So here we are, only mid-January, and already college basketball is down to just one unbeaten team. When then-No. 1 Baylor was knocked off last week at West Virginia, it left only Gonzaga owning a bagel in the loss column. The Zags, now 17-0, got through one of their few remaining obstacles over the weekend by blitzing No. 21 Saint Mary's -- the second-best team in the WCC, and probably headed to the NCAA Tournament -- 79-56.
Every year, it's interesting to see which team winds its way through the schedule, gets past New Year's and eventually stands alone as the last unbeaten.
But what have been the fates of those final undefeated teams? It varies. Plenty have reached the Final Four. One, amazingly, failed to get to the NCAA Tournament. Another was ineligible to qualify for the Big Dance.
So for some historic perspective, here's how the final unbeaten team in college basketball has finished its season, every season, for the past 25 years. You'll notice that 1992 had an oddity: Duke and Oklahoma State, the last two standing without a scar, lost on the same night. (And a thankful hat tip to Patrick Stevens, who tracked some of this back in 2010.)
* denotes a shoutout to Devan Downey.
|Team||Season||Last loss (record before L)||Lost to||Final Record||NCAAT outcome|
|DUKE||1992||Feb. 5 (17-0)||@ UNC||34-2||Won title|
| OKLAHOMA STATE ||1992||Feb. 5 (18-0)||@ Nebraska||28-8||Sweet 16|
|VIRGINIA||1993||Jan. 20 (11-0)||@ UNC||21-10||Sweet 16|
|UCLA||1994||Jan. 30 (14-0)||@ California||21-7||First round|
|UCONN||1995||Jan. 30 (14-0)||@ Kansas||28-5||Elite Eight|
|UMASS||1996||Feb. 24 (26-0)||vs. George Washington||35-2||Final Four|
|KANSAS||1997||Feb. 4 (22-0)||@ Missouri||34-2||Sweet 16|
|UTAH||1998||Feb. 1 (18-0)||@ New Mexico||30-4||Title game loser|
|UCONN||1999||Feb. 1 (19-0)||vs. Syracuse||34-2||Won title|
|SYRACUSE||2000||Feb. 7 (19-0)||vs. Seton Hall||26-6||Sweet 16|
|STANFORD||2001||Feb. 3 (20-0)||vs. UCLA||31-3||Elite Eight|
|DUKE||2002||Jan. 6 (12-0)||@ Florida State||31-4||Sweet 16|
|DUKE||2003||Jan. 18 (12-0)||@ Maryland||26-7||Sweet 16|
|SAINT JOSEPH'S||2004||March 11 (27-0)||vs. Xavier (A-10 tourney)||30-2||Elite Eight|
|ILLINOIS||2005||March 6 (29-0)||@ Ohio State||37-2||Title game loser|
|FLORIDA||2006||Jan. 21 (17-0)||@ Tennessee||33-6||Won title|
|CLEMSON||2007||Jan. 13 (17-0)||@ Maryland||25-11||NIT|
|MEMPHIS||2008||Feb. 23 (26-0)||vs. Tennessee||38-2||Title game loser|
|WAKE FOREST||2009||Jan. 21 (16-0)||vs. Virginia Tech||24-7||First round|
|KENTUCKY||2010||Jan. 26 (19-0)||@ South Carolina*||35-3||Elite Eight|
|OHIO STATE||2011||Feb. 12 (24-0)||@ Wisconsin||34-3||Sweet 16|
|MURRAY STATE||2012||Feb. 9 (23-0)||vs. Tenn. State||31-2||Second round|
|MICHIGAN||2013||Jan. 13 (16-0)||@ Ohio State||31-8||Title game loser|
|WICHITA STATE||2014||March 23 (35-0)||vs. Kentucky (NCAAT)||35-1||Second round|
|KENTUCKY||2015||April 4 (38-0)||vs. Wisconsin (NCAAT)||38-1||Final Four|
|SMU||2016||Jan. 24 (18-0)||@ Temple||25-5||Ineligible|
John Calipari (twice with Kentucky, once with UMass and once with Memphis) is on the list more than any other coach. Mike Krzyzewski's been the last one standing three times since 1992, and the only other coach with multiple appearances is UConn's Jim Calhoun.
I kind of like how the list is a tapestry of coaches and programs. You've got Hall of Famers like Roy Williams (when he was at Kansas in the 1990s) and Larry Brown (last year with SMU). Then you've got guys like then-Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio, and then-Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, who couldn't manage to stay too long in the ACC. Hey, shoutout to Oliver Purnell.
If you want to look at teams from outside traditional power conferences and compare them to Gonzaga this season, well, context matters a bit. UMass in 1996, in some ways, is similar to Gonzaga in 2017. But no two schools' situations are alike. UMass was in a better league (the Atlantic 10) in 1996 than what the WCC is in 2017. Murray State and Wichita State lorded over their conferences, while Memphis was in a declining C-USA the year it started 26-0.
Plus, Gonzaga's every bit the power program now that, say, Utah was in 1998 or Stanford was in 2001.
Check the trends
- The first loss for the final unbeaten has come away from home 73 percent of the time over the past 25 seasons. Gonzaga's two most difficult remaining games come at BYU on Feb. 2 and at Saint Mary's on Feb. 11
- The average record of college basketball's final unbeaten at the time it takes its first loss? Somewhat surprisingly, it's 20-0. That's more wins that I would thought. We can thank Wichita State and Kentucky for upping the average in recent years. So Gonzaga needs three more Ws to hit the mean.
- Going beyond 1992, the bummer for Gonzaga: Only three times since 1979 has the final unbeaten team won the national title. The good news: eight of the 26 teams listed (that's nearly one-third) have gone on to make the Final Four.
- How many NCAA Tournament wins, on average, have the past 25 years worth of final-unbeaten teams earned: three. So in terms of the crapshoot that is the NCAA Tournament, from a historical perspective, reaching the Sweet 16 is the expectation level for the Bulldogs this year. The final unbeaten team in college basketball since 1992 has lost in every round of the NCAAs, with the most knockouts coming in the Sweet 16 (seven times).
- The final record for the final unbeaten team in college basketball over the past 25 years: it averages out to 31-4.
- In college basketball history, 19 teams have gotten to the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record. Thirteen of the 19 made the Final Four, but many of those teams played before the field expanded to 64/68.
Stats aside, this is history for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are off to the best start in program history, and they're in play for a No. 1 seed. They're going to go to their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament, which is ludicrous for a small WCC school tucked away in Spokane. I'm not quite ready to openly debate if Gonzaga can go undefeated (I'll be ready to hold court on that if and when they win the roadie against BYU), but I am ready to say this is one of the very best teams Mark Few's ever had, and it's not going to need to go undefeated to validate that.