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Al Featherston: The Last Unbeaten

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In 1976, Indiana because the last NCAA team to go through a season undefeated. Illinois and St. Joseph's have made it to March without a loss in recent years, but even those near-unbeatens lost before the NCAA Tournament.

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It makes me wonder - do the members of the '76 Hoosiers sit around like the '71 Miami Dolphins and pop a bottle of champagne every season when the last unbeaten team falls?

It's a little early to start cooling down this year's bottle - even though last weekend's carnage reduced the number of unbeatens from 14 Friday afternoon to eight by Monday morning.

I was looking at the list, wondering how long some of the unbeatens will last. It's not a big deal. Not too long ago, Clemson was the nation's last unbeaten and the Tigers finished with a decidedly mediocre season. Duke was one of the nation's last unbeatens when the Devils got off to a 15-0 start in 2004-05 - but promptly lost four of its next seven games and Coach K had to work some magic (remember Patrick "The Enforcer" Davidson?) to salvage the season.

Still, it's fun to watch the unbeatens dwindle each season. I can't say I watch it as closely as members of the '76 Hoosiers, but I do pay attention. It's always a fun exercise since the survivors usually represent a max between truly powerful teams and some middle-of0-the-road clubs with easy early schedules.

Duke, of course, fits the former category. The Blue Devils remain alive this season and are almost certain to stay unbeaten through the two games this week. In fact, the next realistic change the Devils have to lose won't come until Jan. 12, when Duke travels to Raleigh to meet N.C. State.

So which of the other seven perfect teams will still be unbeaten then?

It's not likely to be New Mexico. The Lobos beat in-state rival New Mexico State at home Saturday night, but must turn around and take on the Aggies Wednesday on the road. If they get by that test, it's extremely likely that they lose at Cincinnati on Dec. 27.

Illinois is also likely to fall soon. Even though the Illini have knocked both Gonzaga and Eastern Kentucky out of the unbeaten ranks in the last eight days, the road ahead is very tough. They'll be rated underdogs against Missouri in St. Louis on Dec. 22. Then they open the Big Ten schedule at Purdue on Jan. 2 and then follow that with tough home games vs. Ohio State and Minnesota.

If they survive that slate (coupled with the victory over Gonzaga on the road and the victory over Butler in Maui), Illinois' resume will be as good as Duke's.

Cincinnati has to survive its annual rivalry game with Xavier Wednesday night and if the Bearcats get past that one, they face a difficult Big East road opener at Pitt on New Year's Eve.

I rate those three schools as long-shots to reach Jan. 12 unbeaten. That leaves four teams with a reasonably good chance of extending their unbeaten records at least as long as Duke:

-- Wyoming: Not the greatest team out there, but still perfect at 10-0. But two of those wins don't count (against non-Division 1 competition) and just three of the wins have come against the RPI top 150. A home victory over Colorado and a road win at Illinois State are noteworthy.

The Cowboys will be favored in the four games remaining before Jan. 12. One of those is a home game against a pretty good team from UC Santa Barbara - but Wyoming already beat UCSB on the road. They also get giant-killer Boise State (which has knocked Creighton and LSU out of the unbeaten ranks) at home. And there's a road game at Larry Brown's improved SMU.

-- Arizona: Until that amazing rally to beat Florida in Tucson Saturday night, the Wildcats hadn't done a whole lot - a victory at Clemson was by far their best previous win.

Now, the schedule offers up a couple of patsies before the Pac 12 opener Jan. 2 against dangerous Colorado. But it's at home, so the next real threat is probably a Jan. 10 trip to surprising Oregon. Two nights later, a few hours after Duke meets N.C. State, the 'Cats take on Oregon State in Corvallis.

-- Syracuse: Coach K might catch flack for not playing pre-conference road games, but at least he likes neutral court tests for his team. Jim Boeheim hates to leave home. So far this season, the Orangemen are 9-0 with two top 100 wins. 11 of the team's first 14 games are at home … two are on neutral courts. The Big East/SEC challenge forced Syracuse to play a road game at so-so Arkansas.

The team's only possible stumble before Jan. 12 will be a Dec. 22 matchup with Temple in Madison Square Garden. A Jan. 19 trip to Louisville will be the team's first game against a top 50 opponent.

-- Michigan: the Wolverines are 11-0 and poised to move into the No. 2 spot in this week's AP poll. Michigan had a nice stretch of three top 50 wins in a row in late November, including a five-point win over a solid Pitt team in Madison Square Garden and a homecourt victory over talented N.C. State.

