I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye in 1976. But the year is one of my favorites. And it’s not because it’s the year which produced three of my all-time favorite movies (“Rocky,” “All The President’s Men” and “Midway”).
The year 1976 is known for one thing – at least as far as I’m concerned: the last time a men’s college basketball team finished the season undefeated.
I never saw the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers play in person, but as an IU alum I take just as much pride in that group as I do the 2002 team which reached the national title game when I was a student in Bloomington. Perfection is timeless.
Well, the Hoosiers are unbeaten again and ranked atop college basketball. But IU has plenty of unblemished friends. With Colorado State’s loss Wednesday night, 18 teams in Division I remain unbeaten.
Now it’s not even Christmas, so it’s far too premature to start thinking undefeated seasons. But then again, when your alma mater is one of the team’s without a loss, it’s never to early to start dreaming.
Of the 18 teams, I don’t have any running the table. But I do have a few making it past Valentine’s Day before heartbreak. Below is a breakdown of all the remaining unbeatens and listed in order of when I expect their first loss to occur.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI – 9-0
Best win: 78-61 vs. Butler, Nov. 21. In the championship game of the Maui Invitational, the Illini impressively handled a Butler team that had just dismantled North Carolina a night earlier. The Bulldogs never led against Illinois, who had four players in double figures while Butler was a one-man show in Rotnei Clarke (27 points).
Close call: (tie) 78-77 OT at Hawaii, Nov. 17 and 63-62 vs. Gardner-Webb, Nov. 25. Illinois trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half against Hawaii, but were able to claw back in the game thanks to 25 points by Brandon Paul. D.J. Richardson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer in overtime to give Illinois the win. Illinois needed another last-second 3-pointer to avoid defeat against Gardner-Webb. Tyler Griffey’s deep 3 with four seconds left avoided Illini embarrassment.
First loss: Dec. 8 at Gonzaga (8-0). Illinois has been playing with fire this season and Gonzaga will make sure the Illini get burned as the Bulldogs lead the NCAA shooting 53 percent from the field.
OLE MISS REBELS – 6-0
Best win: 80-67 vs. Rutgers, Dec. 1. Ole Miss flipped a four-point halftime deficit with the help of JUCO All-American Marshall Henderson. Back-to-back 3s by Henderson, who finished with 18 points, spurred a 14-2 run over the final seven minutes to lift the Rebels, who had four players in addition to Henderson score in double figures. The margin could have been larger with better free throw shooting. Ole Miss was 17-of-39 (43 percent) from the charity stripe.
Close call: 90-72 vs. Coastal Carolina, Nov. 13. The Chanticleers saw a three-point halftime lead vanish as the Rebels went on a 21-8 run led by Henderson, who finished with a game-high 27 points.
First loss: Dec. 8 at Middle Tennessee (6-2). The Blue Raiders losses have been to unbeaten Florida and then in overtime to Akron. This game is the Rebels’ first road contest of the season and you never know what to expect from a team in its first test away from home. Plus, Middle Tennessee lost just once at home last season (a double OT defeat to Belmont).
TEMPLE OWLS- 6-0
Best win: 76-61 at Villanova, Wednesday. Only one Owls opponent has a winning record (Kent State, 5-4), so there’s not a lot to choose from. But a 15-point win over a Philly rival is still impressive, especially considering Temple trailed by four at the half.
Close call: 80-75 vs. Delaware, Nov. 25. Temple’s largest lead was eight and allowed the Blue Hens (3-6) to shoot 57 percent from the field.
First loss: Dec. 8 vs. No. 2 Duke (8-0). Temple has beaten the likes of Rice, Delaware, Buffalo and Wagner. Duke has beaten Ohio State, Louisville, Kentucky, Minnesota and VCU. Advantage: Duke.
VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES – 7-0
Best win: 81-71 vs. No. 15 Oklahoma State, Dec. 1. Erick Green scored 28 points, including eight free throws in the final 76 seconds to keep the Hokies perfect. The win was Virginia Tech’s first non-conference win over a ranked opponent since 1995 when they Hokies beat Virginia (used to be in different conferences).
Close call: 96-87 at UNC-Greensboro, Nov. 19. UNCG rallied from a 13-point deficit to take a 77-73 lead with six minutes left, but the Hokies answered with a 10-0 run and finished the game 14-of-22 shooting from behind the arc to avoid an embarrassing loss to a team that is now 1-46 against ACC teams.
