Three weeks ago, when I looked into this curious matter of basketball teams that don't lose, there were 22 such programs. Now we're down to a mere six juggernauts.
Here are your remaining undefeated teams, in the order in which they appear in this week's AP poll. I've helpfully indicated when each team will lose for the first time so that these six coaches can prepare their players for the shock and grief that comes from, you know, being outscored.
Villanova Wildcats:? Meet the can't-miss team in this group ... literally ?
Villanova is in the midst of the greatest multiseason run of shooting recorded by any major-conference team in almost a decade. Since 2005-06, just 7 percent of all major-conference teams have posted effective field goal percentages of 54 or better in league play. The Wildcats have now done exactly that in each of the past three conference seasons. The only other team that matched that level of shooting prowess over a three-year period was Kansas, before, during and (most incredibly) after its national championship run in 2008.
With all due respect to Josh Hart, the hero in this tale of uncanny accuracy has to be coach Jay Wright. When this run of immaculate shooting began, Villanova's offense revolved around James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard. None of those guys was still around when the Wildcats won the title last season, much less now. Nevertheless, Villanova is doing Villanova things once again, connecting on 59 percent of its 2s and 40 percent of its 3s. Hart is the early leader for the Wooden Award, and Jalen Brunson's development as a sophomore has helped offset Kris Jenkins' surprisingly low rate of success thus far inside the arc.
First loss will happen: Jan. 4 at Butler. Everyone's pointing to the clash of the (likely) unbeatens coming up on New Year's Eve, when Villanova travels to Creighton, and rightfully so. That will be a great game, and I like the Wildcats' chances to emerge with a hard-fought victory ( ? la the win Wright's guys recorded at Purdue in November). But back-to-back road triumphs against teams of this caliber will be too much to ask, even for the defending national champions.
For three seasons, everyone yelled at Bryce Alford to just stop trying 2-pointers already, and for three seasons, everyone was exactly right to do so. The UCLA guard entered this season as a career 39.8 percent shooter inside the arc. But of course, that was before Lonzo Ball arrived in Westwood. Now Alford is connecting on 57 percent of his 2s, a figure that's actually low by Bruins standards. See, for example,? TJ Leaf?and his rather remarkable 70 percent rate of success on 2-pointers.
While we're on the subject, let's talk about the unjustly overlooked Leaf. Sean Miller took some internet heat in 2015, when he cut the young man in question from the Team USA U19 roster, a move followed (perhaps not surprisingly) by Leaf's decision to decommit from Arizona. But maybe the problem was simply that Miller didn't get to see Leaf in action alongside Ball. If the world had known that these two freshmen playing together would catalyze a shooting performance even more accurate than 2016-17 Villanova's, I dare say Leaf would have been ranked higher than No. 13 in this class.
Whether Ball is really the reason? Aaron Holiday has boosted his (already excellent) 3-point accuracy dramatically this season or whether, as seems likely, UCLA's shooting has to cool off a little at some point, the freshman has been every bit as good as advertised. Indeed, the Bruins' accuracy can fall off a cliff, relatively speaking, and still be prohibitively high in opponents' eyes. With his calm and total mastery of the point guard position, Ball has played a leading role in bringing Steve Alford's team to this pinnacle.
First loss will happen: Dec. 28 at Oregon. The Ducks have won nine straight, and UCLA will need an as-yet-undisclosed Plan B when -- and it will surely come to pass, in Eugene or somewhere else -- its shots don't fall on the road. Besides, the Villanova parallel for the Bruins works only to a point. On paper, the Wildcats' defense last season was head-and-shoulders superior to what we're seeing from UCLA so far in 2016-17.
Baylor Bears: Remember them?
Two weeks and a lifetime ago, it was commonly agreed that Baylor had the "best r?sum?" of any team in the country.
Then UCLA went and beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, and suddenly neutral-floor wins over VCU, Michigan State and Louisville, or even home victories over Oregon and Xavier, didn't look all that ostentatious. Scott Drew's guys are still ranked in the top five nationally, but that sound you hear is the distinct wait-and-see reaction of a hoops nation that wouldn't be shocked to see Baylor finish third in the Big 12 behind Kansas and West Virginia.
