Whenever the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL loses for the first time, members of the Miami Dolphins team that finished 17-0 in 1972 raise a metaphorical glass (word was that some used to get together to open a bottle of Champagne) to celebrate their status as the league’s lone, unbeaten champion.
I don’t know if members of the 1975-76 Indiana University team that went 32-0 held their collective breath when Kentucky reached the 2015 Final Four at 38-0 before wilting against Wisconsin, but they could be in for added attention from the national media this March.
That’s because not one, but two teams are unbeaten less than one month before Selection Sunday. No. 1 Gonzaga (20-0) and No. 2 Baylor (17-0) were actually supposed to play Dec. 5 before that game was wiped off the schedule due to COVID-19 concerns. And even though the Bears are in the middle of a program pause (they return to the court Feb. 23 against Iowa State) and the Bulldogs have seen their schedule adjusted on the fly (they’ve missed both ends of their series with Santa Clara) each school has a legitimate shot at reaching the Big Dance unscathed.
Both teams are 21st century products that can score (Gonzaga’s 93.1 points per game leads the nation while Baylor’s 87.0 ranks fifth) and rely on the three-pointer (Bears make a Division I-best 43.9% of their threes).
What makes Indiana’s unbeaten season all the more remarkable is that it came at the tail-end of a stretch when an unbeaten team entering the NCAA Tournament was common: the Hoosiers were one of two unbeatens (along with … Rutgers!?) that reached the Final Four that season and IU entered the tournament 29-0 the winter before.
Seven other schools entered the Big Dance with a zero in the right column over the previous 10 years, from UCLA’s eventual title teams to St. Bonaventure and Marquette. And then it was as if Indiana broke the mold. Not to discount the likes of Indiana State, UNLV, or Wichita State, but you’d have to go almost 40 years before a school from a Power Five Conference would enter the tournament unblemished (the previously mentioned Kentucky juggernaut).
While Gonzaga has the benefit of playing in the slightly less dangerous West Coast Conference, San Francisco knocked off Virginia in November and BYU has received Top 25 votes this winter. Baylor does play in the minefield known as the Big 12 (six of the 10 schools are ranked with Oklahoma State also receiving votes), but six of the Bears’ eight league wins have come by double digits. Keep the Champagne on hold ——at least for the time being.
Wow of the Week: VCU took over first place in the Atlantic 10 with wins at Dayton and over St. Bonaventure. Sometimes the three is falling (12-23 against the Flyers) and sometimes it isn’t (4-20 against the Bonnies). But the sticky defense that causes turnovers (16 against Dayton and 15 against St. Bonaventure) remains a constant. After seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2011-17 under Shaka Smart and Will Wade, the Rams have advanced to the Big Dance once in Mike Rhoades’ tenure. If they continue to play this way, they’ll be headed to the NCAA’s next month.
Player Spotlights: Barring a miracle, Georgetown will miss the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year. Saturday, a pair of Hoya seniors celebrated individual milestones during the win over Butler: Jahvon Blair scored 17 points (while adding seven rebounds and six assists) to reach 1,008 for his career, while Jamorko Pickett’s 13 points (along with seven boards, four assists and four steals) gives him 1,002. Both were a part of Head Coach Patrick Ewing’s first recruiting class, and the school’s NIT appearance in 2019 led many to believe that their path would involve a trip to the Big Dance. Unfortunately injuries and transfers wound up sideswiping last winter’s possibilities and left this year’s roster in patchwork form. The duo won’t even get a traditional Senior Day next month at the Hoyas’ final home regular season game (and as far as we know there’s no guarantee of that game even taking place). But for four years, they’ve worked hard and have been good teammates, and Ewing has leaned on both a lot this winter with a mostly new roster. Their legacy won’t just be in their stats, but in how the younger players on this team wind up panning out.
