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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Perfection is Never Easy

When they led by 14 points early in the second half of the NCAA Finals, it looked like the University of Findlay would cruise to the 2009 NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship and an undefeated season. However, in the end it took overtime and a three-point basket as time expired to help the Oilers complete the season with a perfect 36-0 record.

Regardless of the level of competition, completing a college basketball season undefeated is never an easy task and deserving of appreciation. Findlay became just the fourth team in Division II history, and first since Fort Hays State in 1996 to accomplish the feat.

They join the George Fox University women’s basketball team, which claimed the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship with a perfect 32-0 record, as undefeated NCAA basketball champions this season.

With four more victories, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team could add their name to that list. The Huskies are aiming for the third undefeated season in their history and the fifth such season in NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball history.

For the 33rd straight season, there will not be an undefeated national champion at the NCAA Division I men’s level. No men’s Division I champion has finished undefeated since Bobby Knight led Indiana University to an undefeated campaign in 1976.

It has been 30 years since Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores became the last Division I team to reach the NCAA Finals with an undefeated record. They were 33-0 before losing the national championship game to Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are the only team to reach the Final Four with an undefeated record. They lost in the national semifinals to eventual champion Duke.

A few teams, including Illinois in 2005 and Memphis in 2008, have flirted with entering the NCAA Tournament undefeated. However, eventually the grind of a long season, pressure of perfection and difficulty of maintaining such a high level of play for every single game have proven to be too much for even the best teams.

If a team is ever to again go undefeated in NCAA Division I men’s basketball, it will probably follow the pattern of Indiana State, UNLV and Memphis. All three of those teams, along with the University of Massachusetts, which started the 1995-96 season with 26 straight wins, hailed from a conference not considered among the “power” conferences of the NCAA.

While conferences like the ACC, Big East, Pac 10 and Big 12 annually boast at least two teams capable of winning the national title, top teams from other conferences can often run the table in their league and depending on their non-conference schedule could conceivably be undefeated come time for the NCAA Tournament. The question then becomes whether a team that hasn’t faced significant challenges on a regular basis will be able to withstand the rigors of the NCAA Tournament.

Memphis, which lost in the Sweet 16 in 2009 after coming within a last-second shot of winning the title a year earlier, has proven that a rigorous conference season is not necessarily mandatory. The Tigers have won 61 straight Conference USA games since last losing to a conference opponent in March 2006. However, I’m willing to bet that John Calipari and supporters of the Tigers would trade in a couple Conference USA wins if it helped them claim that elusive national title.

While no school would turn down an undefeated season and it would be fun to watch a team make that kind of magical run, the reality of college basketball is that unlike football’s Bowl Championship Series when an undefeated season is no guarantee of a title (just ask Utah) and one last second loss can end your chances at a championship (see Texas), in college basketball a teams final record isn’t going to have a real barring on who claims the national title.

Come the first week of April, the only record that matters is how your team performed in the climactic NCAA Tournament and to cut down the nets at the Final Four you don’t have to be perfect for four months, just for the final three weeks of the season.

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