First loss: Dec. 8 at West Virginia (3-3). The Mountaineers lost three of their first four games, including a 34-point loss to Gonzaga. But Hokies have played only one road game (against UNC-Greensboro) and nearly lost it.
CHARLOTTE 49ERS – 8-0
Best win: 73-69 at Davidson Wednesday. The Wildcats are just 4-4 now, but three of their losses have come against unbeaten teams (Charlotte, New Mexico and Gonzaga). Plus, Davidson has wins over Vanderbilt and West Virginia already this season. So a solid non-conference win for the 49ers.
Close call: 73-69 at Davidson Wednesday. The 49ers trailed by four at halftime, but scored 44 points in the second half with four guys in double figures to pick up a big road win.
First loss: Dec. 14 at Miami (5-1). You just knew Jim Larranaga was going to turn the Hurricanes around and an impressive win over Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge helps ease the sting of an earlier loss to Florida Gulf Coast.
ARIZONA WILDCATS – 6-0
Best win: 85-57 at Texas Tech, Dec. 1. The Wildcats led by as many as 36 on the road and handed the Red Raiders their first loss of the season. Nick Johnson scored 18 points, while Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons added 14 each. Texas Tech narrowed the gap to 13 points with 13 minutes to play, but could get no closer.
Close call: 63-55 vs. Southern Miss, Dec. 4. Arizona was able to remain unbeaten despite turning the ball over 27 times against the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss led by eight at halftime using a zone which forced Arizona into mistake after mistake. But the Wildcats bounced back in the second half and used their own defensive pressure to turn the tide, forcing Southern Miss into 17 second-half turnovers of their own.
First loss: Dec. 15 vs. Florida (7-0). Few teams have looked as good as the Gators have so far this season, and they are fresh off a 25-point win in Tallahassee against rival FSU Wednesday night.
EASTERN KENTUCKY COLONELS – 8-0
Best win: 68-44 vs. Norfolk State, Nov. 24. There’s not a lot to choose from off the Colonels’ early season schedule. But I guess a 24-point win over a 2012 NCAA Tournament team is as good a win as any.
Close call: 71-69, OT, vs. Towson. A year ago, Towson was 1-31. Sure they have four wins already this season, but needing overtime against a team with a combined 5-57 record over the last two years doesn’t bode well for sustainable success.
First loss: Dec. 16 at No. 13 Illinois (9-0). I feel fairly confident about this call. Eastern Kentucky better make every shot they take, because they aren’t getting their misses. The Colonels are 338th in the nation in rebounding. At 338, they must have a bunch of guys like me out there trying to snag a board.
CINCINNATI BEARCATS – 7-0
Best win: 58-56 vs. Alabama, Dec. 1. Cashmere Wright’s fadeaway buzzer-beater saved the Bearcats blushes after squandering a 13-point lead at home. They call it Cashmere.
Close call: 58-56 vs. Alabama, Dec. 1. After opening the game on a 17-4 run, Cincinnati couldn’t put the Crimson Tide away. The second half featured five ties and eight lead changes as the Bearcats endured a six-minute stretch without a field goal. However, they were saved by Wright’s heroics.
First loss: Dec. 19 vs. Xavier (6-1). An already emotionally-charged rivalry is kicked up a notch or two after last year’s melee. Should make for an amazing atmosphere.
LSU TIGERS – 5-0
Best win: 72-67 vs. Seton Hall, Nov. 29. Down 16 points with 16 minutes to play, LSU was saved by Shavon Coleman’s 14 second-half points and a full-court press which forced the Pirates into 26 turnovers. Four Tigers finished in double figures, led by Coleman’s 18.
Close call: 72-67 vs. Seton Hall, Nov. 29. LSU made just 4-of-20 from behind the arc, but Coleman gave the Tigers the lead for good with 2:15 left as Seton Hall committed three successive turnovers and LSU made its free throws.
First loss: Dec. 22 at Marquette (5-2). Traveling to Milwaukee in December is never fun, and Marquette will make sure of that. The Eagles lost to Butler on a buzzer beater in Maui and then were blitzed against formidable Florida. But Marquette is decidedly better than Seton Hall, who nearly beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge.