League Look: The rare disappointing winter of Michigan State (10-9 and 4-9 in the league) has done little to dim the Big Ten’s glare. The Conference has three (No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State, and No. 5 Illinois) of the top five teams in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, while boasting two others (No. 11 Iowa and No. 21 Wisconsin) in the rankings and two more (Rutgers and Purdue) also receiving votes. Two more (Minnesota and Indiana) are currently on the safe side of the bubble according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. As of Tuesday, Maryland finds itself among the first four schools on the outside. But the Terps have two factors in their favor: they’ve posted four wins against ranked foes this winter and don’t have another ranked opponent on their slate for the rest of the regular season. A 4-1 finish would be the just what the Bracket Doctors would recommend for healthy NCAA hopes. I’m just looking forward to a good Ohio State-Michigan game for once.
Ballot Battles: Michigan bounced back from being on COVID-19 pause with its win at Wisconsin and stays in this week’s top five. My only major variance this week was with No. 20 Missouri (I had them 15th). Difficult omissions were Kansas, Oklahoma State and Arkansas. This week’s Non Power Five high fives go to Belmont, VCU, Loyola (IL), and Utah State.
Starting Five (Games of note involving local schools):
VCU (15-4, 8-2 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (11-4, 4-2), 7 p.m. (CBSSN). The current conference leader visits the program picked to win the league in the preseason. Five weeks ago I had in this space hyped what I consider to be the best local rivalry in the region, only to see the game get postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. While the Rams have won five in a row, the Spiders program is on the other end of a pause with their most recent conference game taking place Jan. 26. They did have a tuneup Sunday with their win against Division III St. Mary’s College of Maryland. How will the layoff affect what was the best shooting (49% FG) top second best three-point shooting (36% from outside the arc) team against a team known for its disrupting defense?
George Mason (9-8, 5-6 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Bonaventure (10-3, 8-3), 2 p.m. (ESPN+). The Bonnies shot 61% from the field in a Jan. 30 win over the Patriots while also dominating the glass 38-27. Defense has been their calling card as they allow the lowest shooting percentage in the A-10 (they’re second defending the three) and surrender fewest points per game. Mason freshman Tyler Kolek scored 17 points that day. He’s coming off of an 11 point performance against Fordham that helped the guard get selected Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Week. Experience is the Bonnies’ strong suit as the top five players in their rotation are juniors.
Navy (11-2, 8-1 Patriot League South) at American (2-2), noon (ESPN+). Welcome back to both schools as neither team has played a game this month. The Midshipmen last suited up Jan. 31 while the Eagles last played the 24th. AU also was delayed until the prior weekend. Navy won both games played in Annapolis last month with the Eagles turning the ball over 20 and 21 times (after all, these were their first games of the season). Mids leaning scorer Cam Davis gave AU plenty of problems in the opener while scoring 34 points, but was held to 1-8 shooting the next day. One’s just happy they can get back on the court.
No. 18 Virginia Tech (14-4, 8-3 ACC) at No. 16 Florida State (12-3, 8-2), 2 p.m. (ESPN2). Can you believe there are only three ACC teams in this week’s Top 25? Two of them tangle in Tallahassee, the site of the Seminoles 81-60 Monday night mauling of No. 7 Virginia. FSU turned UVA over early and often while grabbing a 20-point first half lead and wound up shooting 13-24 from three-point range that night. The Hokies have a double-digit victory over the conference’s first-place team but haven’t played since Feb. 6 (one of their postponed games was a home date with Florida State). Coach Leonard Hamilton’s team leads the ACC in three-point shooting as well as scoring thanks to a balanced attack: top scorer M.J. Walker averages 13.9 points per game (the senior does hit 48.7% of his threes) and six different Seminoles have led the team in scoring over their 10 conference games thus far.
Maryland (12-10, 6-9 Big Ten) at Rutgers (12-7, 8-7), 3 p.m. The Scarlet Knights likely would have made the NCAA Tournament last March, ending what was a 29-year drought. This year they’re in the mix but can ill-afford a late-season stumble no matter how good the Big Ten may be. And the “S” in Rutgers stands for streak this winter, following up a five-game conference losing streak with a four-game winning streak. The Terps couldn’t boast back-to-back league wins until Tuesday’s triumph over Nebraska. Aaron Wiggins has developed into the team’s main offensive threat, leading Maryland in scoring five times over a six-game stretch. Rutgers took the December matchup by 14 as Ron Harper Jr. scored 27 points. In his previous three games against Maryland, the junior scored a total of 25 points 9-25 shooting.