A look at some unsuspecting undefeateds

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At the time of this writing, there remain 14 undefeated teams in college basketball. It is by no means an anomaly compared to previous seasons, but what might stick out are a few of the teams currently enjoying an unblemished record this holiday season.

Kentucky, Syracuse and Ohio State? You sort of expected them to run the table at least into the second week of December.

But a team that lost 61 percent of its scoring from a year ago, is averaging 83 points a game with a new head coach, or puts academics before hoops? That, my college basketball friend, is worth a look.

There’s plenty of season left, but here’s an audit of just how legit six teams that surprisingly remain undefeated are, now that they have our undivided attention.

Not listed is Hartford, or a handful of other America East teams, a conference with the dubious distinction of accounting for nearly half of the country’s eight winless clubs.

Kansas State aside – whose five wins are just not enough to qualify – if your team is undefeated and not discussed, well, then it’s because I had a hunch they’d be perfect. Consider it a compliment (I saw it coming, Murray State fans! I really did, and you are in good shape for a 30+ win season), by simply enjoying your squad’s current start.

Illinois

  • They had us at…Saturday’s 82-75 win over Gonzaga, in which sophomore Meyers Leonard outplayed the Bulldogs’ Elias Harris, a now former NBA prospect.
  • When they’ll lose: After averting a small crisis against St. Bonaventure, the Fighting Illini have two can’t-miss non conference games remaining before embarking into conference play. Both the 12/17 match-up against UNLV and annual game with Missouri are loseable, but also excellent opportunities to build that resume for the NCAA Tournament Committee. Remain undefeated before Christmas and Bruce Weber will be the head coach of a top 12 team entering the new year.
  • Then what? On paper this team has much less talent than a season ago,  but gone is the inconsistent play of Demetri McCamey and blue chip prospect turned criminal Jereme Richmond. If Leonard continues to lead the way, and Brandon Paul attacks the basket instead of relying on an average jumpshot, this could be your second best Big Ten squad. Consider yourself warned, Michigan.

Missouri

  • They had us at…a November 22nd 92-53 drubbing of Cal, one of those wins that evokes “oooohhh, so that’s how it’s gonna be” reactions.
  • When they’ll lose:  The aforementioned Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois will be of extra importance to both teams if they arrive in St. Louis undefeated.  Get a win, and Frank Haith shouldn’t have much to worry about until a game against Texas in mid-January, other than proof-reading his National Coach of the Year submission, of course.
  • Then what? The Big 12 is wide open, and if the Tigers are either undefeated or have a lone loss when they tip off league play against Oklahoma on January 3rd, they should be the favorites to win the conference. As a shameless self-promotion, I really like how they play.

Marquette

  • They had us at… Tuesday’s nail-biter against Washington, but a line to jump on the bandwagon really began Saturday after the Golden Eagles defeated in-state rival Wisconsin.
  • When they’ll lose: Their December 29th match-up against Vanderbilt could set either team in opposite directions, but I’m not entirely positive Marquette is a shoe-in to stay undefeated until then. Cross-town rival Milwaukee currently sits at 8-1, eying the chance to knock off the Golden Eagles just a few days before Christmas. You know those guys aren’t intimidated, and Marquette should not take them lightly.
  • Then what? Coming into the season I predicted the Golden Eagles to challenge Louisville for third place in the Big East. That’s looking accurate to date, as Buzz Williams’ club could earn a three-seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier

  • They had us atThis.
  • When they’ll lose: The Musketeers are in the midst of one of the most treacherous strings of non-conference games in recent memory; like the 2009-2010 Presbyterian Blue Hose treacherous, only difference is that Chris Mack isn’t doing it for the money. They’ve already downed Vanderbilt in Nashville, broken the rules of win-probability against Purdue, and got revenge in Hinkle over Butler.  But Cincinnati, Oral Roberts, Long Beach State (in the Diamond Head Classic), and Gonzaga remain. Something’s gotta give, right? We shouldn’t fault this team if they can’t remain unbeaten to start the new year.
  • Then what? Oh hum, another Atlantic 10 regular season title is theirs to lose. Thankfully, a reprieve from the monotony comes in the form of Memphis on February 4th, a team with a style of play and personnel Xavier teams traditionally have trouble with.

Indiana

  • They had us at…the moment people started talking about the importance of this weekend’s game against Kentucky.
  • When they’ll lose: Saturday against the Wildcats, actually. Enjoy the build-up, everyone, because UK will take care of business in Bloomington.
  • Then what?: It’s time for IU to start getting real about earning an NCAA Tournament berth. Six players average nine or more points a game for the Hoosiers, and they’re one of the most efficient offensive teams this season. Kentucky aside, Tom Crean did not schedule a difficult non-conference slate. Personally, I have reservations about celebrating this program’s return to relevance, but true signs of improvement are staring us in the face.

Harvard

  • They had us at…a weekend in Paradise, when they won the Battle 4 Atlantis by downing Utah, Florida State and UCF.
  • When they’ll lose: The Crimson are 6.5 point underdogs tonight against UConn, and rightfully so. If they can pull off the improbable and beat the Huskies,  Jim Calhoun will throw a nice fit we can all enjoy, and an incredible story for the 2011-2012 college basketball season will be in the works.
  • Then what? I can’t go into much detail for fear of jinxing Tommy Amaker’s club, but all I’m saying is tonight’s game could be the one we look back on in a few months and pinpoint as the moment when a lot of fantastic things were set into motion.

Nick Fasulo is the manager of Searching for Billy Edelin. Follow him @billyedelinSBN.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar
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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.