Which is another way of saying Baylor really is as amazing as everyone was saying two weeks ago. A third-place finish in, arguably, the nation's toughest conference top-to-bottom and a high ranking nationally are now seen as the floor for this team. Jo Lual-Acuil has transformed the Bears' interior defense, Manu Lecomte continues to develop as a scoring point guard, and Johnathan Motley has been top-notch in the first-option role previously occupied on offense by Taurean Prince.
First loss will happen: Jan. 10 at West Virginia. There is no shame in losing in Morgantown, of course. It's likely that not only the Bears but also Kansas and seven other Big 12 visitors will do the same.
Gonzaga Bulldogs: Mark Few's big four
The foursome of Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins and Jordan Mathews has been very good to Gonzaga in 2016-17. Przemek Karnowski gets a good deal of the press attention (and probably makes the biggest visual splash), but these four guys are on the floor more than any other Bulldogs.
For the first time in his career, former Washington point guard Williams-Goss is showing results in terms of both volume and accuracy on his 3-point shooting -- much like Mathews past (at California) and present. Both Bulldogs are working hard to keep up with Perkins' torrid pace, as the third-year sophomore is knocking down more than half his tries from distance. Meanwhile, Missouri transfer Williams has supplied an interior complement as a 2-point-making machine (albeit at a moderate volume).
Throw in Karnowski's formidable presence as a post scorer, and you have a rotation that boasts size, versatility and experience. The Zags have played close games against the likes of Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, but it's no mistake that Mark Few's team has made it this far undefeated.
First loss will happen: Feb. 2 at BYU. You're reading that correctly: The Zags will make it all the way to February without a loss. Speculation will build about whether Few's guys can follow in the footsteps of Wichita State in 2013-14 and make it to the NCAA tournament with a perfect record. We didn't really get a run-the-table drama nationally last season, so we're due. Thank you, Gonzaga.
Creighton Bluejays: Greg McDermott, style chameleon
I don't wish to bore the young readers, but there was a time when Greg McDermott coached Northern Iowa in the preferred style of the Panthers' Missouri Valley Conference. Possessions were few, and ball reversals were the preferred mode of whiling away most or even all of a 35-second shot clock.
A decade and two stops later, McDermott is in his seventh season at the helm of Creighton. During the telecast of CU's 96-85 win at Arizona State this week, my colleague Kara Lawson repeatedly and correctly referred to the challenge (largely unmet by the Sun Devils) of containing McDermott's team in transition. In fact, the 76-possession win was merely the sixth-fastest-paced game Creighton has played this season.
Clearly, McDermott is comfortable playing at a high rate of speed, and with players such as Maurice Watson, Justin Patton and Marcus Foster, you would be too. Foster, in particular, is a dash of pure-scoring accelerant added to CU's always-plentiful stockpile of 3-point-capable kindling (e.g., Cole Huff, Khyri Thomas, Isaiah Zierden and Toby Hegner).
First loss will happen:?Dec. 31 against Villanova. This is an excellent Creighton team, arguably as strong as Doug McDermott's hallowed 2013-14 group, but fate has placed the Bluejays in the same conference as the defending national champions. When these two teams meet on New Year's Eve in Omaha, it will be required viewing.
USC Trojans: The most surprising -- and low-profile -- members of the club
Every year, we face the challenge of finding the proper tone of voice for addressing a team in USC's position. The Trojans are much better than we expected, and indeed Andy Enfield's guys are showing up on the No. 7 line in my colleague Joe Lundardi's latest bracket projection. If you had told Enfield in the preseason that he'd stand a good chance of playing a round-of-64 game in home whites, he would have taken that, trust me. We should talk about USC with wonder and surprise.
On the other hand, this is a team that found itself in a tie game at home against Troy with 45 seconds remaining last Saturday. (Enfield's guys ended up winning by five.) We should talk about USC with caution and trepidation.
I say we split the difference. USC likely isn't the 23rd-best team in the country, as the AP pollsters would have us believe (this can be termed the " TCU in 2014-15 effect"), but Bennie Boatwright should be returning from his knee injury soon, and Jordan McLaughlin appears to be launched on a full-fledged junior-breakout season. USC will more than hold its own this season in a better-than-forecast Pac-12.
First loss will happen: Dec. 30 at Oregon. That's right: The Ducks will have the rare opportunity to inflict back-to-back losses on two of Division I's last remaining undefeated opponents. UCLA visits Eugene first, and the Trojans will follow two days later. It is unlikely that both SoCal teams will emerge from their brush with Duckdom still perfect.