Which unbeaten college hoops team has the best shot to run the table?
Posted: Wednesday December 15, 2004 2:22PM; Updated: Wednesday December 15, 2004 6:36PM
Memphis' Sean Banks (top) has been suspended indefinitely.
So the Rick Majerus Broadcasting Era is over (if an era can last four weeks), the Sean Banks Era is on hold (and what memories the Memphis star gave us!), and I've just come down from a Cessna flight with Oklahoma State's ace pilot, Joey Graham (check out his story in this week's SI).
More on those topics later, but for now I want to discuss a subject that's dear to my heart.
If you've read the 'Bag over the past six years, you know we have an unholy fascination with undefeated teams. College hoops hasn't seen one since Bob Knight's fabled 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, which explains why last year's epic (but ultimately foiled) undefeated runs by Stanford and Saint Joseph's provided the most captivating regular-season storyline in years.
Can any of the 18 remaining spotless teams pull it off? Which undefeateds have some substance behind those gaudy records? And which band of pathetic schedulers earns this year's Golden Soufflé as the worst undefeated team in the nation?
That last question is an easy one. We'll head down to College Station, Texas, and hand this year's coveted Golden Soufflé to ...
Worst Undefeated Team
Texas A&M (6-0) Best win so far: Oakland
Will face reality on: Jan. 5 at Kansas
We know first-year coach Billy Gillispie wants to create some excitement around the Aggies, but show some pride, guys. If we go by the current RPI, A&M's most accomplished victim is Oakland -- which happens to be 0-6! The Aggies have played two non-Division I schools, and they don't leave home until a Jan. 2 game at Penn State. Nor is youth an excuse: A&M has six upperclassmen, including former Big 12 freshman of the year Antoine Wright. Somewhere, Bernard King sheds a tear for his alma mater.
Teams That Can Back It Up
Illinois (9-0) Legit wins: Wake Forest, Gonzaga, at Arkansas, Oregon
Next big test: Dec. 31 vs. Cincinnati
In a less-than-imposing Big Ten, the stacked Illini have the best chance of any team to pull a Stanford/Saint Joe's and stay spotless through the spring. Even more impressive than its resume is the way Bruce Weber's bunch has won its games, crushing accomplished teams like Wake Forest and Gonzaga. The Illini's run-and-gun is tremendous fun to watch and reason alone to step up for the Full Court package this season.
Oklahoma State (7-0) Legit wins: Syracuse, UAB
Next big test: Dec. 18 at UNLV
I just spent a week with the Cowboys, whose talent, toughness and experience (eight seniors!) make me glad I picked them as my preseason No. 1. Even on an off-night offensively, OSU's defense squeezed the life out of Syracuse last week. Running the table in the Big 12 won't be easy, though, since the Cowboys have to play on the road at Kansas this year.
Marquette (9-0) Legit wins: Air Force, Kent State, Wisconsin
Next big test: Dec. 18 vs. Arizona
After flying under the radar so far, the Travis Diener-led Golden Eagles are ready to burst onto the national scene this week with a win against Arizona. A long undefeated run seems highly unlikely, but Tom Crean has his guys playing better than anyone expected.
The Jury's Still Out On...
Boston College (7-0) Best win so far: Clemson
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 29 vs. Kent State
Solid wins over Clemson, UCLA and Boston U., but none of those would be called "marquee." Still, we tabbed the Craig Smith-led Eagles as a potential surprise top-10 team by season's end, and we meant it.
Kansas (6-0) Best win so far: Pacific
Put up or shut up time: Jan. 1 vs. Georgia Tech
Hard to know what the Jayhawks really have, since they don't leave the friendly confines of Lawrence or Kansas City until they play at Kentucky on Jan. 9. Showdowns against Georgia Tech and the Wildcats loom, however.
Georgia Tech (6-0) Best win so far: Michigan
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 18 vs. Gonzaga
That Michigan blowout sure looked impressive, but the Wolverines are toast anyway. Time to start earning those AP first-place votes this Saturday in Vegas, guys.
Cincinnati (6-0) Best win so far: at Dayton
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 31 vs. Illinois
The Bearcats beat Purdue, but so does everybody these days. We won't know much about Bob Huggins' crew until New Year's Eve against the Illini.
Duke (7-0) Best win so far: Michigan State
Put up or shut up time: Jan. 13 at N.C. State
On the one hand, the Blue Devils sure look like a top-10 team. On the other hand, will Daniel Ewing and J.J. Redick have to score 50 points a game to win in the ACC?
