It was in 2004 that we saw not one, but two teams get to March with an undefeated record. The less surprising of the two was the Stanford Cardinal, who were not loaded with NBA talent but were rigorously mixed together by their head coach Mike Montgomery in a year where the Pac-10 Conference was not highly competitive. Stanford cheated certain death on two occasions late in conference play. The first time was on February 4th against Arizona at home when Josh Childress tied the game with a three and then Nick Robinson heaved the game-winning three at the buzzer as fans stormed the court. The second instance was on March 4th at Washington State when a minor miracle happened thanks to some awful decision-making by the Cougars and a scramble play led to Matt Lotich sinking another game-winning three at the buzzer. It seemed almost like destiny for this blue-collar Stanford crew to get it done for a while, but then luck ran out for them two days later at Washington where they suffered a 75-62 loss to go 29-1 before the NCAA Tournament. The third time would not be the charm for Stanford in the tournament as Dan Grunfeld’s desperation three-pointer missed and Stanford lost 70-67 to Alabama in the second round. Two months later, Mike Montgomery left Stanford to take the Golden State Warriors head coaching position.
The second school that knocked on that undisputed door in 2004 was the more surprising one, and that was Saint Joseph’s out of the Atlantic 10 Conference. People still don’t remember that Phil Martelli was the head coach of the Hawks in Philadelphia, but they definitely remember the star guards under his watch that season: National Player of the Year Jameer Nelson and super-smooth Delonte West. With two NBA guards in tow, Saint Joseph’s became the first school to finish the regular season undefeated since UNLV did it in 1991. They were continuously spited by talking heads (infamously by Billy Packer) for being a top-seeded team after losing by 20 in the A-10 Tournament to a feisty Xavier team coached by Thad Matta and Sean Miller. With the undefeated hopes dashed by the Musketeers, Saint Joe’s motored through the NCAA Tournament, beating Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team and Chris Paul’s Wake Forest team before meeting a talented Oklahoma State team in the Elite Eight in New Jersey. It was there that Oklahoma State point guard John Lucas III drilled a three-pointer to put the Hawks down two and Nelson’s three on the other end clanked to end the school’s dream season. By the time we reached the Final Four, neither Stanford nor Saint Joseph’s were able to get to San Antonio. Those two teams in 2004 may have been the closest calls in a long while to seeing an undefeated season, but unfortunately, neither were the strongest contenders.
A team that actually was a strong contender to win it all and went into March unbeaten was Bruce Weber’s Illinois team the following season. Led by the superb back court of Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head, the 2005 Fighting Illini were a tremendously efficient crew on both offense and defense, suffocating teams in the Big Ten while shooting the lights out with the three ball. Unfortunately, like so many cases before them, Illinois suffered from late season jitters when they blew a late lead at Ohio State and the Buckeyes’ Matt Sylvester made a game-winning three with just seconds to spare. Illinois was one win away from matching Saint Joseph’s as the last team to win all their games in the regular season, but Sylvester’s shot did them in. The coach for Ohio State that day was Thad Matta, the same one who spoiled Saint Joseph’s undefeated season the previous year. Illinois fought through the loss and won a then-record 37 games to reach the national championship game in Saint Louis, MO, but lost 75-70 to North Carolina.
The journey through school after school over the past four decades to find an undefeated national champion brought us back to that February night in 2008 in Memphis when Calipari’s team went 26-0 before that home loss to Tennessee. Since then, the only team from a major conference to even reach the month of February undefeated was the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2011, and they lost twice in conference play that month. The only other example was in 2012 when the Murray State Racers went 23-0 in the weak Ohio Valley Conference before also losing in February to Tennessee State. In those respective years, Ohio State lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Kentucky on a last-second shot while Murray State lost handily in the second round to Marquette. But as this current season has unfolded and turned the calendar from month to month, it feels like we are closer than we have been in many years to seeing not only a perfect regular season but a perfect national champion. Going into the month of February, we had three schools that were still undefeated. We have not seen that many schools reach that goal at the same time since 1976 when there were four. With fewer and fewer games left in the regular season and the opportunities to blemish their records slipping away, it seems that we are due to see at least one team reach their conference tournament without a loss. We have already seen a dose of rotten luck strike one of these teams to ruin the potential milestone as Arizona lost their star big man Brandon Ashley for the season to a broken foot. Injury added to insult in the same game where Cal’s Justin Cobbs hit a pull-up jumper to take down the depleted top-ranked Wildcats. Since then, Arizona has already lost a second game at Arizona State.
