The number of unbeaten college hoops teams has nearly been split in half just this week, and only four now remain. Also included is a look at the week in SEC hoops....
UNBEATENS DROPPING LIKE FLIES
Coming into this week of college hoops action, there were still seven teams from around the country without a loss. But within the past two days (Tuesday and Wednesday), that number has nearly been cut in half. Three of the seven have lost games this week.
The most highly ranked of the recently beaten teams was Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won their first eleven games of the 2003 - 2004 season before dropping a game at Texas on Tuesday night. Their streak was not made up of wins against "nobody's" either. Coach Skip Prosser's team picked up victories over Memphis, Indiana, SMU (who beat Texas Tech), North Carolina, and New Mexico. Two of those games, SMU and UNC, were on the road, while the matchup with Memphis took place in New York City. The Deacons are not the world's most experienced team, but they are going to be around for years to come. Five scorers average at least 10 points per contest: two juniors, two sophomores, and a true freshman. In fact, the only senior on the team plays only two minutes per contest. So now that the winning streak has been stopped, what does the immediate future look like for Wake? Very tough, to say the least. A road trip to Duke is on the slate for this weekend, and that is followed by a home game with Georgia Tech and a road trip to Florida State next week. If the Deacons make it to February with three or fewer losses, the rest of the ACC better look out.
Wake Forest wasn't the only unbeaten team to fall on Tuesday night. Mississippi State dropped an extremely disappointing one-point decision to Kentucky on their home floor before a packed house dressed in all-white. Many had doubted the Bulldogs because of their weak pre-conference schedule, but MSU proved that they are worthy of a top 25 ranking. If not for an unlucky bounce with about two seconds to go, the Wildcats would have lost their first SEC game since 2002. A big reason for the Dawgs' early season success has been the transfer of Lawrence Roberts from Baylor. The junior forward has led State with almost 17 points and 11 rebounds per contest. Three of the Bulldogs' four leading scorers, with the exception of senior guard Timmy Bowers, are juniors this season. The upcoming SEC schedule gives no favors to coach Rick Stansbury's team. A huge trip to SEC West-rival LSU is set for Saturday, and a road game at Florida follows that up on Wednesday. Following those two contests, MSU returns home for three of their next four games. If the Bulldogs can pull out a win in one of the next two games at LSU or UF and take care of business elsewhere, there's a good shot Mississippi State could be 18-2 heading into a big road matchup at South Carolina on February 11.
Wednesday night's action sent a third unbeaten team to the showers this week. Creighton lost a nine-point game at Northern Iowa in Missouri Valley Conference play. Prior to that contest, the Bluejays had played four of their previous seven games on the road, winning each one by an average of eight points. The NIU Panthers, led by true freshman guard Brooks McKowen's 24 points, proved to be too much for the 'Jays. It wasn't Northern Iowa's first big win either. After coming up just a couple of points short against both Butler and Iowa State early in the season, the Panthers gave Iowa their first loss in late December and then did the same to Creighton on Wednesday night. A small drop-off was expected from Creighton this year after the loss of senior Kyle Korver following last season. Though Creighton has seven players averaging between 7 and 11 points per game, only one, senior forward Brody Deren, is scoring in double-figures. Even after the loss, it still appears the two major contenders in the MVC this year will be Creighton and Southern Illinois. The Salukis' only two losses came on the road at Murray State and at home against Charlotte. Creighton will host Northern Iowa in early February before SIU and the 'Jays get together for their first of two battles on February 7 in Omaha.
FINAL FOUR STILL PERFECT
Following the loss of nearly half of their party, only four teams from across the country remain unbeaten. There is one member each from the Atlantic 10, Big East, Conference USA, and PAC 10. Who might be the first to go down?....