Wichita State (5-0) Best win so far: at Providence
Put up or shut up time: Jan. 22 vs. Southern Illinois
The W at Providence opened some eyes and got us licking our lips for a wide-open Missouri Valley race. Wouldn't it be great if the X-Man (owner of the greatest sports cameo of all-time in Singles) started showing up at Shockers games? Where is the X-Man these days, anyway?
Hawaii (5-0) Best win so far: Southern Illinois
Put up or shut up time: Rainbow Classic (Dec. 20-23)
Well-traveled Julian Sensley may be the best player you've never heard of. Potential dates with UAB or Oral Roberts loom at the Rainbow Classic, but we won't know how good the 'Bows are until they start hitting the road regularly.
Pittsburgh (7-0) Best win so far: Memphis
Put up or shut up time: Jan. 22 at UConn
I think my rec-league team could have beaten Memphis last week, but at least the Panthers didn't suffer the same fate as Big East heavies UConn and Syracuse (losses to UMass and Oklahoma State). Chevon Troutman is a man inside, but Chris Taft seems to be suffering from the Chris Paul syndrome of overinflated expectations.
North Carolina State (7-0) Best win so far: Purdue
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 19 at Washington
Can't wait to see if the Pack brings anything to the table in Seattle on Sunday. There's a reason these guys finished second in the ACC last year.
Oral Roberts (5-0) Best win so far: at Saint Louis
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 20 vs. Georgetown (Rainbow Classic)
Super sophs Caleb Green and Ken Tutt have Scott Sutton's Golden Eagles rolling. This dangerous mid-major is fast becoming what intracity rival Tulsa used to be.
West Virginia (6-0) Best win so far: at LSU
Put up or shut up time: Dec. 29 vs. George Washington
Any time you can win at LSU you deserve some dap (though I'd love to know what's wrong in Baton Rouge these days).
What Are You Doing Here?
Fresno State (6-0) Best win so far: at USC
Will face reality on: Dec. 18 vs. Oregon
The Shadow of Tark (and the samurai swords) is finally receding, but there's not much to see here.
Hofstra (6-0) Best win so far: St. John's
Will face reality on: Dec. 30 at Syracuse
When your best win came against the lowly Red Storm, raised eyebrows are appropriate.
Kansas State (6-0) Best win so far: at Wyoming
Will face reality on: Dec. 28 vs. Rutgers
Snaps to the state of Kansas for having three undefeateds (Kansas, K-State and Wichita State), but this won't last much longer.
To the Mailbag
Gotta get more thoughtful questions for next week, folks. This week's batch was awfully thin. ...
What do you think of Oklahoma State's John Lucas scoring that meaningless basket against Syracuse with less than two seconds on the clock? -- Joe, Oswego, N.Y.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
I spoke with Lucas about it in Stillwater, Okla., last week. He didn't seem to understand what the fuss was all about, and we both agreed the whole thing will die down unless O-State and Syracuse meet again in the postseason (in which case the media will turn it into a monster story). My take: It wasn't Lucas' finest moment (he should have just dribbled out the clock), but Syracuse's Gerry McNamara had no right to complain about it after he lazily tossed the ball into play while the clock was still running. Fact is, the way Syracuse quit over the last 20 seconds was just as inexcusable. For what it's worth, Lucas remarked that he noticed how Hakim Warrick ran to the locker room without shaking hands afterward.
Random side note: I've never heard a group of fans bash their own player as much as the Orange supporters sitting behind me at MSG killed Craig Forth last week. Wow.
What's on tap for the 'Bag parlor game this year? We've classified all-timers by school and jersey number, so what's next? -- Jeff Lewis, Olathe, Kans.
Oh boy, this will open up a new can of worms. If anyone can suggest a good college hoops parlor game, though, we'll give it a shot.
Why on earth would Oklahoma State have to worry about playing after exam week? Don't the Cowboys have one of the lowest graduation rates in Division I? -- Drew Tucker, Gainesville, Fla.
It's true the Cowboys had the worst graduation rate of any Final Four team last spring (11 percent using the controversial measurement system employed by the NCAA). At the same time, it should be noted that by next week OSU will have already graduated four current seniors (Frans Steyn, Ivan McFarlin and Joey and Stephen Graham) with two more scheduled to finish next spring (Daniel Bobik and John Lucas).
