As the rigors of conference play get underway, there are only five undefeated teams in the college basketball ranks and the obvious question is whether any of them have what it takes to become the first team to win the NCAA National Championship since the Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, who went 32-0, beating Michigan 86-68 in the finals in Philadelphia.
North Carolina (16-0)
Washington St. (14-0)
There they are, five teams with a cumulative record of 75-0. By this time next month, odds are that there will be three or less, maybe none, though the team which stands out as having the best chance of making it through not only January, but February and into March - the Memphis Tigers.
Having already knocked off three ranked opponents (USC, Georgetown and Arizona), the next test for John Calipari's Tigers might not be until February 23, when they host the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols are currently ranked #8 and just knocked Mississippi from the ranks of the undefeated, 85-83, this past Wednesday.
Before they get to that game with the Vols, Memphis faces a schedule made up nearly exclusively of Conference-USA opposition. In a league that was severely watered-down when Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette jumped to the Big East a few seasons back, the Tigers face an undistinguished group of teams including the likes of Marshall (9-4), Rice (3-11), Tulsa (8-4) and Southern Miss (8-7). On January 26, Gonzaga comes calling, but the Zags aren't the Western powerhouse they used to be, having already dropped decisions to Texas Tech, Washington St. Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The Tigers swept their conference games last season and they're likely to do it again. There simply isn't any measurable competition in the league that can stand up to the formidable inside game of Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier who combine for 19 points and 17 rebounds per outing. Nor can anyone match up with leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts (16.9 ppg) or the quickness of point guard Derrick Rose (4.5 apg).
Should the Tigers get past the Zags and the Vols, they should make a serious run at least to the Final Four.
If any other team has the skills and schedule to run the table, it's probably not going to be Vanderbilt. The Commodores have Tennessee on tap for Jan. 17 and the arduous itinerary of the SEC is simply too tough for anyone to get through unscathed. Besides, Vandy hasn't even played a ranked opponent yet. They're good, but finishing conference play with less than four losses would be accomplishment enough.
Out West, Washington State has defied skeptics and the odds, compiling a 14-0 record. Their big test comes tomorrow, Jan. 12, when they travel down coast to #5 UCLA. If they win that, the Cougars still have to wend their way through the tough PAC-10, including trips to Arizona, Arizona St., Stanford and Oregon. Good luck.
That leaves Kansas and North Carolina. While the Tar Heels are heads and shoulders better than almost every team in the ACC, the rivalries run deep and the games are hard-fought. If Roy Williams can guide his troops to an undefeated run through one of the toughest conferences in the country, hand them the trophy. The same applies to the Jayhawks, who face serious challenges in the Big 12 from Texas, Texas A&M and sneaky-good teams like Oklahoma, Kansas State and Missouri.
We're down to five now, but don't be surprised if there aren't any unbeatens come tourney time, though Memphis just may have the horses to get it done.