The last time the college hoops world witnessed a perfect run into the NCAA Tournament was in 1991, when UNLV's team turned the trick. That squad entered the season under a unique set of circumstances: they were defending champs after having won the title game by the most convincing margin in the history of the sport. They had a controversial coach who had improbably reversed an NCAA postseason ban for the '91 season during the offseason. They had a dominant starting lineup, featuring three future NBA starters, all of whom were at least 22 years old, and all of whom returned for a senior season that they had doubts would result in postseason play when they made their decision to stay. On top of that the Rebels played in the Big West Conference, which at the time was only slightly stronger that the current version. In other words, most of their games were not interesting. Only three of their 21 games against conference opponents that season were decided by fewer than 20 points, none by single digits.
Despite that perfect storm, we know that UNLV lost in the national semifinals, failing to cap a perfect season. I remember hating the Rebels that year. It was nothing personal against Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson or the amoeba defense. It was that as a team, they were taking away what was great about college basketball--that even the best teams have to lose sometime.
Ultimately, it all worked out. UNLV, with one of the best starting lineups the game has seen, against one of the weaker schedules an elite team could play, could not win all of their games.
Of course, had Greg Anthony not fouled out of that semifinal game against Duke (he averaged fewer than two fouls per game that season, by the way) things might have turned out differently. That further illustrates the point, though. It takes an incredible amount of talent, circumstance and friendly fortune to produce an unbeaten season in the March Madness era.
With that as a backdrop, it would seem unfathomable for Memphis to go unbeaten this season. However, Memphis has some things in common with the Rebels. They're a strong team playing in a weak conference, and despite John Calipari's best efforts, their non-conference slate hasn't been terribly imposing.
After their 90-53 win over Pepperdine on Saturday, the Tigers sit at 13-0 as they prepare to play East Carolina tonight to open their Conference USA schedule, a slate they rolled through without a blemish last season. So naturally, the discussion of an undefeated season heading into the NCAA Tournament has begun in earnest. While an undefeated run up to Selection Sunday is a realistic notion, it's not by any means a foregone conclusion.
It may come as a surprise, but despite the fact that Memphis has high-profile non-conference games remaining against Gonzaga and Tennessee, the teams most likely to add a blemish to the Tigers' record are probably within their own conference. In CUSA's unbalanced schedule, two of the five teams they play twice are possibly the second- and third-best teams in the league: UAB and Houston. It's almost certain they'll have to play at least one of them a third time in the CUSA Tourney.
In the case of UAB, it's not simply a matter of opportunities that the Blazers have the best overall shot at obstructing history. Using the latest edition of the Pomeroy Ratings and the log5 formula, Memphis' game at UAB is their biggest chance for an upset loss the rest of the way (Memphis has an 81% chance of winning). Primarily because the games against Gonzaga and Tennessee are at home, they're looked at as better chances for a Memphis win (87% and 83%, respectively). Of course these figures are not precise measurements. We can't truly know what Memphis' chance of winning each game is, but this method gives a realistic estimate of the future assuming the lineups of both Memphis and their opponents remain steady.
Most importantly, there's a basic statistical lesson here. Even though Memphis will be a solid favorite to win each game the rest of the season, they're not a favorite to win all of their remaining games collectively. Based on the percentages created by this method, they have about a 35% chance to go 31-0. That doesn't even include the three wins the Tigers will need to get in the CUSA Tourney. Going into last season's conference tourney, I had Memphis at an 87% chance to win it. If CUSA maintains its current structure, it might be slightly more difficult this season, but given that the tournament will again be at the FedEx Forum, Memphis will be a heavy favorite to win. However, a 15% chance of not winning a CUSA championship means that Memphis' chance at getting to 34-0 entering the NCAA Tournament is just 30%. Finally, even if they're the favorite to win the NCAA Tournament, their chances of doing so will be about 30%, putting their chances of a perfect 40-0 season at around 10%.
That last figure really puts it in perspective. There are a lot of things going for Memphis this season. They could be the best team in the nation, playing in a weak conference, with their toughest non-conference games at home. They may well be favored in every remaining game--even in the Final Four should they get there--and yet they have just a one-in-ten shot of winning every game on their schedule.
Should the zero still be in the loss column into February, we'll start to hear the obligatory stories about whether a loss would be good for the Tigers. I will be laughing at those stories. Not because the argument isn't plausible (although one-loss teams have had a worse post-season track record than unbeaten teams over the past 40 years), but because a loss would prevent the Tigers from achieving the kind of history that transcends winning a national title.
Based on the lesson provided by UNLV, a reasonable guess at Memphis' chances of a perfect season, and assuming that there will be a persistent increase in schedule length and quality of competition in the future, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that a perfect season by Memphis might not be duplicated for as long as any player on the current Tigers' roster is alive. How could preventing a chance at that be a good thing?
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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