College basketball: When does the last remaining undefeated team typically lose?
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.
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.
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.