That leaves two teams in the race for perfection this season: The Wichita State Shockers and the Syracuse Orange. Ironically, both of these teams were in Atlanta last year and lost tight games in the Final Four to end their postseason runs. Unlike 2004, when the prospects for Stanford and Saint Joseph’s to win it all were highly questionable, these two schools already have the resume to show that they can pull it off. Although they gained tons of notoriety with their mantra to “Play Angry,” Gregg Marhsall’s Shockers shocked the world when they manhandled first-seeded Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then got past Ohio State to punch their ticket to the Final Four. It was there that they had eventual national champion Louisville badly on the ropes in the second half before Rick Pitino’s Cardinals rallied back to win. Wichita State may have lost to Louisville, but they proved to everyone who watched them for the first time that they were no fluke and they were not going away. They have proven that second point so far this season despite losing their lead big man in Carl Hall and their lead point guard in Malcolm Armstead. In Hall’s place has emerged multi-skilled power forward Cleanthony Early, who is a lock as the Missouri Valley Player of the Year. Taking over at point guard has been the sophomore duo of Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. With a mix of bulky guys like Chadrack Lufile and rangy guards like Tekele Cotton, Marshall has a team on his hands that may be even better than the one that nearly played for it all last year.
Many have criticized Wichita State for the fact that the Valley is generally weak, and that they no longer have to play Wooden Award finalist Doug McDermott and the Creighton Blue Jays this season due to their switch to the Big East Conference. There are a fair share of teams that have flirted with perfect regular season records at the mid-major level, from Murray State to Saint Joseph’s to UNLV to Indiana State to Alcorn State to even Columbia and Penn in the Ivy League. All of those teams played vastly different styles against sometimes vastly inferior competition in comparison to themselves. Wichita State in the MVC this season is no different, practically taking apart their conference foes outside of a close overtime win at Missouri State. Many point to Murray State’s failure to make noise in the 2012 Tournament after playing a very soft schedule in the Ohio Valley as a harbinger of what is to come for Wichita State. That would be a valid point if the Shockers had not already proven last year how stout and capable they actually are of going all the way. The only thing that can make a team that has gotten so close to the title even hungrier is to obliviously count them out. That is where we are at with Wichita State, and that early dismissal might be as dangerous as trying to take a hit from this angry group of kids.
This year in the NCAA Tournament, the Midwest Region, which takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and the East Region, which takes place at Madison Square Garden in New York, are on the same side of the pool. That means that if Wichita State earns a #1 seed come tourney time (which has been hotly debated over the past couple of weeks) and win their region, they would play the winner of the East Region. If the wins keep on coming the way they have so far for them, that winner will be the Syracuse Orange. Jim Boeheim is already a Hall of Famer as a coach and has mounted one tremendous team after another at Syracuse, including a Carmelo Anthony-led group that won him his only national championship so far in 2003. There could be a case made, depending on the way the remainder of the season plays out, that this year’s group might be the best team Boeheim has ever had. He had some incredibly talented squads in 1987 and 1996, but they both lost in the championship game. The 2012 Orange were incredibly deep and only lost two games going into the tournament, but the loss of center Fab Melo due to academics doomed them against Jared Sullinger and Ohio State in the Elite Eight. The next year’s team was historic on defense, giving up 50 points or less in three of the four games they played to get to the Final Four.
