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Jack Freifelder | | February 25, 2017

Gonzaga looks to join unbeatens to make NCAA tournament

  Przemek Karnowski (24) and Gonzaga look to keep their unbeaten record (29-0) alive when they meet BYU.

Running the table and heading into the NCAA tournament undefeated is largely unheard of these days. The travel schedules are too hectic. The season is too long. There are just too many distractions. That certainly hasn't stopped teams from trying.

Finishing the season and slipping through a conference tournament undefeated is one thing. Carrying that momentum into and through the NCAA tournament? Fuhgettaboutit. Plus, making the tournament as an unbeaten doesn't guarantee you anything. Just ask Kentucky (2015) or Wichita State (2014).

Still, a handful of teams have finished the regular season unbeaten, gotten through their conference tournament unscathed and carried that success to a win in the title game. With still-unbeaten Gonzaga — the No. 1 team in the nation — looking to join that group, we look at some of the most recent teams to enter the NCAA tournament without a loss, and how they fared once they got there.


Undefeated teams that made the tournament and won

San Francisco Dons — 1956 (29-0)

A year after winning the NCAA title, the Dons were right back in the thick of things with an undefeated record. The team was led by big man Bill Russell, who helped the Dons beat back UCLA, Utah and SMU before dispatching Iowa to win their second straight NCAA title. Russell — who averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds a game in his three-year college career before winning 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics — led the way in '56 with 26 points and 27 boards against the Hawkeyes in the title game.

North Carolina Tar Heels — 1957 (32-0)

In 1957, North Carolina was just another upstart program looking to win the school’s first title. Head coach Frank McGuire had taken the Tar Heels to the Final Four five years earlier (1952) but didn't win. In '57, the Tar Heels reeled off wins against Yale, Canisius, Syracuse and Michigan State (in triple overtime) to set up a matchup with Kansas in the championship game. North Carolina nipped Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain, 54-53 (in triple overtime) behind star forward Lennie Rosenbluth (28 points points a game in the NCAA Tournament). Sixty years and five NCAA titles later, the narrative has changed for UNC. But back then it took six overtime periods to cut down the nets for the first time.

UCLA Bruins — 1964 (30-0), 1967 (30-0), 1972 (30-0), 1973 (30-0)

When it comes to NCAA tournament titles, the name to know is UCLA. The school has far and away the most titles of any DI program (11); the closest competitor is Kentucky (8). Legendary coach John Wooden guided the Bruins to 10 of the team's titles.

John Wooden's first title
Wooden steered four of his championship teams (’64, ’67, ’72, ’73) through the regular season with an unblemished record before cutting down the nets.

  • 1964: The Bruins took out Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas State and Duke en route to the school’s first national championship. Walt Hazard, tournament Most Outstanding Player, and Gail Goodrich led things for the Bruins.
  • 1967: Enter Lew Alcindor. In ’67, the young, lithe center was just breaking onto the scene. Alcindor -- who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- keyed the second title run by beating Wyoming, Pacific, Houston and Dayton. The win in the title game, during which Alcindor scored 20 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, kicked off a stretch of seven consecutive NCAA titles for the Bruins.
  • 1972: The ’72 squad was led by big man Bill Walton, who helped the Bruins roll through their schedule, winning by an average of 32 points a game. UCLA coasted through much of the tournament before emerging with a five-point win the title game against Florida State (81-76).
  • 1973: Walton led this bunch, too, dispatching Arizona State, San Francisco and Indiana before tangling with Memphis State in the title bout. UCLA won behind one the biggest title game performances in NCAA history. Walton hit 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points in the win.

RELATEDThrowback Thursday — UCLA 1971-72

Indiana Hoosiers — 1976 (32-0)

After failing to win the title in 1975, the Hoosiers went back to finish what they started. Another clean run through the Big Ten had the Hoosiers at 27-0 entering the NCAA tournament with much of their squad from the previous year still intact. IU dispatched St. John’s, Alabama, Marquette and UCLA en route to the title game, where they linked up with Michigan. The familiarity of playing a Big Ten foe worked out well for the Hoosiers as they ran past the Wolverines, 86-68. The win gave IU coach Bob Knight his first of three NCAA tournament titles.

