Alcindor. The following year, the Bruins’ goal for going undefeated for a second year in a row was thwarted in the Game of the Century by Elvin Hayes and the Houston Cougars in the Astrodome.
Houston went undefeated that season before UCLA exacted revenge on them in the Final Four. They then lost in the consolation game to Ohio State. Another school that went undefeated in the 1968 regular season was Saint Bonaventure, led by center Bob Lanier, but they lost in the regional semi-finals to North Carolina. Years after Frank McGuire did it at North Carolina in 1957, another unrelated McGuire out of New York City gave it the college try when Al McGuire led his Marquette Warriors to a 28-0 record in 1971. Unlike Frank, however, Al stumbled as Marquette lost by one point to Ohio State in the regional semis. After going undefeated on two occasions in the 1960’s, the Bruins rolled off two more early in the 1970’s. In the previous decade, the star player in ’64 was Goodrich followed by Alcindor in ’67. But in the 1972 and ’73 seasons, the Bruins went 30-0 on both occasions thanks in large part to a legendary player in Bill Walton. Walton’s performances in the championship games are legendary as the graceful redhead went for 24 points and 20 rebounds in a victory over Florida State in ’72, and then scored 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting against Memphis in ’73. The latter season also housed another unbeaten team in the North Carolina State Wolfpack, led by head coach Norm Sloan and Hall of Famer David Thompson, but they were declared ineligible earlier in the season due to recruiting violations involving Thompson.
UCLA won one more national title in 1975 before Wooden retired, but waiting in the wings to take the mantle as the next face on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches was Bobby Knight. Knight was a player under Fred Taylor when Ohio State fell one game short of a perfect season. He led the Indiana Hoosiers to the Final Four in 1973, but lost to UCLA in a game where Walton came within a sketchy, pro-Bruins call of fouling out at a critical point. Two years later in 1975, Knight had what he still considers his best team ever with Kent Benson, Scott May, Steve Green, Quinn Buckner, Bob Wilkerson, Jim Crews, and Tom Abernathy. The Hoosiers rattled off a 29-0 regular season record and seemed dead set on winning it all in what turned out to be Wooden’s last year as a coach. But after a broken arm sidelined their All-American center May, Indiana lost a close game to Kentucky in the Elight Eight 92-90. Kentucky went on to play in the national title game, where they lost to UCLA in Wooden’s last game. As the Wizard rode into the sunset from Westwood, the fiery Knight was more determined than ever to right the wrong that had pained Indiana the previous season with all but one starter coming back for the 1975-76 season.
It was in that 1976 season that we witnessed the last undefeated season so far in college basketball history. With a healthy Scott May the entire way, Indiana went 28-0 in the regular season with nary a close call. The only school that gave a scare all year to Indiana was Big Ten rival Michigan, whom they beat by 18 in the national title game to cap off an undisputed milestone. It was made extra sweet for Knight when his team beat a Wooden-less UCLA by 14 in the Final Four to get to the title game. Ever the critic, Knight’s reaction after the horn sounded on the fabled 1976 season was, “It should have been two.” Since that 86-68 victory in Philadelphia, PA in 1976, we have had only a handful of teams that have knocked on heaven’s door when it comes to college basketball immortality. What many people do not remember is the fact that in 1976, Indiana was not the only team that went undefeated in the regular season. The other school that matched them were the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, led by another intense head coach in Tom Young and do-it-all guard Eddie Jordan. Rutgers’ season was not as revered as Indiana’s because although they got to the same Final Four in Philadelphia, they lost to Michigan and then lost to UCLA in the third-place game. San Francisco, led by Bill Cartwright, was 29-0 at one point in 1977, but lost late in the regular season to Notre Dame before losing to UNLV in the round of 32 in the tournament.
