College basketball's fraternity of undefeateds is shrinking.
There were 31 such squads as of Nov. 28. By Dec. 1, that number got chopped to 20. This past Saturday still had 16 lucky clubs yet to take an L. But after Tuesday night, wherein three more bagels got knocked out of the loss column (Louisville, Maryland, Butler) college basketball is left with merely five undefeated teams:
Who's going to last longest? Here's a quick primer on these five teams and their chances of outlasting the group and standing as the final unbeaten in 2019-20. Percentages provided by Ken Pomeroy.
SAN DIEGO STATE (34%)
If the Aztecs have the best chance, then college basketball could easily fail to have one undefeated team make it to New Year's Eve, which rarely happens. After the oddly scheduled San Diego Christian game, SDSU plays against Utah in Los Angeles on Dec. 21. A win there means the first likely loss comes on Jan. 4 in one of the best games of the Mountain West slate. SDSU plays at Utah State. Both teams could be ranked. This is SDSU's best start since 2010-11, when Kawhi Leonard was on the team and the Aztecs entered the NCAA Tournament as a 32-2 No. 2 seed.
Bruce Pearl's been a savant in November and December at Auburn, amassing a 41-5 nonconference record. The Tigers have been a bit under the radar this season, even while ranked, due to not having yet played a game vs. a ranked team. But the wins have come against top-100 competition, such as Davidson, New Mexico, Richmond and Furman. Auburn's been so good in part because it's never been this good under Pearl from 2-point range. Tigers are making 60% of their attempts from 2. Isaac Okoro has been a top 15 freshman, too. Interesting game on Dec. 19: Auburn hosts NC State. Next opponent after that in which the game will be in doubt before tip: Jan. 4 at Mississippi State.
OHIO STATE (20%)
After Louisville's loss, it's fair and easy -- and accurate -- to call Ohio State the best team in college basketball. The No. 2 defense and No. 6 offense, per possession, in college hoops. The Buckeyes beat Villanova and UNC by 25 points apiece, then tore the limbs off Penn State (106-74) this past weekend. But it'll be tough for Chris Holtmann's team to get to 2020 without losing. An in-league road test awaits this weekend, then the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 21 in Vegas brings a tasty matchup vs. Kentucky. If Ohio State is indeed 12-0 at that point, a game in Cleveland against a quality West Virginia team is next up. I can't call Ohio State a great team yet, but if it gets to 13-0, that praise will be mandated.
Best start in almost a half-century for the Dukes, who haven't faced a tough schedule but also don't have the luxury of a true home venue this season. Duquesne's Palumbo Arena is not available because of renovations, so the Dukes are on a rotation of venues for home tips. Makes for an interesting story, no doubt. This is the No. 1 shot-blocking team in college basketball (19.1% of defensive possessions include a swat). Duquesne's iffy to drop one of its next four games, all of which are on neutral courts, and come against Radford, Austin Peay, UAB and Marshall, who are a combined 13-18. Home vs. Saint Louis on Jan. 2 could be the final stand.
Credit to Liberty for its best start in school history, but the reigning Atlantic Sun champs have taken just about the easiest route possible to get there. Two of the 11 wins have come against non-DI opponents. There's been only one road game on the schedule (at 2-7 East Carolina) and for all the winning, Liberty still merely ranks 80th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 69th on the defensive side. Next up is 6-2 Vanderbilt in Vandy's house. That is winnable, as I think Liberty's the better team right now. But following that is a neutral vs. Towson (Dec. 20) and a roadie against LSU (Dec. 29). The Flames have had a great 2019, but it will end with an L.
The crowd-surfing walk-on who stabilized Texas Tech's season
Who was the most valuable player in Texas Tech'swin over No. 1 Louisville on Tuesday?
"Please let the story be: he's a good player, gets it done in practice every day and has earned the right to be on the floor against a No. 1-ranked team."
That's what TTU coach Chris Beard had to say about one Avery Benson. The Red Raiders walk-on played 22 minutes, was 3-of-3 from the field and 3-of-3 from the foul line. He had a pair of boards and a pair of blocks -- plus a steal. Afterward, his teammates rewarded him by lifting him up and having him crowd-surf in the locker room. It was an infectious sight. I asked Benson if it was the first time he'd ever crowd-surfed. He said yes, right before Beard quipped back, "You sure it wasn't the Arkansas rodeo back in 2008?"
Benson's story is terrific. It's one of patience and persistence. When I covered the regional semifinals in Boston in 2018, Texas Tech was there. So was Benson -- behind TTU's bench. Since he was not a rostered player who was eligible to compete, he had to cheerlead in Cowboy getup and stay a row back. That's when I took the picture you see above.