After losing a close game to Michigan in Atlanta only hours after Wichita State went down to Louisville, Syracuse had to rebound after the departures of two seniors in Brandon Triche and James Southerland and an NBA star point guard in Michael Carter Williams. While Wichita State stifles you with disciplined and physical man-to-man defense, Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense had been a headache for decades in the Big East Conference, which may go down as the most competitive conference in college basketball history. Now in a newly expanded ACC, Syracuse has not wasted any time in wasting away every team in the conference that gets in their way. Forward C.J. Fair has been the senior leader along with the emergence of sophomore big Jerami Grant and Canadian point guard Tyler Ennis. The Orange easily won the Maui Invitational around Thanksgiving before taking down a former Big East rival, and highly ranked, Villanova team at home after Christmas. Many have mentioned that Syracuse might be having a slightly easier ride now that they do not have to struggle through the gauntlet that once was the Big East, but the new ACC still has had its share of good teams, and, so far, Syracuse has taken them all out. From familiar foes like Notre Dame and Pittsburgh to blue bloods like Duke and North Carolina, the Orange have shown no mercy and no hesitation as they started off their ACC tenure with a 25-0 record. The 25-game winning streak already sits as the third longest in conference history, trailing only the ineligible 1973 N.C. State Wolfpack and the 1957 national champion Tar Heels. With three more consecutive wins, they will stand alone in that category as well.
Syracuse has had its share of memorable years, but many signs point to the potential that this may be a special season for the Orange. The game against Duke at the Carrier Dome was by far the best game of the season so far, a thrilling 91-89 overtime win that won over fans and erased any remaining doubters when it comes to Syracuse’s greatness. Every memorable season needs a little bit of good fortune, and just like Stanford’s great escapes in 2004 to stay undefeated, the Orange pulled off two magical acts in a row this past week. The first was on the road at Pittsburgh in a game where the Orange trailed by a point with less than 5 seconds to go under their own basket. That was when Ennis made a near half court shot at the buzzer to beat Pittsburgh and stun the arena to silence. If that was the most incredible highlight of the regular season so far, it was nearly matched this past Saturday when N.C. State had the Orange dead to rights with the ball up by a point in the Carrier Dome. That was when Rakeem Christmas stole a bad pass, leading to a fast break lay-up by Fair to give Syracuse a 1-point win over the Wolfpack. If you needed any indication that all the cards seem to be falling the Orange’s way this season as they continue their unbeaten path, last week was your most telling sign. But while Wichita State has four pretty winnable games left in the regular season before the MVC Tournament in Saint Louis, Syracuse’s schedule turns quite treacherous as they go on the road for four of their last five games, beginning at Duke this coming Saturday. If the Orange can even finish the ACC Tournament without a loss, that might be the greatest accomplishment by a college basketball team in this century.
The Orange may have squeezed by with two improbable wins in a row, but their recent stretch of close wins speaks to a more generalized trend when it comes to teams on epic runs like Syracuse and Wichita State are on right now. There is a reason why so many of these schools go on such strong starts only to let one slip by them late in the regular season or in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes it can come back to haunt you when your team is so good against a given slate of opponents that they never truly have their backs against the wall until everything is at stake, like UNLV did in 1991 or Saint Joseph’s did in 2004. But there is a yin to that yang, and that is the fact that as the media jumps on an already crowded bandwagon and more closely dissects a potentially perfect season as it nears the end, it becomes harder as the days go by to block out the newly minted expectations and play just another game. Coaches like to lecture to their players that they are playing for something more, but in the case of matching an undefeated season, that is something more than more, an accomplishment that goes beyond just a season, just a team, or even just a sport. It almost turns into a self-conscious psyching out by these teams as they convince themselves not to worry about the big picture as the distraction in the room eventually turns into a big, scary elephant. That elephant would probably have the words “1976 Hoosiers” painted on it as we near the month of March and an ever-expanding media are certain to swarm on both of these schools if the wins just keep on coming.
