Which conference unbeaten has had the best run?
On Thursday night, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks venture to New Orleans for a Southland Conference game. Normally, this is only of great interest to the family and friends of Stephen F. Austin. But the circumstances are far from normal: The Lumberjacks have not lost since Nov. 23, a streak of 22 wins in a row. Accordingly, they are a flawless 14-0 in league play.
And they have company. There is only one undefeated team left in the country, Wichita State, but there are four teams that have yet to fall during league play: Florida, Saint Louis, the Shockers and the Lumberjacks. Given the familiarity and enmity among conference foes, and given how late in the season it is, it is no small feat. But which has been the best run, and when might each streak end?
Here’s a look:
1. Wichita State (30-0 overall, 17-0 in the Missouri Valley). The Shockers have a five-game lead on their next closest pursuers, Indiana State, and half the teams in the league are sub.-500 for the season. It’s the tinder for every tired argument against Wichita State’s worthiness. But 14 of the 17 league wins have come via double-figures, a fleet of emphatic victories when the world was waiting for the Shockers to falter. Add in the 72-69 comeback overtime win at Missouri State on Jan. 11, and it’s as dominating a run as it looks. End in sight? Not likely, with the Missouri State rematch at home on Saturday as the lone remaining regular-season game.
2. Saint Louis (25-2 overall, 12-0 in the Atlantic-10). This spot is a close call, only because the Billikens have played the other four 20-win teams in the Atlantic-10 just three times so far and still face a rematch at VCU on Saturday and a season-ending trip to Massachusetts for the lone meeting between those programs. But the Atlantic-10 is actually slotted one spot higher than the SEC in conference RPI (sixth versus seventh), and Saint Louis did drop double-digit defeats on St. Joseph’s and Richmond, both teams with reasonable aspirations for the NCAA tournament. End in sight? Probably. It’s impossible to count out a veteran club like Jim Crews’ bunch, but you figure one of the two road trips will get the better of the Billikens.
3. Florida (26-2, 15-0 in the SEC). This is not to suggest the Gators are worse than Wichita State or Saint Louis, and in fact they likely have the best shot at a national title among that trio. But moving through the SEC this year has been like running a cruiser tank through a wall of Cheez Whiz. (Scant resistance, no shortage of mess.) The Gators have only had four close calls and beat Kentucky by 10 on the road. But then Kentucky might be the only NCAA tournament team Florida sees in all of conference play, with the rematch in Gainesville on March 8. It’s not the fault of Scottie Wilbekin and co., really. Any run of 15 wins without a loss is impressive. End in sight? Well, the Gators have been wobbly lately, with three straight wins decided by 12 total points. But difficult to envision a loss at home to LSU or Kentucky or in a road trip to woeful South Carolina.
4. Stephen F. Austin (25-2 overall, 14-0 in the Southland). All hail the Lumberjacks and all hail their run allowing writers to employ some version of cutting down the opposition with impunity (and perhaps some irony). But this is the Southland, 27th in conference RPI and home to one other team (Sam Houston St., at 19-7) with a shot at a 20-win season. We still give full marks for SFA having five — five — conference road games in a row from Jan. 9-25 and winning four by double-digits. End in sight? The bet is yes with four regular season games left, and New Orleans and Oral Roberts are capable enough of authoring an upset.