Possibly the best of the bunch and certainly the one with the most impressive wins is Stanford. The Cardinal have six scorers averaging 8 or more points per game but no one with 14 per contest. Obviously, coach Mike Montgomery's team is one centered around teamwork. That philosophy has certainly paid off this season. Already, Stanford has knocked off Kansas and Gonzaga in Palo Alto and both Arizona State and Arizona on the road. With a 4-0 start to conference play, the Cardinal is well on their way to a possible PAC 10 championship. The toughest games remaining on their schedule include a road game at Oregon on the final day of January, a home rematch with Arizona on February 7, and a road trip to UCLA on February 21. It's extremely unlikely the Cardinal won't slip somewhere along the way, but if they win each of the games mentioned above, it will take a big upset by someone to give Stanford a loss in 2004.
Cincinnati picked up their twelfth win of the season on Wednesday night. Though projected by myself to lose that game at Marquette, the Bearcats went into Milwaukee and basically dominated the Golden Eagles on their way to a 12 point victory. Junior forward Jason Maxiell and senior guards Tony Bobbitt and Field Williams, each scoring right about 14 points per contest, have been the leaders for Bob Huggins' team. Each of those three has a different way of getting the job done. Maxiell leads the team with almost 8 rebounds per game and shoots 55% from the floor. Williams can knock home the three-pointers at a 48% clip. Bobbitt does a little bit of everything well. His numbers are less impressive than those of either Maxiell or Williams, but when you consider he plays an average of 7 minutes less each game than those two, Tony Bobbitt gets his share, and more, done. If Cincinnati makes it through the season undefeated, they will undoubtedly have the nation's best team. That's because their murderous schedule still has the following games remaining: at Louisville, at Xavier, at Wake Forest, vs Louisville, and at Charlotte.
Pittsburgh has the nation's most victories on the 2003-2004 season. The Panthers have been led by junior guard Carl Krauser, who averages almost 16 points per game. Julius Page, Jaron Brown, and Chris Taft all compliment the team nicely by averaging double-figures. The Panthers have had several impressive wins to date, though no one stands out. A home victory over Alabama got the season started and was followed up by wins over Florida State and Georgia in December. In just the last week, the Panthers have also knocked off Miami (in overtime) and Notre Dame. With their tough Big East schedule, look for first-year head coach Jamie Dixon's team to drop a few games along the way. A two game stretch at Connecticut and at Syracuse won't be easy, nor will a stretch that sees Pitt visit Notre Dame and Seton Hall before returning home to host Connecticut in a period of only 8 days. Other tough games left on the schedule include a home game with Syracuse and a road trip to Providence.
THIS WEEK IN SEC HOOPS
This will be a weekly look back at the action from the mid-week and a look ahead to the upcoming weekend's SEC battles. Kentucky and Mississippi State, both ranked in the SCS.com Fab 15, squared off in Starkville, and the Wildcats pulled out a thriller. Though MSU was down by as many as 18, the Bulldogs battled back to take the lead late, but a Kentucky lay-up as time expired allowed the 'Cats' SEC winning streak to continue. On Wednesday, there were a couple of surprising outcomes. Vanderbilt played their second straight SEC road game and came up short at Tennessee. After starting off the season 12-0, the Commodores have lost their last two. It took overtime, but South Carolina pulled out another big win, this one at Auburn. The Gamecocks battled back from a deficit in overtime and came out on top to move to 2-1 on the SEC season. The only other matchup saw Alabama get past Arkansas in Tuscaloosa.
Four of the six SEC matchups this weekend look big early in the season. Mississippi State will try to follow up that disappointing loss to Kentucky by visiting LSU. The Tigers and Bulldogs are the two favorites in the SEC West, meaning this game is extremely important to both teams in the event of a tie. In the SEC East, Florida will visit Vanderbilt as the Commodores try to recover from recent losses. The Gators had the mid-week off. After knocking off Vanderbilt on Wednesday, the Tennessee Volunteers will head on the road to South Carolina, where the Gamecocks have been a near-perfect 10-1 this season. It's an in-state showdown in Alabama when the Tide and Tigers meet up Saturday. Both teams have had their early-season ups and downs, and neither could pick a better game to hit their stride. In other SEC action on Saturday, Georgia will visit Kentucky as the 'Cats try to continue their streak, and Arkansas will host Mississippi in a matchup of winless conference teams.