Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State: Who will remain undefeated the longest?
And then there were three.
Following Indiana’s sensational upset of previously undefeated No. 3 Wisconsin on Tuesday night, there are just three remaining unbeaten teams in Division I men’s college basketball: No. 1 Arizona, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 5 Wichita State. Who has the best chance to go undefeated? When is each team most likely to lose? SI.com’s Brian Hamilton and David Gardner break it down.
Which team is most likely to end the season undefeated?
Hamilton: Because I am stubborn or stupid, but probably just stupid, I’m sticking with my stunningly bold prediction from the SI.com midseason crystal ball and going with Arizona. The Wildcats may face a more onerous road than Syracuse or Wichita State, but their Pac-12 peers continue to pile up problems, injuries and doubt while the No. 1 team in the country amasses more experience and resolve. Except for the in-state battle with Arizona State, the arguably toughest road game (at UCLA) is out of the way. There’s enough craziness in the Missouri Valley Conference and enough upper-level ACC consistency .for the Shockers and Orange, respectively, to be beaten, leaving only the Wildcats spotless at the end.
Gardner: I agree with Brian that the bold pick is Arizona. It is by far the most talented and balanced team of the bunch, but it is also in the toughest conference. I think the obvious choice is Wichita State. The Shockers have tremendous talent and play in a weak conference. The disadvantage for them is the “Duke” syndrome, in which they get every opponent’s best effort, especially in conference play. Still, the talent gap between Wichita State (No. 14 in kenpom.com’s rankings) and its most challenging opponent, Indiana State (No. 73), is much wider than Arizona’s (No. 1) to UCLA (No. 31) or Syracuse (No. 2) to Pittsburgh (No. 8). The Shockers’ margin for error is wider as well.
When will Arizona lose?
Gardner: The Wildcats have a really tough slate of games at the end of January and the beginning of February. In eight days, they play Stanford on the road, California on the road and then welcome Oregon to Tucson. I think that Arizona will easily handle its first test against an admittedly desperate Stanford team, get pushed to the brink by but beat the resurgent Golden Bears and then have a letdown game against the Ducks on Feb. 6.
Hamilton: Going very bold here: If Arizona is to lose, the likeliest scenario is at Arizona State on a Valentine’s Day night game with the Sun Devils crowd at full froth and the Wildcats coming up short against a strong team with a top 40 defense. However, my prediction is that Arizona is plenty invested in that one and comes away with a win … only to suffer the inevitable letdown and lose five days later on the road to a Utah team with a capable defense (No. 39 in adjusted defensive efficiency).
When will Syracuse lose?
Gardner: I think Syracuse will be the first in this group to lose. In fact, I think the Orange’s streak will be snapped in the Carrier Dome on Saturday, when it faces Pittsburgh. The Panthers are underrated and looking for their first high-quality win. Lamar Patterson, Kelli Anderson’s pick for second-half surprise player, is leading the Panthers in points (17.6 per game) and assists (4.6 per game). As a team, Pittsburgh distributes the ball well and could penetrate that pesky Syracuse zone.
Hamilton: It’s going to be a familiar face that does in the Orange. Pittsburgh got plenty of looks at that infuriating 2-3 zone when the two schools were Big East rivals, and Patterson’s emergence as a legitimate ACC Player of the Year threat will be enough to beat Syracuse. But when, exactly? Saturday or in a Feb. 12 rematch at the Petersen Events Center? The Orange will survive Saturday’s showdown, then will be able to use their size to offset Mike Kryzzewski’s game-planning when they face Duke on Feb. 1. They’ll be undefeated when they arrive at “The Pete” next month and 23-1 when they leave.
When will Wichita State lose?
Gardner: Because I have a flair for the dramatic, I would like to see Wichita State carry its undefeated record to its final home game only to be toppled by Missouri State. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. The more likely loss is at Indiana State on Feb. 5. The Sycamores are excellent shooters, 21st in the NCAA, in fact, and that will be an advantage, especially at home. Look for Manny Arop to have a huge game, and look for Wichita State to be pretty relieved and trounce its opponents the rest of the way in the regular season.
Hamilton: How’s Saturday? Indiana State is a viable threat, a veteran squad with a road win over Notre Dame under its belt already. The Sycamores shoot 48.7 percent from the floor, which means they’re capable of finding and maintaining a rhythm to frustrate most teams. They won’t get rattled by Wichita State or its crowd this weekend, and the Shockers’ stunning overtime comeback against Missouri State may lull them into thinking they can pull one off anytime. It will cost them in a matter of days.