Now look at him: the toast of Tech after a win that could alter the trajectory of the Red Raiders' season.
"The coaching staff never stopped believing in me," Benson said. "And it's not like I have something special, but they put me in and believe in me, especially in the Mecca of basketball, so that's something I'll never forget."
Beard laid out Benson's story and importance after Tuesday night's win. I am sharing his quotes on Benson mostly in full, which have been slightly modified for clarity. It's the best way to understand how much Tuesday night's performance meant to Beard, Benson and Tech.
"My first D-I head coaching job was at Arkansas-Little Rock, and we go to Little Rock with a plan," Beard said. "The very first player I offered a scholarship to was Avery Benson. He was playing for the Arkansas Wings, he went for a loose ball and lost about three teeth. He wouldn't take himself out of the game. They cleaned the blood up, and I turned to Wes Flanagan and said, 'Offer the kid a scholarship.' He's one of my all-time favorite players. I know you're not supposed to have favorites as a coach, but c'mon, man. Avery had all sorts of offers to play around the country, but when it all settled, he wanted to play in our culture and our program, and I was proud. It was one of the best phone calls that I got.
"Another big move was at the end of last season. Players transfers, it's a part of our business and I'll always support guys if they want to go somewhere where they'll play more or have a different opportunity, always on both ends of the transfer. Avery came in Tuesday, the day after the national championship game, and I asked Avery if he wants to talk about this, and he said, 'No, coach, I'm staying the course. I'm not going anywhere.' I told the coaches that day that this is one of the biggest things that will happen to us. We'll recruit four- and five-star guys that will get all the ink, but what just happened with Avery Benson is big. We have three returners, it's (Davide) Moretti, Kyler (Edwards) and Avery. And I was glad tonight that the nation got to see how important Avery is to our program.
"Our culture is everything. Our culture is what got us to the Final Four and won the Big 12. Players come and go, coaches come and go, but if culture stays the same, there's a way to keep winning. The Patriots' wide receivers change from time to time, Alabama gets a new quarterback, but they keep winning. We got a long way to go at Texas Tech basketball, but we like to think our culture is real and having guys like Avery means the world to us."
Texas off to its best start under Shaka
Let's keep things in the Lone Star State.
"We're still having tryouts for playing time, that's what these guys need to understand," Shaka Smart told me recently.
This was in the wake of UT's horrendous loss to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.
It's still the Longhorns' only loss of the season. At 8-1, this is the best start through nine games the program has had under Smart, who's in a hot-seat type of season in this his fifth with the school. Texas hasn't played a top-shelf nonconference schedule, but it does own a road win over Purdue and still has a road game against Providence coming next week. Plus, with the return of Andrew Jones, who's still gaining stamina after overcoming leukemia, Texas has all-around been proficient with all of the new parts.
"Unfortunately it's not a linear progression, sometimes it can be a couple steps forward, one back," Smart said of Jones' return to the floor. "From his standpoint, he's back and playing and I think he's helped our team in a lot of ways, but I think he's going to continue to progress toward whatever 'full strength' is."
Texas is unranked and could remain that way even if it wins at Providence. That might be for the best in the short term for this group.
"We have a high ceiling relative to where we are," Smart said.
Remember, Smart hired Luke Yaklich from Michigan after Yaklich came in second to replace John Beilein. The defense ranks 37th right now (was 26th last season) but is almost three points-per-100 better than a season ago. Yaklich told me junior guard Matt Coleman is as good an on-ball defender as Michigan's Zavier Simpson, who might be a top-five one-on-one defender in college hoops.
So while unranked Texas is off the radar now, don't be surprised if it's 11-1 when it opens Big 12 play in January against Baylor.
"The blend you want to have as a basketball team is humility and confidence together, and that's very, very possible [with us]," Smart said.
Have a question, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
Which conference is most likely to get two one seeds come March? Thinking the favorites are Big Ten and Big 12)?— Part of the journey is the Endgame (@MattHuo) December 11, 2019
Obviously we're way too early to project this with any kind of confidence, but the NET rankings will be publicly available on Monday for the first time and that can help give us a teensy glimpse into what league sits best. The continual upheaval atop the polls make this hard to project, but Kansas and Baylor give the Big 12 the best spot right now, while the Big Ten and Big East aren't so far behind. Weird that I'd slot the ACC fourth, but it's not a distant fourth. I'm 100% confident no other league will have any chance at two No. 1 seeds and will confidently predict here and now that all 1 seeds will come from different leagues.
This will be regrettable, but my dart throws 95 days out from Selection Sunday: Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio State.