NEW MEXICO LOBOS – 9-0
Best win: 66-60 vs. No. 21 Connecticut, Nov. 19. New Mexico saw a nine-point lead disappear as UConn went on a 10-0 run with under three minutes to play. But the Lobos responded with their own run (9-0) to reclaim the lead and put the game away with a perfect 21-of-21 from the free throw line.
Close call: 77-68, OT at Indiana State, Dec. 1. First, give credit to Steve Alford for scheduling a tricky road game against a strong Missouri Valley foe. These type of games are never easy, and that proved to be the case in Terre Haute. The Lobos shot just 20 percent in the second half and saw a 19-point lead evaporate before Kendall Williams (24 points) and Hugh Greenwood (eight points in OT) saved New Mexico.
First loss: Dec. 27 at No. 11 Cincinnati (7-0). Another tough road contest. This time, the Lobos don’t escape unscathed.
GONZAGA BULLDOGS – 9-0
Best win: 72-47 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 23. In a four-day stretch, Gonzaga beat Clemson, Oklahoma and Davidson to win the Old Spice Classic, and the Oklahoma win was the most impressive of the bunch. The Bulldogs never trailed and held the Sooners to 32 percent shooting and outrebounded them 45-22.
Close call: 71-69 at Washington State. Kevin Pangos’ layup with 2.2 seconds left lifted the Bulldogs to a tough road win in Pullman. Washington State tied it up with under eight seconds left to play, but Pangos took the ball coast to coast for the winning score, giving Gonzaga its best start to a Division I season.
First loss: Dec. 31 at No. 23 Oklahoma State. Per usual, Gonzaga has more tough non-conference matchups lined up after already beating Clemson, Oklahoma, Davidson, Washington State and West Virginia. They get No. 13 Illinois (Dec. 8) next, but at home and then face Kansas State (Dec. 15) on a neutral court, before Baylor comes to town Dec. 28. But I see the New Year’s Eve date at Gallagher-Iba Arena as the Bulldogs’ first slip up.
WYOMING COWBOYS – 9-0
Best win: 76-69 vs. No. 19 Colorado, Dec. 1. Leonard Washington scored 22 points and Larry Nance Jr. added 14 as Cowboys handed the Buffs their first loss of the season. Wyoming held Colorado seven points below its season average, shot nearly 50 percent from the field and had a 33-15 advantage at the free throw line. The Mountain West will give Wyoming plenty of more chances at quality wins, but this could prove a vital non-conference resume builder.
Close call: 67-60 vs. Southern, Nov. 16. Southern had an eight-point second half lead and nearly shocked the Cowboys in Laramie. But Leonard Washington, who led the way with 17 points, hit two free throws to tie the game at 58-all with three minutes to play and the Cowboys would put the game away.
First loss: Jan. 2 at SMU (8-1). Don’t look now, but Larry Brown has the Mustangs looking pretty well with wins over TCU, Missouri State, Utah and Hofstra.
SYRACUSE ORANGE – 6-0
Best win: 62-49 vs. San Diego State, Nov. 11. The Orange were never really challenged in this rare non-conference game outside New York. The 20th-ranked Aztecs fell behind 17-4 early and shot 27 percent from the field, including a woeful 1-for-18 from behind the arc. And if you’re not hitting your 3s against Syracuse’s zone, then you’ve got no chance.
Close call: 91-82 at Arkansas, Nov. 30. Jim Boeheim must have been drunk when he put together his non-conference schedule because the Orange had another potentially sticky game outside of upstate New York. So un-Syracuse-like. Well James Southerland dropped 35 points off the bench and the team hit 11 3s to outpace the Razorbacks.
First loss: Jan. 9 at Providence (6-2). Why not? Bryce Cotton leads the Big East in scoring (22.1 ppg) while junior Kadeem Batts (17 ppg, 8.3 rpg) has been among the most improved big men in the country. The Friars could surprise a few teams this year.
MICHIGAN WOLVERINES – 8-0
Best win: 79-72 vs. N.C. State. One of the more entertaining games in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Michigan showed off its impressive backcourt. Sophomore Trey Burke had 18 points, 11 assists and no turnovers, Tim Hardaway scored 17 points and freshman sharpshooter Nik Stauskas sniped his way to 20 points. The Wolverines have plenty of weapons, and they were on full display against the Wolfpack.
