It was 38 years ago that Indiana won every game that was out there to win, regular-season and NCAA tournament. There have been a lot of candidates to update the 1976 Hoosiers over the years, teams that made it into February unbeaten. St. Joseph’s even made it to the Atlantic-10 tournament 10 years ago before being rudely chastened by Xavier.
There’s one team left that could do it this year, and wouldn’t it be a bolt out of the blue if it was Wichita State?
Syracuse’s shocking loss Wednesday night to Boston College, coming on the heels of some near-death experiences by the Orange, underscores how hard it is to go unbeaten. There are potholes around every corner — even a beaten-down BC team going nowhere.
Teams inevitably go through peaks and valleys, and it seems to me the valleys become more pronounced in February. Players have been together for months, the NCAA tournament is still a month out, and unless chemistry and camaraderie are exquisite, little flaws can become exposed.
A couple of players have been booted or suspended from teams this month, and February has been prominent for Marcus Smart’s various misadventures.
Meanwhile, if you’re undefeated, you’re getting everybody’s best shot every night.
As it happens, the next guy to take on the 28-0 Shockers is Drake and Ray Giacoletti, the former Washington assistant (in Bob Bender’s early years), Eastern Washington head coach (he got the Eagles to their only NCAA tournament in 2004) and most recently, Gonzaga assistant.
Giacoletti, of course, got a snootful of Wichita State in the 2013 NCAA tournament, when top-seeded Gonzaga was ousted, 76-70, in Salt Lake City.
That night, it seemed, well, shocking, the top-ranked team in the country eliminated by an unheralded outfit from the Missouri Valley. And it was. But then Wichita State marched through LaSalle and Ohio State into the Final Four and got up 12 at one point against eventual champion Louisville.
Now Wichita State is spotless. It would seem foolhardy to think the Shockers could run the table all the way into April, except for the NCAA roll they accomplished a year ago, when they proved they were nobody’s patsy.
Giacoletti’s Drake team visits Wichita State Saturday night, and it’s unlikely it, or anybody else will derail the Shockers at least until their league tournament.
“This ain’t just a talented team,” Giacoletti told me over the phone at mid-week. “They really buy into defending and rebounding. This team is extremely confident and tough-minded.”
Forward Cleanthony Early leads at 16.3 points a game, but what I remember most about them is a collection of gritty perimeter players.
“Early is the NBA player,” Giacoletti said, “but all those other guys do all the little things.”
Giacoletti is deeply impressed by the sophomore guards, Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, especially Van Vleet.
“He doesn’t look the part for a point guard – kind of chunky, not real athletic, but he just has an unbelievable confidence,” Giacoletti said. “He doesn’t panic with the shot clock below 10.
“I don’t know when I’ve seen a more confident team or a tougher team.”
Giacoletti sees Wichita State as being in a different place psychologically from a year ago. Recall, that team had been through some key injuries throughout the 2012-13 season, and was just peaking in March.
“They were still trying to find themselves last year,” said Giacoletti. “I think they’ve found themselves, they know who they are, and they bring it every night.”
At .336 from three-point range, it’s not a great shooting team (try to tell that to the Zags, who allowed 14 threes in 28 tries that night). But it shoots .744 on free throws, guards the three-point arc (.309) and has a formidable 8.1 rebounding margin.
If the Wichita State streak continues into March, the pressure will, of course, become immense. The coach, Gregg Marshall, comes off as a fairly high-strung guy, and he would naturally have his hands full.
For now, Giacoletti’s team probably can’t do much to head off the Shockers. The Bulldogs are 14-13, 5-10 in the Valley, but he’s excited about a five-man recruiting class signed in November, all high school kids.
“We’re at a place that’s very academic, very character-oriented,” he said. “They know it’s going to take some time.”
With that, the usual look at the best TV viewing in our parts over the next seven days:
Duke at North Carolina, ESPN, 6 p.m. For Blue Devils, nice little warm-up for Syracuse.
Washington State at Oregon State, Pac-12 Networks, 6 p.m. No doubt will cut deeply into viewership of Tobacco Road matchup.
Gonzaga at BYU, ESPN2, 8 p.m. Billed as must-win for BYU to restoke NCAA chances.
USC at Stanford, Pac-12 Networks, 8 p.m. Enfield says he has reinforcements coming next year.
Wisconsin at Iowa, ESPN2, 9 a.m. Hawkeyes only a half-game back of Big Ten lead in loss column.
Florida at Mississippi, ESPN, 9 a.m. Ole Miss (16-10) desperately needs resume boost.
Louisville at Cincinnati, CBS, 9 a.m. Cardinals’ only loss last five weeks was to Cincy.
UCLA at Stanford, ESPN2, 3 p.m. UCLA looking like bonafide threat to Arizona in Pac-12.
Syracuse at Duke, ESPN, 4 p.m. Rematch of consensus best game of year at ‘Cuse.
Texas at Kansas, ESPNU, 4:30 p.m. Jayhawks boring in on another Big 12 title.
Arizona at Colorado, ESPN, 6 p.m. Every night out turning into a grinder for ‘Cats.
San Diego State at New Mexico, ESPN2, 7 p.m. Lobo win could tie Aztecs for MWC lead.
Gonzaga at San Diego, ESPN2, 9 p.m. Game in Spokane came down to last Torero possession.
Michigan State at Michigan, CBS, 9 a.m. At mid-week, the two co-leaders in Big Ten.
SMU at Connecticut, CBS Sports Network, 11 a.m. Larry Brown making some magic with Mustangs.
USC at California, Fox Sports 1, 5 p.m. Three Sunday Pac-12 games, conflicting with each other.
Arizona State at Utah, ESPNU, 5 p.m. One of them will get swept this weekend.
Washington State at Oregon, Pac-12 Networks, 6 p.m. Cougars lost to Ducks at home by 27.
Oklahoma at Kansas, ESPN, 6 p.m. KU’s schedule the toughest: 10-6 against the RPI top 50.
Wichita State at Bradley, ESPN2, 6 p.m. Two old Missouri Valley foes go at it.
Cal at Arizona, ESPN2, 6 p.m. Bears on their heels after comeuppance against UCLA.
Stanford at Arizona State, ESPNU, 8 p.m. Neither team would mind a little resume-polishing.