The First 68: The quest for perfection and the AAC's odd streak

Justin K. Aller

The possibility of Wichita State and/or Syracuse running the table in the regular season has captured the hearts and minds of the college basketball world, as well as The First 68.

1-11

With Wichita State now through its toughest stretch of conference play with a perfect 26-0 record still in tact, I think it's fair to start lining them up with last team to run the table in the regular season, the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's Hawks. But before doing that, it's worth noting that St. Joe's only played 27 regular season games a decade ago, while Wichita State will be 31-0 if it heads into the Missouri Valley Tournament without a loss. Blame the economy or the NBA age limit or something. I don't know.

Here's the tale of the tape on these two non-power conference titans:

POINTS PER GAME (national rank in parentheses)

St. Joe's: 77.4 ppg (22)

Wichita State: 74.8 ppg (92)

POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME

St. Joe's: 62.3 ppg (32)

Wichita State: 60.3 (14)

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

St. Joe's: 77

Wichita State: 100

BEST NON-CONFERENCE WINS

St. Joe's: Opened the season with a Coaches Vs. Cancer win over a Gonzaga team that finished the season 28-3. Also beat a good Boston College squad by 10 at the Palestra. Won at Villanova on Feb. 2, but that Wildcat team wound up in the NIT.

Wichita State: A neutral court win over BYU (75-62), a win at current No. 12 Saint Louis (70-65) and a home win over Tennessee (70-61).

CLOSEST CALL IN CONFERENCE PLAY

St. Joe's: Squeaked by Rhode Island, 57-55 in their next-to-last game of the regular season. Only won two other Atlantic 10 games by fewer than 10 points.

Wichita State: Needed overtime to pull off a 72-69 win a Missouri State on Jan. 11. Have won two other Missouri Valley games by single digits, but none by fewer than than seven points.

Given how similar the two stack up, I think it's interesting that the vast majority of the media was widely supportive of St. Joe's getting a No. 1 seed (even after their 20-point loss to Xavier in the first round of the A-10 tourney) a decade ago, while there seems to be significantly more skepticism surrounding the strength of a potentially unbeaten Wichita State squad.

If the Shockers do run the table, whether or not they get a No. 1 seed will likely be determined more by what the other teams in the hunt do than by what people think of WSU's resume.

12-20

Before addressing Division-I's other undefeated team, let's just watch this again.


The Pitt student dropping the "oh sh-t" before the shot even goes in is almost as impressive as the Ennis play itself. It's actually nowhere near as impressive. I don't even know why I said that.

Syracuse is 24-0 after the "The Shot Heard Round the Pearl," becoming just the third team in ACC history to achieve that feat. The other two wound up not losing at all. The 1956-57 North Carolina Tar Heels finished a perfect 32-0 and won the NCAA title. NC State's 1972-73 squad also finished the season undefeated (27-0), but was banned from postseason play for violations committed during the recruitment of David Thompson.

While the focus following Wednesday night's thriller has been almost completely on the Orange's streak (understandably), Pittsburgh also had an impressive streak die. The Panthers had previously been a perfect 9-0 against top five teams inside the Petersen Events Center (Note: always call it "The Pete" and not "The PEC" or you will be called out by someone from the Steel City).

The craziest thing about Syracuse right now is that this team has gone three months without a loss, and there still seems to be no one who believes they'll make it another month unscathed. Losing is viewed as an inevitability, so much so that the possibility of the Orange doing what Saint Joe's did a decade ago really isn't even discussed. Feel free to look at the way this post was started for further evidence.

Yes, Syracuse has seven games of an ACC schedule remaining, but I think that fact is overshadowing that the Orange's stretch run isn't exactly unnavigable. It could be that the the magnitude and the perceived difficulty of next Saturday's showdown at Duke is what has people's expectations so low. The hype for the rematch of the Feb. 1 classic at the Carrier Dome is so big that ESPN has pushed the start time back from 6 to 7 p.m. so that they can run a full pregame show.

Should Syracuse escape Cameron Indoor with a victory, they'll cut down the nets and sell pieces of them they'll be looking at a final four stretch of regular season games that includes a tough tilt at Virginia, and then three other contests where they should be favored (at Florida State, at Maryland, vs. Georgia Tech).