Close call: 67-62 vs. Pittsburgh, Nov. 21. Michigan led by as many as nine in Madison Square Garden, but a Pitt 3-pointer with 30 seconds left made it a one-possession game. However, the Wolverines, who struggled from 3-point land (3-of-17) hit eight straight free throws to salt away the game.
First loss: Jan. 13 at Ohio State (5-1). Aaron Craft vs. Trey Burke and Deshaun Thomas vs. Tim Hardaway might be the best two matchups in the conference all season.
WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS – 8-0
Best win: 75-63 vs. Iowa, Nov. 21. In the Cancun Challenge championship, the Shockers handed Iowa its first loss of the season with a dominating frontcourt performance as Wichita State outscored the Hawkeyes 30-6 in the paint. A physical game with 48 fouls called, Wichita State’s tough defense limited Iowa to 26 percent shooting.
Close call: 53-51 at VCU, Nov. 15. A matchup of mid-major darlings, the Shockers weathered an abysmal shooting performance (3-of-19 from behind the arc) and beat the Rams on an 18-footer from Malcolm Armstead with four seconds left. VCU had a chance to tie at the line with five-tenths of a second left, but Juvonte Reddic missed the first free throw and then intentionally missed the second.
First loss: Jan. 19 vs. Creighton (7-1). The cream of the Missouri Valley crop, Creighton-Wichita State is can’t miss TV. Doug McDermott is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate and averaging 21.3 ppg and 7.1 rpg is a good start. The Shockers only lost one home game a year ago – to, you guessed it, Creighton.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS – 8-0
Best win: 76-71 vs. Louisville, Nov. 24. There are a number to choose from with the Blue Devils’ impressive resume but beating the No. 2 team in the country for a tournament championship on a neutral court gets the edge over a five-point home win against fourth-ranked Ohio State.
Close call: 73-68 vs. Ohio State, Nov. 28. Duke trailed by as many as 10 against the Buckeyes, but was able to rebound thanks to 17 second-half points by freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
First loss: Feb. 16 at Maryland (7-1). An unbeaten Temple awaits on Dec. 8, but the Blue Devils should handle the Owls and do the same Jan. 12 at N.C. State. Alex Len vs. Mason Plumlee will have NBA scouts from Utah, Sacramento, Minnesota and Milwaukee salivating.
FLORIDA GATORS – 7-0
Best win: 74-56 vs. No. 22 Wisconsin, Nov. 14. Erik Murphy was a perfect 10-for-10 and led the Gators with 24 points and seven rebounds. As a team, Florida shot 62 percent while the Badgers shot 36 percent and never led the game.
Close call: Canceled vs. Georgetown, Nov. 9. Scrapped because of Hurricane Sandy, Florida was to open the season against the Hoyas. But that didn’t happen. The Hoyas are ranked No. 15 now, so perhaps they may have given the Gators a game. No one else has. UF’s average margin of victory is 25 points this season.
First loss: Feb. 19 at No. 12 Missouri. Next week, the Gators travel to Tucson to face No. 8 Arizona, but I’m picking Florida to win that one. A neutral-site game against Kansas State Dec. 22 won’t be easy either, but again I have the Gators prevailing every game until SEC new boys Mizzou welcomes Florida to Columbia.
INDIANA HOOSIERS – 8-0
Best win: 83-59 vs. North Carolina, Nov. 27. For most of the first half it was a game. Then the flood gates opened. UNC didn’t help itself shooting 1-of-20 to start the second half. IU’s lead swelled to as much as 32 and showed the nation why the Hoosiers were so highly thought of heading into this season.
Close call: 82-72, OT vs. Georgetown, Nov. 20. IU has won every game this season by double-digits, but that doesn’t mean things have come easy. IU needed overtime in Brooklyn to beat a pesky Georgetown team. The Hoyas were uncharacteristically hot from behind the arc with 11 3-pointers, however the Hoosiers saving grace was their 36-10 advantage at the free throw line.
First loss: Feb. 19 at Michigan State (7-2). The Big Ten is the nation’s top conference, so there will be plenty of tough games, but IU’s league schedule is backloaded. Assuming the Hoosiers win their home games, there are really only a few potential trouble spots before Valentine’s Day. Back-to-back road games at Illinois and Ohio State Feb. 7 and 10, respectively, could be tricky, but it will be the Spartans a week later that give the Hoosiers their first loss.