basketball-men-d1 flag

Andy Wittry | | December 24, 2017

When does the last undefeated college basketball team lose?

  Wisconsin beat previously undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four in 2015.

As we prepare to enter the new year, just three college basketball teams will have the opportunity to bring an undefeated record into 2018. It's not unusual for a handful of teams to navigate their non-conference schedules and the opening week of conference play without suffering a loss.

RELATED: Undefeated college basketball teams in 2017-18

So when does the last remaining unbeaten team typically lose? Is the game in which a previously undefeated team suffers its first loss usually competitive or is it a blowout? How do teams who start the season on a long winning streak perform in the NCAA tournament? We answer those questions and more below.

In the past 15 seasons, the last undefeated team has won roughly 23 games, on average, to start the year. Eight of those teams have eclipsed 20 consecutive wins to start the season and two have surpassed 30 wins.

Perhaps surprising to some, of the 17 teams examined (Note: the final three undefeated teams in 2006 all lost on the same day so we included all three in this examination) only one won the national championship – Florida in 2005-06. Four other teams lost in the national title game.

Season Team Start First Loss Result Tournament Finish
2016-17 Gonzaga 29-0 Feb. 25 Lost to BYU, 79-71 National runner-up
2015-16 SMU 18-0 Jan. 24 Lost at Temple, 89-80 N/A
2014-15 Kentucky 38-0 April 4 Lost to Wisconsin, 71-64 Lost in Final Four
2013-14 Wichita State 35-0 March 23 Lost to Kentucky, 78-76 Lost in second round
2012-13 Michigan 16-0 Jan. 13 Lost at Ohio State, 56-53 National runner-up
2011-12 Murray State 23-0 Feb. 9 Lost to Tennessee State, 72-68 Lost in second round
2010-11 Ohio State 24-0 Feb. 12 Lost at Wisconsin, 71-67 Lost in Sweet 16
2009-10 Kentucky 19-0 Jan. 26 Lost to South Carolina, 68-62 Lost in Elite Eight
2008-09 Wake Forest 16-0 Jan. 21 Lost to Virginia Tech, 78-71 Lost in first round
2007-08 Memphis 26-0 Feb. 23 Lost to Tennessee, 66-62 National runner-up
2006-07 Clemson 17-0 Jan. 13 Lost at Maryland, 92-87 NIT runner-up
2005-06 Florida 17-0 Jan. 21 Lost at Tennessee, 80-76 Won national championship
2005-06 Duke 17-0 Jan. 21 Lost at Georgetown, 87-84 Lost in Sweet 16
2005-06 Pittsburgh 15-0 Jan. 21 Lost at St. John's, 55-50 Lost in second round
2004-05 Illinois 29-0 March 6 Lost at Ohio State, 65-64 National runner-up
2003-04 Saint Joseph's 27-0 March 11 Lost to Xavier, 87-67 Lost in Elite Eight
2002-03 Duke 12-0 Jan. 18 Lost at Maryland, 87-72 Lost in Sweet 16

In the last 15 seasons, there have only been two games that could qualify as blowouts in which the nation's last unbeaten team suffered its first loss. Duke lost by 15 points at Maryland in 2003, when the Blue Devils were the country's last undefeated squad at 12-0 (the least amount of wins to start the season among the teams listed above). Perhaps the most surprising first loss, or at least the most surprising margin, was in 2004, when undefeated No. 1 Saint Joseph's lost in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament to Xavier 87-67.

Despite those two double-digit losses, the average margin of victory when the last unbeaten in each of the last 15 years was toppled (including all three teams in 2006), is just over six points. There was a one-point defeat, a two-point loss, a pair of three-point losses and four four-point defeats. For the most part, these teams were competitive until the final buzzer of their first losses of their respective seasons.

RELATED: 11 college basketball stats that will make you look twice

Is it more likely for a team from a mid-major conference to be the nation's last unbeaten team since those schools play comparatively milder schedules, at least in conference play? Or does it take the resources and reputation of a power conference school to accumulate the requisite talent necessary to produce a team that can carry a perfect record into mid-January, if not longer?

History is on the side of teams from power conferences, although in four of the last six seasons, the last remaining undefeated team did not follow that script. Of course Gonzaga ('17) and Wichita State ('14) have grown to become national brands and consistent presences in the national college basketball landscape, but there's no disputing it would have been more difficult to replicate, say, the Shockers' 35-0 start from four seasons ago in the ACC or Big Ten.

A power conference team has earned the distinction of being the final unbeaten group in nine of the last 15 seasons. Duke and Kentucky have both been the nation's last unbeaten team twice in the last decade and a half, if you include the Blue Devils' 2006 team that suffered its first loss on the same day as previously undefeated Florida and Pittsburgh.

There are several repeat culprits who are responsible for giving an undefeated opponent its first loss of the season on multiple occasions since the start of the 2002-03 season. Maryland, Ohio State, Tennessee and Wisconsin have each knocked off the nation's last undefeated team twice in the last 15 seasons.

In five of the last 15 seasons, the last unbeaten team has played in the national championship. But those teams are just 1-4 in the title game.

A graph of the tournament results of the teams studied would show a bell curve for when teams exited in the first two weeks of the tournament.

Wake Forest started the 2008-09 season 17-0 but lost seven of its final 15 games, including a 15-point loss against No. 13 seed Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Three teams lost in the second round and three more lost in the Sweet 16.

Tournament Finish of Last Unbeaten Team Frequency in Last 15 Seasons
Won national championship Once
National runner-up Four times
Lost in Final Four Once
Lost in Elite Eight Twice
Lost in Sweet 16 Three times
Lost in Second Round Three times
Lost in First Round Once
Qualified for NIT Once

If recent history is an indicator for future results, roughly half the time the country's last undefeated team will play for a Final Four berth (meaning the team will make the Elite Eight or further). Eight of the 16 teams examined from the past 15 years that were eligible for the NCAA tournament advanced to at least the Elite Eight.

As we look at the three remaining undefeated teams – Villanova, Arizona State and TCU – keep an eye on their upcoming road schedules for when each team might suffer its first loss. Nine of the 17 teams listed above suffered their first loss on the road. Five lost at home and three lost at a neutral site in a tournament setting.

Colleges with most players in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

UCLA leads all schools with seven basketball players in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

2024 March Madness: Men's NCAA tournament schedule, dates

Here is the schedule for March Madness 2024, which begins with Selection Sunday on March 17.

College basketball's 9 winningest teams

Here are the top nine college basketball programs in terms of all-time wins.

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from and our partners