When Will College Basketball's Remaining Undefeateds Lose Their First Game?
Out of 353 Division I teams, there are only 11 remaining undefeateds in college basketball—and that number is guaranteed to be whittled down to 10 (at most) by the end of Friday night, when Nevada and Arizona State put their perfect records on the line in Los Angeles. When other teams will lose, however, is less clear. The group of 11 ranges from Gonzaga to Furman to St. John's, yet some have much harder roads ahead than others. Will any run the table? We predicted when the first loss will come for each:
No. 1 Gonzaga
The Bulldogs are a hot 9–0 with a win over Duke after surviving a tough test from Washington on Wednesday night. They’ve got size and depth that are problematic for any opponent, especially any within the WCC. The Zags chances of losing a conference contest are slim, but before they can get that far they’ve got two key games back-to-back that risk revocation of their undefeated status: Tennessee on a neutral court and at North Carolina. Carolina has struggled this season against its more talented opponents, but it wouldn’t be unlike a Roy Williams team to win when it mattered most. That said, the Vols (hot take) will probably beat them to the punch anyways. Gonzaga will be without Killian Tillie in their frontcourt and Geno Crandall in the back, and Tennessee is another team that boasts enough balance to beat the Bulldogs. The game will be a grind, without a doubt, and the Volunteers have proven themselves up to the challenge with what we saw from them against Kansas (even if they fell in overtime, they still impressed with their ability to slow things down). Gonzaga’s offensive firepower is formidable, but Tennessee’s experience and work ethic might just mean a loss for the country’s top-ranked team. It should be smooth sailing after that and the trip to Chapel Hill.
Prediction: vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix) on Dec. 9. Update: The Vols did knock off Gonzaga.
No. 2 Kansas
Kansas is off to a 7–0 start after taking down the likes of No. 10 Michigan State and No. 7 Tennessee (which took Bill Self’s crew into overtime right before an unranked Stanford team did the same the next game). There are high expectations across the country for this team, but the Jayhawks have to take down some pretty dangerous competitors in the Big 12 if they want to secure a 14th straight conference title. Before conference play kicks off, Kansas will face both Villanova and Arizona State. It's then got tough home-and-aways with Iowa State, Texas (which upset Carolina), an also undefeated No. 13 Texas Tech team along with the rest of its Big 12 slate. Add in a game against the powerhouse program that is John Calipari’s Kentucky for good measure. None of these will be easy wins, but the Jawhawks should manage most of those matchups. Texas hasn’t looked as strong since it took down the Tar Heels, so let’s say Kansas’s first loss will come at the hands of West Virginia on Jan. 19 in Morgantown, if it comes at all. The Mountaineers make the Colesium a crazy place to play, plus they should bump up in the rankings once they get a little momentum going in the next six weeks.
Prediction: at West Virginia on Jan. 19
No. 4 Virginia
Virginia has taken down Wisconsin and Maryland already and the rest of the Cavaliers’ non-con slate should be a cakewalk, with none of VCU, South Carolina, William & Mary or Marshall posing a serious threat through December. Conference contests, however, are a completely different story. Virginia is going to absolutely grind to remain undefeated come 2019. Florida State will be a scary start to ACC play, but Virginia should be able to do it, although it’ll likely be a little too close for comfort. The Cavaliers then have road games against Boston College and Clemson, but returning home to face Virginia Tech is where things could go downhill for them. After losing to the Hokies at home last year, I doubt Virginia will repeat the loss, but it will have to hit the road again for an even tougher test right after in Durham. Here’s where I don’t think they’ll repeat either: in winning against Duke at Cameron Indoor. Virginia’s defense and pace might frustrate the Blue Devils, but the home court advantage will be what tips the scales in favor of Duke’s ultra-talented team. When the two face off again in February back in Charlottesville, I say it’ll be a different story, but for now Coach K looks like he’s best set up to take down Virginia first.
Prediction: at Duke on Jan. 19
No. 5 Michigan
The Wolverines have dominant wins over Villanova and North Carolina on their résumé already, suffocating both teams with their scary-good defense. Neither team was able to escape, which will probably happen to every team Michigan faces—especially its offensively-focused foes. There’s a 99% chance, by my own non-math estimation, that the rest of its breezy non-conference slate results in four more wins, but I’m not so sure that Michigan’s maddening defense will deter all of the Big Ten’s top teams. Penn State, Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern all should be wins, though they won’t come as easily as December’s battles. The Wolverines' first loss will likely come against Wisconsin on Jan. 19 (the same day that Kansas plays West Virginia and Duke hosts Virginia—big day for my predictions here and a supposedly sad day for these still-undefeated teams). I’m wary of what John Beilein’s team will be able to manage in Madison against a Wisconsin team that’s hanging with the best in terms of both defensive and offensive efficiency.
Prediction: at Wisconsin on Jan. 19
No. 6 Nevada
The Mountain West won’t pose much of a threat to Nevada’s perfect season, except for Fresno State, which will probably also fall to the Wolf Pack come January even if it stands a slightly better chance than most. Unfortunately for the conference, the title is Nevada’s to lose. That’ll leave a loss in the hands of a non-conference competitor, of which there aren’t too many left. Enter: Arizona State on Friday, another undefeated team. While the Sun Devils will likely pose as the Wolf Pack’s biggest threat this season, I still say Caleb and Cody Martin and Co. walk away with a win. They’ve got lackluster competition in-conference with teams like Utah State, San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico and more making up the Mountain West. Nevada will run the table until tournament time with one of the country’s best offenses.