While the odds of winning out are justifiably worse than they would be if the Orange played in the Missouri Valley, a 31-0 Syracuse team heading to Greensboro is still more of a realistic possibility than a lot of people are assuming right now.

21

South Carolina has lost nine of their last 10 games, which has left the beautiful and talented people over at Garnet and Black Attack with plenty of time to do things like this:

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Let's all pray that the Gamecocks start being at least competitive because I don't want to know what the next step in this potential photo series would be.

21-28

There's a kind of crazy thing happening in the AAC right now that demands (or at least would be thankful for) your attention. Because of a quirky schedule that often bends over backwards to accommodate television demands, a team in the conference has gone six days or more without playing a game eight different times since the start of league play. Their record in those games? An imperfect 0-8.

Here's the rundown:

SMU lost to Cincinnati (65-57) on Jan. 1, when they took the floor for the first time since Dec. 20.

The Mustangs also lost to Louisville (71-63) on Jan. 12 after an eight-day layoff.

Louisville lost to Cincinnati (69-66) on Jan. 30 after being off for eight days.

Connecticut lost to Cincinnati (63-58) on Feb. 6 after being off for a week.

Houston was throttled by Louisville (91-52) on Jan. 16 after going nine days without a game.

Rutgers lost to Cincinnati (71-51) on Jan. 11 after having a week off.

Temple didn't have a game between Dec. 21 and Jan. 1, when the Owls lost to Rutgers (71-66).

Central Florida lost to Connecticut (84-61) on Jan. 11 after being off for a week.

You should all be sufficiently freaked out if Louisville, which hasn't taken the floor since Feb. 5, falls at 6-16 Temple Friday night.

29-30

Depaul:

Also worth noting is that it was revealed this week that senior forward Cleveland Melvin, who had been the Blue Demons' leading scorer, is no longer enrolled in school. It's huge news for DePaul's quest to finish last in the Big East for a sixth consecutive season, as DU currently leads 2-11 Butler by a half game in the league Standings.

FIttingly, the Demons and Bulldogs will end the regular season with a "showdown" against one another in Chicago. DePaul one the first meeting between the two in double overtime.

For all your other DePaul needs, please remember to keep this page bookmarked.

31-34

The margin continues to get slimmer in the race to be the 2013-14 national scoring champ, as Antoine Mason has failed to score at least 20 points in three of Niagara's last four games. Still, Mason still national POY front-runner Doug McDermott by a full point with about a month to play.

Antoine Mason, Niagara (26.3 ppg)
Doug McDermott, Creighton (25.3 ppg)
Tyler Haws, BYU (24.5 ppg)
Aaric Murray, Texas Southern (23.8 ppg)
Billy Baron, Canisius (23.6 ppg)

35-36

Western Kentucky's shocking dismantling of Troy isn't receiving nearly enough national attention.

That's called sending a message to the rest of the Sun Belt.

37

In actual blowout news, Connecticut held South Florida to 14 first half points on Wednesday, and wound up hammering the Bulls by 43 points. Both the 14 points and the final margin of victory were new AAC records. It was the most lopsided victory for the Huskies since they beat Cincinnati by 45 in their 2008 regular season finale.

38-39

Grambling State snapped a 45-game Division-I losing streak and a 28-game losing streak in the SWAC when it knocked off Alcorn State on Monday. The fans stormed the court and celebrated like they deserved to, but I think it's still a little sad and confusing that the SWAC's most recognizable name is arguably the worst basketball program in Division-I.

Major success in one sport typically carries over to the others in the low major ranks, but we haven't seen that at all with Grambling, which was famously home to the winningest coach in the history of college football. The Tiger basketball team, conversely, has never made the NCAA Tournament and may have fielded the worst Division-I team of all-time last season.

40-44

Our winless in conference watch is down to six squads:

TCU (0-11, Big 12)
Southern Utah (0-13, Big Sky)
Illinois-Chicago (0-11, Horizon League)
Cornell (0-6, Ivy League)
San Jose State (0-12, Mounain West)
The Citadel (0-11, Southern)

45-54

It's Valentine's Day, so let's throw objectivity out the window and look at five teams we love and want to see succeed over the last month of the regular season.