There were a pair of smaller schools that ran the table in 1979, with one being wildly celebrated and the other being quickly forgotten. The forgotten one was a Mississippi black college out of the SWAC in Alcorn State, whose best player was the late Larry Smith. The Braves were not invited into the NCAA Tournament, but went to the N.I.T. where they lost in the second round to Indiana. The small school that did capture the imaginations of sports fans in ’79 were the Missouri Valley’s Indiana State Sycamores, who were led by a different Larry in the legendary Larry Bird. Bird was so great at carrying the Sycamores that they went 32-0 all the way to the national title game with a first-year head coach in Bill Hodges, who took over for Bob King after he suffered health setbacks. But it was in the NCAA final in Salt Lake City, UT, that Bird met his career counterpart in Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. In front a record television audience for a college basketball game on NBC, Magic’s Spartans clobbered Bird’s Sycamores 75-64 to end Indiana State’s dream season with their one loss being the most important one. The team that lost to Indiana State in the Final Four that year was DePaul, whose best player was the All-American guard Mark Aguire. They started the 1979-80 season a perfect 25-0. However, like San Francisco in ’77, a late regular season trap game against Notre Dame got the best of them as they lost in double overtime , and then lost to UCLA in the round of 32. The late Ralph Miller’s Oregon State Beavers went into March of 1981 unbeaten before losing their final two games of the season: One to Arizona State in conference play, and the other in the NCAA Tournament to Kansas State thanks to a buzzer beater from Rolando Blackman.
After Oregon State’s late collapse in 1981, we did not see another school remain undefeated when the calendar turned to March until 1991, and it was in that year that we saw a team that came agonizingly close to reaching college hoops nirvana. That team was the defending champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, who had a lot of swagger to go with immense talents like Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, George Ackles, and Elmore Spencer. The previous year, freshly inducted Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian unleashed an “amoeba defense” on the Duke Blue Devils in the title game as UNLV pillaged Duke 103-73 to win the 1990 NCAA Championship. It was a team so good, higher powers tried to break them up. The 1990-91 season was nearly sabotaged in the offseason by the NCAA, who had originally banned the Rebels from defending their title due to the program’s involvement with a runner. After months of negotiation, the NCAA decided that UNLV could participate in the postseason, but would be banned in 1992. The Rebels returned all of their starters for the 1991 season, and they did not disappoint, averaging nearly 100 points per game and remaining the #1-ranked team all season long with a 30-0 record. #2 Arkansas tried to out-hustle them at home and lost 112-105 in a game that included endless fast breaks and fisticuffs. Big West rival Long Beach State played a severe case of stall ball and lost 49-29 in the conference tournament. Outside of the Arkansas game and an eight-point win over Georgetown in the second round, the Rebels did not have a winning margin thinner than 12 points. When they crushed Seton Hall in the Elite Eight on their way to the Final Four, many wondered out loud if anyone was going to stop UNLV from matching the 1976 Hoosiers at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
But what was predicted on paper to be a repeat of the 1990 national title game turned out to be the rudest of awakenings for UNLV when they played a vengeful and hungry Duke team in the national semi-finals. It was then that the household names like L.J., Tark, and the Plastic Man were replaced for one fateful night by names like Mike Krzyzewski, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill. UNLV’s continuous blowout victories for the entire season became a detriment against Duke as the game got tighter and tighter and the Rebels looked more and more like fishes out of water, blowing assignments and possessions down the stretch. As Brian Davis and Laettner made big plays in the paint in the closing minutes for Duke, the Rebels abandoned the amoeba defense and were completely out of sorts on offense, committing a shot clock violation, missing a free throw, and botching the last possession to give Duke a stunning 79-77 win over the top team in the land. As celebratory as it was for many to see a cocky, unapologetic team like UNLV get their comeuppance at on the grandest stage, there was an underlying sadness to the fact that we had been repelled from history that had been unmatched for so many years, and remains so to this day.
For the rest of the 1990’s, we saw some dominant runs that, compared to the Bruins, Hoosiers, and Runnin’ Rebels, were barely mentionable when it came to grabbing the brass ring. Duke was an all-time team when they were #1 all season long and repeated as champions in 1992, but they lost two conference games to North Carolina and Wake Forest in the month of February. John Calipari had his first college hoops Frankenstein monster with Marcus Camby and UMass in 1996. The Minutemen were 26-0 at one point before losing by 10 in late February to George Washington, followed a loss in the Final Four to a phenomenal Kentucky squad coached by Rick Pitino. The 1997 Kansas Jayhawks, led by pros like Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, and Jacque Vaughn, were on a tear all season long, but got clipped in double overtime at Missouri then got bounced in the Sweet Sixteen by the eventual champion Cardiac Cats of Arizona. Jim Calhoun’s UConn Huskies, led by Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, were a fantastic team in 1999 and beat an equally great Duke team to win the national title, but two losses in Big East play to Syracuse and Miami ruined the chance to go undefeated. As the years rolled on by without a team even reaching the month of Madness without a loss, it seemed like we would never see such a feat again… until the 2003-04 season.