There are not many tests in the near future for John Beilein's team. .A road trip to Northwestern on Jan. 3 is by far the toughest game before Jan. 12.

However, one day after Duke faces its next real test, the Wolverines will face their toughest game of the season (on paper) when they travel to Columbus to face Ohio State.

Michigan also has later games at Indiana, at Minnesota, at Michigan State and at Wisconsin that are potential losses.

For what it's worth, Ken Pomeroy rates Michigan's chances of finishing the regular season at 0.02 percent.

Not very good odds.

But there are not very good odds for any of the eight remaining unbeatens.

Pomeroy rates Duke's chances of finishing the regular season unbeaten at 4.8 percent. By contrast, he has Arizona at 1.3 percent and Syracuse at 0.7 percent.

Oddly, he had Florida with the best odds before the loss to Arizona. Going into the game, he rated their chances at 6.5 percent. Clearly, if the Gators had won in Tucson, he would gave upped that prediction. That was a function of the woefully weak SEC. What's really interesting is that the Gators' toughest remaining game is their last one - at Kentucky.

Pomeroy suggests that Duke is in much the same situation. He rates Duke's toughest remaining game as the regular season finale at North Carolina.

Personally, I think the Jan. 12 trip to N.C. State will be a bigger test.

But it would be interesting to see the atmosphere in the Smith Center on March 9 if the Devils arrived with a 30-0 record!


The new AP poll that will be released Monday afternoon will almost certainly have Duke at No. 1 again for the first time since January 17, 2011.

Duke was No. 1 in the first 10 polls that season and deserved the ranking until Kyrie Irving was lost with an injured toe. The Blue Devils coasted for several weeks on the strength of their fast start and a soft late-December/early-January schedule (voters are reluctant to drop teams that keep winning as we've seen with the Indiana-Duke debate this season). But a Jan. 12 loss to Florida State popped that bubble.

Few teams can match Duke's record in the AP poll.

-- Just UNC (808) and Kentucky (789) have been ranked in more polls than Duke (685).

-- Just UCLA (134) has been ranked No. 1 more often than Duke (123).

-- Just UNC (628) and Kentucky (626) have been ranked in the top 10 more often than Duke (571).

-- Only Kentucky (9) and UCLA (8) have more No. 1 finishes than Duke (7).

-- Duke's streak of 99 straight top 10 rankings in the second longest in history.

The way the schedule sets up, that streak will almost certainly top 100 straight weeks before it's even threatened. It's already the second-longest streak in basketball history, but still well behind UCLA's record of 155 straight top 10 weeks.

Still, 99 straight weeks is pretty impressive. Just to put it into perspective, the next longest active streak belongs to Ohio State, which will reach 50 straight top 10 weeks when the new poll is released. Third place belongs to Syracuse - about to be 26 straight top 10 polls.

Beyond that, there are four other schools that have been ranked in the top 10 in every poll this season - Indiana, Michigan, Louisville and Florida (Note: I'm assuming that Indiana and Florida remain in the top 10). But none of those was ranked in the top 10 of the final 2012 poll, so their current streak will be seven straight polls.

One other bit of poll trivia: Duke has beaten three top 10 teams this season (based on rank at the time of the game). That's good, but hardly unprecedented - the Devils beat three top 10 teams in 2011. In fact, Duke has beaten at least one top 10 opponent every season since 2007 … and has accomplished the feat in 15 of 18 seasons since 1995.

The best season in that regard was a tie between 1999 and 2001 - when the Devils beat seven top 10 teams in each season.

The three misses were 2007 (when Duke did beat four top 25 teams, but none in the top 10), 2003 (three top 25 victims) and 2000 (four top 20 victims).

Of course, it's only fair to point out that in 2003 and 2007 Duke beat teams that finished in the top 10, even if they weren't ranked that high at the time of the game. The '03 Devils beat Wake Forest when the Deacons were No. 17 and they finished at No. 8. The '07 Devils beat No. 18 Georgetown and the Hoyas finished No. 8.

Last year, Duke beat four teams that finished in the AP top 10: No. 4 UNC; No. 5 Michigan State; No. 6 Kansas and No. 10 Florida State. But the only win over a team ranked in the top 10 at the time was the victory at Chapel Hill over No. 5 UNC.

Duke hasn't beaten a No. 1 team since beating top-ranked Arizona in the 1997 Maui Classic. But the Devils have topped the No. 2 ranked team five times in the last 18 years: Louisville in 2012; Texas in 2005-06; North Carolina in 2005; Michigan State in 1999; and Wake Forest in 1997.