Illinois' 66-53 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday left us with just eight unbeatens remaining in college basketball.
Unlike a season ago when Murray State rolled into OVC play with an unblemished record, each team waiting for its first loss this year plays in a major conference. This being the case, it seems extremely unlikely that any team will become the first to finish the regular season undefeated since St. Joe's in 2004, or to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten since UNLV in 1991. It's actually more likely that all eight taste defeat before February.
Still, let's look at the contenders:
vs. Cornell (12/19)
vs. Elon (12/20)
vs. Santa Clara (12/29)
vs. Davidson (1/2)
vs. Wake Forest (1/5)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 90%
This isn't going to make America happy, but the nation's new No. 1 has a good chance to stay there for a while. Davidson and Santa Clara are both having solid seasons, but the likelihood of them waltzing into Cameron and snapping Duke's home winning streak against non-conference opponents is extremely low.
The Blue Devils figure to head into conference play at 14-0, and when they do they'll be walking into a conference that hasn't fared as well this season as many predicted. Both North Carolina and NC State find themselves on the backend of the top 25 after early stints in the top ten, and no other ACC team is sniffing the national rankings at the moment.
Basically, this could go on for a while.
The next real test for Coach K's squad should come on Jan. 12 against an NC State team that disappointed early and will be hungry for a big-time win. I'll say they come out of PNC Arena with a win, but get burned 11 days later against Reggie Johnson and Miami.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 23 at Miami
vs. Eastern Michigan (12/20)
vs. Central Michigan (12/29)
At Northwestern (1/3)
vs. Iowa (1/6)
vs. Nebraska (1/9)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 95%
The Wolverines are worthy of their lofty ranking, having won all but three of their 11 games by double digits and none by less than five. The next three weeks should be business as usual for John Beilein and company, but then they'll face as tough a one-month stretch as any team in the country.
Between Jan. 13 and Feb. 12, the Wolverines will play Ohio State twice, and have five road games against Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State and Wisconsin. It's hard to imagine any team in the country making it through that battlefield unscathed.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 13 at Ohio State
vs. Detroit (12/17)
vs. Temple (12/22)
vs. Alcorn State (12/29)
vs. Central Connecticut State (12/31)
vs. Rutgers (1/2)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 80%
The Big East is currently riding a collective 32-game winning streak, which means the Orange are probably up against it when it comes to running the table in conference play. Still, a light early schedule in league play gives them a definite chance to be the last unbeaten standing, assuming they take care of business against Detroit and Temple before Christmas.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 19 at Louisville
vs. Oral Roberts (12/18)
vs. East Tennessee State (12/22)
vs. Colorado (1/3)
vs. Utah (1/5)
At Oregon (1/10)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 90%
Despite their dramatic come-from-behind win over Florida on Saturday, America still isn't quite ready to buy the Wildcats as a legitimate national title contender. I'm not either, but I'm also not oblivious to the fact that there isn't a currently ranked team on their remaining schedule. While this would seem to indicate that the No. 4 team in the country might have the best shot at running the table, I don't see Sean Miller's turnover prone team getting too deep into the new year before tasting defeat.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 10 at Oregon
NEW MEXICO (11-0)
At New Mexico State (12/19)
vs. South Dakota State (12/22)
At Cincinnati (12/27)
At Saint Louis (12/31)
vs. UNLV (1/9)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 30%
Can we make New Mexico's new nickname "Los Pollos Hermanos?" You know what, I'm not even asking anymore. This is happening.
Los Pollos Hermanos has as difficult a remaining non-conference schedule as anyone on this list, with trips to New Mexico State, equally unbeaten Cincinnati and Saint Louis all looming before the start of conference play. It does't help that the Mountain West is loaded this year, either.
Predicted First Loss: Dec. 27 at Cincinnati
At Missouri (12/22)
vs. Auburn (12/29)
At Purdue (1/2)
vs. Ohio State (1/5)
vs. Minnesota (1/9)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 40%
John Groce's surprising Illini haven't gotten to this point by feasting on low majors at home, as their resume includes a Maui Invitational title and a win at then unbeaten Gonzaga. Still, that "next five" list is more daunting than any other you'll see here.
Illinois will be the next name America can strike a line through.
Predicted First Loss: Dec. 22 at Missouri
vs. Xavier (12/19)
vs. Wright State (12/22)
vs. New Mexico (12/27)
At Pittsburgh (12/31)
vs. St. John's (1/5)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 35%
The Cincinnati/Xavier rivalry has traditionally been one that favors the underdog, but the discrepancy between the two teams this year makes it hard to envision the Bearcats losing before Christmas. They'll get tested right after the holiday with New Mexico coming to town and then a trip to once-beaten Pitt to start conference play. I still like UC to get to at least 15-0 before falling.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 7 vs. Notre Dame
vs. Denver (12/18)
vs. UCSB (12/21)
At SMU (1/2)
vs. Boise State (1/9)
At Nevada (1/12)
Likelihood of Starting Conference Play Undefeated: 55%
The Cowboys are probably the biggest surprise on this list, although they got off to a similar start a season ago when they won 11 of their first 12 games. That campaign didn't end well, as the Pokes finished with a losing record in league play and missed the NCAA Tournament. They're a more complete team this season, but the Mountain West is also a more complete conference. If it doesn't happen earlier, an 11 day stretch that includes games against San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV will get them.
Predicted First Loss: Jan. 19 vs. San Diego State