It is nearly impossible to go undefeated in a season. The last team to do it and win the NCAA Tournament was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. They were led by legendary Hall of Fame coach, Bob Knight, they are one of 19 teams to even reach the tournament undefeated. The most recent is the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats that fell just short in the Final Four. Wichita State also did it in 2014, but they lost in the second round to a different pack of Wildcats en route to the title game.
There are so many things that can happen in a season. Injuries can instantly derail a team’s season. Players can have acdemic issues as South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell did (and the team is still undefeated with him in the lineup). Naturally, players are human. As good as they are it is difficult to win night in and night out because there is bound to be at least one off night. It is a tall task to make it to March undefeated and it will not happen this year.
With Villanova’s loss to Butler, that leaves two out of the 351 division one teams undefeated. The Baylor Bears (14-0) and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-0). Each are currently in the AP top five due to their spotless records. The question is, when will that first loss come?
Baylor has had a stellar season considering the turmoil of their campus over the past few months. What is not in turmoil is their talented roster. Not to mention the fact that even with the roster they had the team was not picked to be as high as they are now. The preseason conference poll slotted the Bears at fifth in their own conference.
There are several facets to the Bears game that have gotten them to this point. Firstly, they are very efficient. As a team they shoot 49.9% from the field. Part of that efficiency comes from the team’s depth. The roster is not very full, 11 players have logged minutes this year, but 10 players play more than 10 minutes per game. Nine of those average more than five points per game. Jake Lindsey is the tenth player and he contributes 4.8 points, 2.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game in support of leading point guard Manu Lecomte.
Lecomte is a Miami transfer and is flourishing in Waco. He has 11.4 points per game coupled with 5.1 assist per game. His success is aided by his top scorers Jonathan Motley and Allerik Freeman. Each of these three players has managed double digit points (16.0 for Motely) in under 30 minutes of play.
What is more impressive is the defensive effect that each player has on the team. All ten players that play significant minutes have a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus. This means that each player has a positive net effect on defense being in the game. The one player that it is impossible not to mention when it comes to Baylor’s tenacious defense is Jo Lual-Acuil. The seven foot monster smashes a whopping 3.6 blocks per game, good enough for third in the country. He has reached that mark in only 25.8 minutes per contest along with 11.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. Lual-Acuil’s high production in limited minutes is a perfect example of how Scott Drew’s use of the whole roster keeps his team energized.
That is what got them to this point. They will not reach the end of the season with a zero in the loss column. Baylor has taken down some giants on its way to current record. They have taken down Oregon who is now on track in addition to Xavier and Louisville. Conference play in the Big 12, however, is no joke. Baylor will finish the season with a minimum of two losses in the Conference.
The good news for all of this is that we will not have to wait long for this team to drop its first game. Already nearly faltering against an average Iowa State team, the Bears come home to Oklahoma State and then travel to West Virginia. This is the fun part about the Mountaineers being in the Big 12, teams have to go halfway across the country to play them. Travel has its wear and tear on players.
So after January 10th, only one team will remain undefeated in the NCAA. West Virginia and Bob Huggins are notorious for their full court defensive pressure that has caused 347 turnovers this season, best in the nation. They have only allowed 60.8 points per game. The really scary part? The team is fifth in the nation in scoring behind eight players over 7.0 points per game for a total of 90.7 per game. The fatigue of the Bears and the relentlessness of Huggins squad will result in Baylor’s first loss.
At the beginning of the year Gonzaga was supposed to be good. They also had a few games that were supposed to challenge them on paper. Gonzaga has beaten all of the bigger conference teams on their schedule: Florida, Iowa State, an Arizona team on a neutral floor that is now coming around, Washington and Tennessee.
They have done it with a depth created by returning players, transfers and recruits. Nigel Williams-Goss has emerged as one of the most crucial transfers in the nation sitting at team bests of 13.8 points and 4.7 assists along with 5.7 rebounds. The versatile guard is a staple for the offense and has played the most minutes on the team thus far. To help him he has the interior presence of Przemek Karnowski, one of the best passing big men in the country. He has the highest usage percentage on the team (for players that qualify). Karnowski is the center of the offense for the team and his passing threat is a great creator. It helps Williams-Goss and fellow double digit scorer Josh Perkins to get their opportunities.
All of this action has allowed supporting players such as Cal transfer Jordan Mathews to flourish. Mathews is now shooting 42.5% from behind the arc. Freshman Zach Collins and Killian Tillie also benefit from the lack of defensive attention. Collins is currently averaging 10.6 points per game on 72.5% shooting. When a guy is making three out of four shots from anywhere you know there is something good going on.
Unfortunately even that cannot prevent the Bulldogs from dropping a game or two. They have a few tests on their schedule that will cause them some difficulty. The BYU Cougars may present somewhat of a challenge, but the team that will take down Mark Few is the St. Mary’s Gaels. The Gales have faced and beaten prime competition this year. When Gonzaga has to travel to St. Mary’s on February 11th, it will be too much for Gonzaga.
St. Mary’s is led by Australian Center Jock Landale with an outstanding 18.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds. To this point he is one of the most productive players in the country, not to mention the WCC. Another Aussie player that has high production on the team is Emmett Naar. Naar is a threat in several facets with 10.3 points, 5.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds. He is one of the main reasons that the ball moves so swiftly about the Gaels offense.
What the team truly brings as a strength is its defensive prowess. They are currently third in the country only allowing an astounding 58.1 points per game. They have allowed 61 points or under in 9 of their wins this year. The one game that they lost to UT-Arlington they only allowed 65 points. Gonzaga is a deep team, but they will not be able to fend off the aggressive defense of St. Mary’s.