Every year I write to request some press for my beloved Memphis Tigers. However, this year's team seems to be racked by chemistry issues and jealousy. Instead of giving them the respect they usually deserve, please try to explain what is wrong with this year's squad and also attempt to prescribe the antidote. -- Dave Hayner, Hoboken, N.J.
When John Calipari said "I've tried everything" to fix his team last week, he wasn't entirely right. By suspending star soph Sean Banks indefinitely, though, he's getting close. In hindsight, one of the worst things that could have happened to Memphis was for Rodney Carney to go off in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. Banks sulked in response, and since then the Tigers haven't been the same. By sidelining Banks, Cal is acknowledging this is the only way to save Memphis' season, which has turned into one of the more fascinating train wrecks of recent years. Let's not underestimate how much pressure Calipari is under here: He scheduled so many national TV games because he thought he had a team that would compete. Tigers fans are ready for some results, but this isn't an NIT team right now, much less an NCAA outfit.
Seven random things
Some thoughts on Majerus' decision to come back to coaching at USC next year: 1) Does this mean his doctor's advice to stop coaching last year no longer applies? 2) If the USC players thought Henry Bibby said mean things to them, they have no idea what they're in for with Majerus. 3) The Pac-10 is shaping up for a resurgence in the coming years with Majerus and UCLA's Ben Howland jockeying for position in the Los Angeles recruiting wars. Lute Olson and Roy Williams certainly won't be able to come in and plunder the city like they have in the past.
Ran into Nolan Richardson the other night after the game in Stillwater between Oklahoma State and UAB (coached by Richardson protégé Mike Anderson). Who wouldn't love to see old Nolan prowling the sidelines again somewhere?
Every once in a while it's refreshing to do a story on a player's achievements off the court, and the week I spent around Joey Graham (and his brother Stephen) was one of those times. Both Grahams have pilot's licenses, and Joey gave me a ride in one of the OSU flight school's Cessnas on Saturday after the Cowboys had beaten UAB the night before. For all the stuff you hear from kids talking about their future in the NBA, it's nice to hear one discuss the possibility of doing something else he loves for a living. That said, I wouldn't be going out on a limb to say Joey Graham has pro hoops in his future.
"Trap Games" update: Last week we pointed out potential post-exam challenges for highly ranked teams, and so far one of two has been prophetic. Wake Forest barely got by Temple after finishing its exams, while Georgia Tech had no problem with Air Force. Check back for more on this next week.
Can anybody suggest a good pair of hip sneakers that are durable? I've been burned in the past two months by my dayglo orange Nike Street Maxcats (or my "hunting shoes," as Roy Williams called them) and now my grey-and-black herringbone low-top Chucks. Both pairs are already falling apart. Help!
As nice a feel-good story as Vermont may be, BU is looking more and more like the team to beat in the America East.
We're taking final nominations for this year's All-Hobbit team. (Last year's team can be seen here, by the way.)
Picks from the 'Bag
On DVD: Born Rich (2003). An heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune turns the camera on his fellow rich kids (including members of the Trump, Vanderbilt and Newhouse clans) in an engrossing documentary that discusses the wealth they're never supposed to talk about. By turns surprising (Ivanka Trump comes off as disarmingly well-adjusted) and infuriating (the DVD extras include some shockingly racist statements by young New York socialites on their trips to Africa), Born Rich is a non-fiction version of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan. (BTW, when is that guy going to make another movie?)
On TV: The Apprentice. We'll be cheering for finalist Jen Massey, who sent the 'Bag his first (and perhaps only) positive note about his college newspaper op-eds during our undergrad days together. Despite the best efforts of Jen's Apprentice competitors (and the show's editors) to bring her down, we'll trust our own experience instead. (Going out of your way to do nice things will earn you some fans.) Go for it Jen -- and don't let C-Webb (or the evil Kelly Perdew) stand in your way.
Separated at birth
Oklahoma State's Frans Steyn and Ernie Els
Michigan State's Paul Davis and actor Josh Hartnett -- Tony Paolella, Chicago
WATN: Luke Axtell found!
Thanks to all the readers who wrote in to let us know that Axtell, the former Texas and Kansas sharpshooter, is now the head coach at Hill Country Christian School in Austin. Sorry we couldn't track him down, but we'll have to take a rain check after traveling all week for the mag.
Next week's WATN comes from Stephen Moore of Cary, N.C., who asks:
Where in the world is Exree Hipp?
See you next week.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl covers college basketball for the magazine and SI.com.