Why is Providence so, so, so bad?— Bevo (@sidfinch86) December 11, 2019
One of my all-time misses. I picked the Friars as 15th best in the sport in October. Now they're 69th at KenPom, squatting on a 5-5 record. I liked (like!) the roster, love the coach and expected a big upgrade defensively. I just don't get it. And because I'm stubborn, I still think it's possible we get to the end of February and see PC in like fourth place in the Big East.
Is Tyrese Haliburton even better than you thought he’d be this year?— probonerszn (@AlexBerngard) December 11, 2019
He's about been what I expected, and what I expected was one of the 15 best players in the sport. Tyrese Haliburton's at 16.2 points, 8.2 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. He's been terrific, but Iowa State's floated outside the AP Top 25 due to losses to Oregon, Michigan and Seton Hall. You'll see no shortage of love here and on the podcast for Haliburton, but on the whole it might take until mid-to-late January for this great college point guard to get the due he's owed. Since Iowa State is unlikely to be highly seeded, Haliburton's chances at First Team All-America will be hindered.
You were lukewarm on Penn State his year compared to some others (and compared to yourself in previous year). Do you think they have shown so far that they can be relevant in March for the first time in years?— JWPA (@JohnisfromPA) December 11, 2019
I took a mea culpa on Providence above and will do the same with Penn State here. The Nittany Lions knocked Maryland from the ranks of the undefeated on Tuesday night and now sit at 8-2 with a neutral-court loss to Ole Miss and a road defeat against undefeated Ohio State. Coming into the season, I didn't think PSU would make the NCAAs. The defense is good enough, though. I'll be out-and-out convinced with a no-doubt-about-it home win vs. Alabama this weekend.
- Had Texas Tech lost on Tuesday night, it would have become just the fifth team since 1985 (when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams) to endure a four-game losing streak the following season. Those teams: '89-90 Seton Hall; '94-95 Duke; '02-03 Indiana; and '07-08 Ohio State. TTU also would have become the first team to take its four-game losing streak in noncon play.
- Charles Bassey's ugly looking injury during the second half of WKU's win vs. Arkansas on Saturday is the nightmare scenario for every higher-end college hoops talent who bypasses going pro. Bassey was a five-star prospect in high school and subsequently has been an important player for Western Kentucky. Now he's out 6-9 months due to a tibial plateau fracture that will affect his earning potential for the next couple of years.
- More troublesome injury news for a key big man: Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his right wrist during the first half of the Pirates' loss Sunday night at Iowa State and will sit 6-8 weeks. The Pirates are 6-3 and have gone 1-3 against power conference opponents. Their last chance against a tourney-level team in noncon play is Dec. 19 at home vs. currently-ranked-No. 4 Maryland.
- Dear God, did you see it? Jarrett Culver's
in an NAIA game on Tuesday night -- and didn't get a double-double.
- NC State on Monday sent its formal dispute to the NCAA, stating in effect that the organization is relying too heavily on testimony in federal court from former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola, who said under oath he provided tens of thousands of dollars to former NC State player Dennis Smith Jr. -- and that he delivered that money to the former NC State coaching staff. NC State and Kansas are the first two schools that will be subject to punishments in this "FBI era," if you will.
- This came across my Twitter timeline on Tuesday night and stopped me cold. An amazing streak has ended in Westwood.
This is the first UCLA basketball team without a McDonald's All-American on its roster since the start of the game in 1978, the school confirmed. (The streak encompassed the season after that game, 1978-79, through 2018-19.)— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) December 11, 2019
- Credit to Lon Kruger for this: Oklahoma (7-1) is in the midst of a three-game road stint. The Sooners escaped with an 82-80 win at North Texas over the weekend, next play at 8-1 Wichita State on Saturday and then travel to Nebraska to face 7-2 Creighton. This while players are taking finals. Unconventional!
- Some more perspective on how good Vernon Carey Jr. has been to start his college career: he's one of five players in 45 years at Duke to have five straight games with at least 15 points and 10 boards (Carey, Marvin Bagley III, Shelden Williams, Shane Battier, Christian Laettner).
- A shout to intra-Virginia hoops: eight of the 14 D-I programs in the state are above .500 more than a month into the season, which is aberrational. Liberty (11-0), George Mason (10-1), Virginia (8-1), Richmond (8-1), VCU (7-2), William & Mary (7-3), Virginia Tech (6-3) and James Madison (5-4) are a combined 62-15, with a few of those losses having come by playing each other.
- I was oddly curious, so as of Tuesday night, here was 1-10 in the RPI, which of course is now obsolete: 1. Kansas 2. West Virginia 3. Ohio State 4. Maryland 5. Auburn 6. Louisville 7. Florida State 8. Michigan 9. Colorado 10. Duke. The NCAA will release its NET rankings for the first time on Monday.