Undefeated teams that made the tournament and lost

Penn Quakers — 1971

Penn entered the NCAA tournament 26-0, then took down Duquesne and South Carolina before meeting Villanova in the East Regional final. The Quakers proved no match for the Wildcats. Sam Gardner of detailed the loss in a March 2016 article:

Never in the sport’s history has a team kissed perfection goodbye quite like the University of Pennsylvania did in 1971, when the Quakers saw a 28-0 start go up in flames during a 43-point defeat on the doorstep of the Final Four. And though Penn’s 90-47 loss to crosstown rival Villanova was later expunged from the record books, you won’t find a soul to argue that it never happened.

Former Penn forward Corky Calhoun told Fox Sports: “Over my four years we were 99-6, and I think all of us can remember the six that we lost. … But the one against Villanova — that’s the one that stings the most.”

Marquette Warriors — 1971

Arguably one of the best team’s in school history dispatched Miami of Ohio in the first round before falling in a nail-biter to Ohio State, 60-59. OSU hit a pair of free throws late to seal the win. All-American guard Dean Meminger fouled out of the game — his next-to-last game at Marquette. A 28-1 record just didn’t feel as special after that loss to OSU.

Indiana Hoosiers — 1975

A year before the undefeated run to the title, the Hoosiers entered the 1975 NCAA tournament at 30-0. Knight’s quest for his first NCAA title would fall short, though, when the Hoosiers lost an Elite Eight matchup with Kentucky, 92-90. The team had won 34 straight games before the loss to Kentucky.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights — 1976

In the same year that Indiana went undefeated and won the national title, unbeaten Rutgers joined the Hoosiers in the Final Four. Rutgers, which entered the tournament at 31-0, had wins against Princeton, UConn and the Virginia Military Institute before falling to Michigan in a semifinal game, 86-70.

Indiana State Sycamores — 1979

Larry Bird and Indiana State came to the NCAA tournament at 27-0, fresh off a title in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The Sycamores ran the streak to 31 wins by taking out Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Arkansas and DePaul before squaring off with Michigan State in the tournament final. Magic Johnson and the Spartans would get the upper hand in this bout in a 75-64 win. Indiana State remains the only team to advance to the title game in their first NCAA tournament appearance.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels — 1991

A year after winning the title, the Runnin' Rebels entered the tournament at 30-0, then beat Montana, Georgetown, Utah and Seton Hall en route to a second straight Final Four apperance. Unfortunately for head coach Jerry Tarkanian’s squad, that set up a rematch against the Duke Blue Devils. The year before, UNLV demolished Duke, 103-73. But Duke won the rematch and then beat Kansas in the title game, the first of five NCAA titles for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

1991: Duke shocks UNLV

Wichita State Shockers — 2014

Wichita State was 34-0 entering the 2014 NCAA tournament. A nucleus of Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet helped guide the Shockers to their first Missouri Valley Conference title since 1987 in the process. But head coach Gregg Marshall’s squad fell in a third round matchup to Kentucky, 78-76.

Third Round: Wichita State shocked by Kentucky
Kentucky Wildcats — 2015

After a trip to the NCAA tournament title game in 2014 — a run that would end with a 60-54 defeat at the hands of Connecticut and Shabazz Napier — Kentucky was back and ready to wreak havoc in 2015. Some big time departures left things in limbo (forward Julius Randle and guard James Young), but the addition of a new freshmen crop (guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, forwards Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns) helped ease the team’s march through the regular-season schedule. Kentucky entered the tournament at 35-0 and ran off three more victories before falling in a semifinal game to Wisconsin. The team’s 38 wins in a single season still is tied for the most by a men's team in DI history.

Final Four: Badgers stun Kentucky

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