VMI

The Keydets leading the nation in scoring is nothing new, but they're doing it by nearly a full four points over the rest of the country this season. Duggar Baucom's team posted triple digit scores thrice during a recent three-game winning streak that included triumphs over UNC Asheville (109-105), Presbyterian (107-93) and Gardner-Webb (108-104). The Big South is always the first or second conference tournament to get national air-time during Championship Week, and VMI being a part of those quarterfinal and semifinal rounds always makes for an exciting viewing experience. Here's hoping the Keydets can make some magic over the next few weeks.

Longwood

A welcome bonus for any Valentine's Day celebration. I'm 11-years-old.

Colorado

I have a soft spot for non-traditional powers that have dream seasons railroaded by key injuries, a description the Buffaloes certainly fit. This was supposed to be the year for Colorado, which hasn't won more than one game in the NCAA Tournament since 1955. Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending ACL tear changed all that, and the Buffs have been fighting for air ever since. They reeled off a three-game winning streak that included an impressive 91-65 thrashing of Washington, but looked totally overmatched during Thursday night's lopsided defeat at UCLA. It's going to be a struggle for Colorado to make the big dance, as their final three regular season games (and five of their last seven) are all on the road. Here's hoping they can salvage the season enough to enjoy Selection Sunday.

BYU

Because this.

Screen_shot_2014-02-07_at_2

But seriously, the Cougars are a lot of fun to watch.

And double seriously, Luke Worthington is awesome.

SMU

I'm not sure the insanity of this entire situation is receiving enough attention. The only coach in the history of the sport of basketball to win it all at both the NBA and college level is pacing the sidelines for a team that hasn't been relevant since the '60s, and he's winning...big...in year two. This whole thing is unbelievable and I just want to see how far it can go. At this point, I'm going to be crushed if the Mustangs tank and don't make the field of 68.

55-67

The four best games of the weekend ahead:

Florida at Kentucky (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)

This should be a banner weekend for college hoops, but no game looms larger than Saturday night's showdown between Florida and Kentucky. With all the attention that Syracuse and Wichita State (and Arizona before them) have been garnering for their quests to go undefeated, the Gators might be the most overlooked No. 3 team in recent memory. This is their chance to show the rest of the country that they're as much of a national title contender as anyone.

On the flip side, this also has the potential to be chapter one of Kentucky's ultimate redemption story.The Wildcats have been quietly taking care of business in the SEC since losing to LSU, but they also know that their season thus far has been viewed as a pretty big disappointment by people both in and outside of Lexington. Beating a top five opponent in front of national television audience in primetime would set the stage for the Wildcats to completely re-write their 2013-14 story over the course of the coming weeks.

Villanova at Creighton (Sunday, 5 p.m., Fox Sports 1)

There are two huge and completely contradictory storylines at play here. The first is that this is No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Big East, meaning the winner will take control in the race for the league's regular season title. The second is that Creighton beat Villanova by approximately 85 points in Philadelphia last month when they went absolutely berserk from behind the three-point line. CenturyLink Center Omaha is always a great setting for big games, and this one should be about as big as the place has ever seen.

Wisconsin at Michigan (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS)

Fresh off its first win at Ohio State in 11 years, the Wolverines will be looking to keep pace with Michigan State in the Big Ten title race when they host a Wisconsin team that seems to be finding itself. The Badgers have followed up a stretch of five losses in six games with a three-game winning streak, including a triumph over the ninth-ranked Spartans last weekend.

Maryland at Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN)

At a time from which we're not all that far removed, this was one of college basketball's hottest and most rapidly emerging rivalries. The rivalry's exit from the national conscious has paralleled Maryland's relative fall from grace, but the two have still combined for some memorable clashes in recent years. Now it's all coming to a close with the Terps headed to the Big Ten after this season. Second to that storyline is the fact that if Maryland wants to have any hope at all of making the big dance, they probably have to have this victory.

Four more worth getting excited about:

Memphis at Connecticut (Saturday, noon, ESPN)

Pittsburgh at North Carolina (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS)

VCU at Saint Louis (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)

West Virginia at Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network)

68

St. John's mascot Johnny Thunderbird wins creepy mascot photo of the week, and he wants you to be his Valentine.

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Go on..

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