Jim Boeheim and Gregg Marshall are not likely to embrace the mystique and continue the same consistent message to their players to take the season one game at a time without any concern of what the outside world is saying. These are the right lessons to teach to young and easily distracted kids in the sport full of distractions that college basketball has become. The charge to make history and become the first undefeated national champion since 1976 has to be riding in the back of everyone’s minds by this point unless your dorm room is a cave in the mountains. If either Syracuse or Wichita State pull off undefeated season on their way to a national title, it would be even more impressive and unmatched than any of the previous unbeaten champions from UCLA, Indiana, or North Carolina that came before them. The main reason is the expansion of the regular season and tournament schedule in the new millennium. Every undefeated team so far has played in 32 games or less in their respective seasons. Most teams play 32 games by the end of their conference tournaments. If an undefeated team today finishes the NCAA Tournament without a single loss, that would earn them a remarkable 40 wins, something never done before in college basketball and may never be done again unless the schedule expands in later years.
When a team from any type of sport goes on a streak, whether it be winning games or championships, it becomes painfully obvious to even members of the team that they are playing for something that goes beyond merely games. It turns into a point that a team is building a myth or painting a bigger picture, and the obsession with maintaining perfection in a picture so beautifully painted grows by the game. This dynamic is even more difficult to pull off in college basketball because of the random and unpredictable nature of the postseason, where one loss on such a long journey from 68 teams to the last team standing can forever doom someone. It is almost the opposition to the prevalent and smart mindset of “survive and advance” in the tournament; it is more along the lines of worrying about the paintjob on your car right before it crashes. The expectations that go along with never losing a game while winning the NCAA championship can become inspiring and fearful at the same time, and I wonder if in the case of Syracuse and Wichita State, dropping a game is necessarily a bad thing. A loss so late in the regular season or in the conference tournament might sting you for a good while in some cases, but a regular season loss does not kill great teams, and in some cases, they only make them stronger and even better prepared to kick ass and take names in the elimination stages.
I always remember what John Calipari said after he had two great teams at UMass and Memphis fall short of winning it all in the previous decades. In the 2011-12 season, his awesome Kentucky team had not lost a game in three months, then they lost in the finals of the SEC Tournament to Vanderbilt. He told people in hindsight that that loss was a blessing in disguise for his team because the players tasted defeat again which refocused them for the pitfalls of the many tournament opponents. That team went on to win Calipari his first national championship in the Superdome after falling short with seemingly invincible teams before. Would Syracuse or Wichita State be more likely to win a national title if they don’t finish the season undefeated? Experts would say yes, but history says that teams are just as likely to lose in the tournament with just one loss as they would without any losses. That is what makes this doubly renewed odyssey to go 40-0 in college basketball such a fascinating and legendary story. I have sincere doubts due to many encompassing factors that Syracuse or Wichita State can go undefeated for the first time since Indiana did it nearly 40 years ago, but when two teams so well-equipped to stand on the top of the mountain are so close to do it without a cut on their face, you simply hope that the surprising deathblow is not hovering around the corner for these two.
It may be greedy for a writer like myself to wish that college kids suddenly possess the uncanny ability to carry heavy burdens that are purely imaginary by nature with clear eyes and a full heart, but the beauty of attaining perfection in such an imperfect sport as college basketball is just too luminous to ignore when the chances are greater than ever. It may be merely a dream in the minds of fans and the players involved in the games, but seeing an undefeated men’s basketball team celebrate on the court in Arlington, TX, in April might be the greatest moment in college sports in quite a while. Teams usually attain greatness as the final buzzer sounds in the national championship, but it would be in that very moment, come April, that either Syracuse or Wichita State would possess something even better than greatness, something that even champions have failed to earn. They would possess immortality.