Prediction: Undefeated entering NCAA tournament
No. 13 Texas Tech
The Blue Devils are going to break another team’s undefeated run when they take on the Red Raiders later this month. Although Texas Tech is another team with a lockdown defense, it's not strong enough to contain Duke’s potent (albeit a bit undisciplined) offense. The Red Raiders are also a little lackluster on the scoring front, putting up 78.4 points per game—especially when compared to Duke’s 94.2—so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to match the production of their opponent in this one. Tech has two more games before it meets the Blue Devils in neutral territory at Madison Square Garden—but those should be easy wins unless Texas Tech has fooled us all. Nebraska is the toughest test it has had so far this season, but Duke is the only other serious non-Big 12 competitor the Red Raiders will face before they open conference play against West Virginia. Even if by some miracle they manage to escape MSG with a win over Duke, the Big 12 has enough threats that Texas Tech wouldn’t remain undefeated for much longer.
Prediction: vs. Duke (in New York City) on Dec. 20
No. 17 Buffalo
Buffalo stunned West Virginia during the Mountaineers’ season opener at home, walking away with a 99–94 win that sparked a red-hot streak. Buffalo has beaten most of its opponents since by wide margins, taking down Dartmouth by almost 40 points and Marist by 27. San Francisco has come the closest, losing by just four in Belfast, Northern Ireland, last week. Even though the Bulls likely have the MAC on lock, they will face Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Dec. 18 before starting their conference slate. The Orange will be Buffalo’s first loss of the season under the assumption that it will be difficult to repeat its Morgantown effort. The Bulls are a talented team, but with only one true test under their belt against a team that didn’t look like itself at all, it’s hard to see the Bulls carrying on undefeated much longer. Their high scoring offense can’t survive the Syracuse zone and Marquette back-to-back—and both on the road.
Prediction: at Syracuse on Dec. 18
No. 20 Arizona State
The 7–0 Sun Devils have managed to stay undefeated largely because they haven’t played anyone too problematic. Mississippi State was the most likely to give them a loss, but they slipped by with a 72–67 win. A daunting stretch that includes Nevada, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Kansas is up next for Arizona State, which means its perfect record is in real jeopardy. Nevada will send the Sun Devils to 7–1 on Friday as Arizona State, no matter how balanced, will struggle to keep up with the Wolf Pack on the offensive side of things. A trip to Vanderbilt a couple games later won't be easy even without Darius Garland, and Kansas will be out for revenge in Tempe after last year's loss to the Sun Devils. The Pac-12 lineup will give them a few more losses, likely against UCLA, USC or Oregon.
Prediction: vs. Nevada (in Los Angeles) on Dec. 7. Update: The Sun Devils blew a 12-point halftime lead and lost to the Wolf Pack.
No. 25 Furman
Furman is 9–0 with wins over last year’s Cinderella, Loyola-Chicago, and, yes, this is true, Villanova. It took down the 'Cats 76–68 in overtime five games into its season. Western Carolina almost ruined the Paladins' perfect start when it took them into double OT last weekend, but Furman walked away with a two-point win in the end. It's been clutch under pressure and has exceeded expectations so far, stunning last year’s national champion at Finneran Pavilion. Villanova also previously lost to Michigan, but while Furman's win might say more about ‘Novas struggles, it doesn’t discount that the Paladins are on fire (and in the AP top 25 for the first time ever). With games against teams like USC Upstate and Charleston Southern up next on the schedule, the Paladins' perfect season should last a little longer but LSU is bound to break it on Dec. 21. On the road and against a tough Tigers’ team, Furman is unlikely to secure yet another upset.
Prediction: at LSU on Dec. 21
Houston is another team that hasn't had much competition on it’s slate–and that may be putting it kindly, considering it has played the nation's fourth-weakest non-conference schedule, per kenpom.com. It’s like Alabama in football: fill every opening with cupcakes. The Cougars do have a home win over Oregon, but the Ducks haven't exactly met expectations so far. The schedule ramps up a bit now with Oklahoma State on the road, which I’m calling will ruin their perfect season on Saturday, but even that’s a stretch. The Cowboys have struggled so far this season so there’s an opportunity for the Cougars to exploit their early struggles and gain another win before taking on LSU. They host the Tigers in Houston to start a seven-game homestand, with no team standing out as a particularly tough threat. They'll finally hit the road again in January against Temple, which will likely serve as the team’s first conference loss. The AAC isn’t terribly competitive outside of Cincinnati and UCF, who Houston won’t face until February. That’s when we’ll get a good look at this team’s ceiling. It should finish the season and conference competition with only a few losses on record thanks to its relatively stress-free schedule.
Prediction: at Oklahoma State on Dec. 8
Chris Mullin’s St. John’s squad will keep rolling through non-conference play, but the Big East will be a whole different beast. They open conference competition at Seton Hall, which we predict will bring the Red Storm to 12–1 on the season. It’ll be a close loss but the start of a tough two-week stretch for St. John’s. With Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova all coming right after, the Red Storm will set the tone for the season in that late December/early January window. Villanova is still struggling to find its footing, which means a team like Marquette could snatch up the Big East title, but as long as the Wildcats continue to wander a bit it could also easily be St. John’s to win. Kamar Baldwin and Butler also look like they could be in the running if the rest of the Bulldogs' squad steps up.
Prediction: at Seton Hall on Dec. 29