As Wichita State and Syracuse take aim at becoming the first team to enter the NCAA tournament without a loss in 23 years, two men who have been part of similar bids for an undefeated season offered some unlikely advice.
Neither Kansas State coach Bruce Weber nor UNLV coach Dave Rice are advocating the Orange and Shockers throw a game on purpose, of course.
Weber just believes the 2004-05 Illinois team he coached to a 29-0 start was able to exit the spotlight, relax and refocus for the NCAA tournament after dropping its regular season finale to Ohio State. And Rice echoes that same sentiment when he says the pressure of trying to repeat as national champs and become the first undefeated national champ in 15 years wore down him and his teammates on the 1990-91 UNLV team.
Said Weber, "I really think losing really helped us relax a little bit. The pressure and the attention had been building and building. There was a lot of disappointment at first, but I think it was a feeling of relief afterward."
Said Rice, "I 100 percent buy into the idea that it's better to go into the NCAA tournament with at least one loss. You're never going to try to lose a game, but having been through it before, I think it's one less thing for your team to have to deal with. It takes some of the pressure off your team."
Only four Divison I teams have completed the regular season unbeaten since 1976 when Indiana became the last team to win the national title with a perfect record. Larry Bird led Indiana State to the national title game in 1979. Alcorn State also went unbeaten that same season but was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Powerful UNLV reached the Final Four before taking a loss in 1991 and St. Joseph's fell for the first time in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in 2004.
If it once seemed unfathomable that a team would be in position to reach the postseason without a loss this season, that's no longer the case anymore. Syracuse (23-0, 11-0) is only seven wins away from entering the ACC tournament undefeated, while Wichita State (26-0, 13-0) needs only five more victories to take an unblemished record into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Whereas road games at Duke, Virginia, Maryland and Florida State leave Syracuse only a remote chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten, college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy suggests Wichita State has a 70 percent chance of accomplishing that goal because of a soft remaining schedule. None of the five Valley teams the Shockers face the next three weeks have a record above .500 in league play.
"Winning in the Valley is brutally difficult, but we have to embrace the challenge every night," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said earlier this season. "I've always said you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Right now, we're not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We're thinking about our next meal."
It's a testament to the parity in modern-day college basketball that there hasn't been an undefeated national champion in 38 years.
Elite programs who once relied on talented, seasoned upperclassmen now seldom keep their most promising players more than a season or two. Less prestigious programs have narrowed the gap because they typically have more three- and four-year players and they pull from a wider talent pool than they once did thanks to the rise of international recruiting in Canada, Europe, Africa and Australia, among other regions.
Indiana's 32-0 national championship team started four seniors who were selected in the first 43 picks of the 1976 NBA draft and a junior who went No. 1 overall the following year. Quinn Buckner, a starting guard on that team said the experience of the Hoosiers helped them cope with the media attention they faced, as did the fact that neither ESPN nor social media even existed at the time.
"These young people today are challenged a great deal more because Gregg Marshall and Jim Boeheim can't control the outside influences the way Coach Knight could," Buckner said. "Social media is a fact of life now. You can't keep young people from looking at what's being said and getting caught in that message. You can't shield them from sports networks or sports-talk radio. I think that makes it a lot more difficult."
Indeed teams who have made more recent runs at perfection often grow weary of the limelight.
No team in any sport attracted more attention in 1991 than UNLV, which returned many of the players who clobbered Duke in the national title game the previous year at the same time as NCAA investigators were searching for evidence of cheating. Future NBA standouts Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony and the rest of the Rebels were peppered with questions everywhere they went during a 30-0 regular season, whether it was from fellow students on campus, fans they encountered in Las Vegas or the hoards of media who gathered after practices and games.
"It was like we were the present-day Miami Heat," Rice said. "When we traveled across the country, when we checked into hotels, when we arrived in airports, it was a pretty crazy time in terms of the national attention we were getting. There was a charisma about that team and a style of play that had everyone excited."
Weber's 2004-05 Illinois team wasn't the national phenomenon the 1991 Runnin' Rebels became, but fans around the state still revered the Illini like rock stars. Autograph seekers bombarded them at restaurants. Fans gave them a standing ovation at a Chicago movie theater. The driver of their charter bus knew to drop them at the underground entrance of their team hotels so they wouldn't draw a crowd.
At one point during the season after Illinois won at Wisconsin and Michigan State to improve to 22-0, Weber could see the media attention wearing on his team.
"It was just overwhelming," he said. "CNN. The New York Times. ESPN. USA Today. They were all there. I still think one of the best things I did was I told our sports information director, we're going to have one week of no media. The players came to practice that day, and I said, 'what do you guys notice?' They said, 'No one's here coach.' They were hugging me and patting me on the back. They were so happy they didn't have to deal with it for a few days."
One of the challenges created by answering so many questions about going undefeated is that it's sometimes difficult for teams to maintain their usual laser focus on their next game. Coaches typically combat that issue by hammering home their one-game-at-a-time mantras and focusing on day-to-day improvement.
When Stanford won its first 26 games of the 2003-04 season before losing in its regular season finale, coach Mike Montgomery never once mentioned an unbeaten season as a goal until it was impossible to ignore.
"The only time the coaches ever talked about it was when we were heading to Washington for our last two regular season games," said Valparaiso assistant coach Matt Lottich, Stanford's starting shooting guard that year. "Our coach kind of just said, 'Well, we've made it this far. Why don't we just do it?' That was the only time it was really ever even brought up."
Staying focused on the next opponent rather than the chance to make history is essential for unbeaten teams because they're a target in every game they play Every opponent they face is extra juiced for the chance to deliver that first loss.
Murray State coach Steve Prohm learned that firsthand during the 2011-12 season when the Racers beat Southern Miss, Dayton and Memphis in non-league play and zoomed to a 23-0 start before suffering their first loss. Ohio Valley Conference games that typically attracted a couple thousand fans suddenly became coveted tickets because the Racers were in town.
"People looked at our league and said we should win those games, but it was so hard to night in and night out be on your game because you're going to get everyone's best shot," Prohm said. "Everywhere we went, it was sold out. At Tennessee Tech, there were 9,000 people. At Tennessee State, it was 10,000. At Austin Peay, it was 6,000. At Tennessee Martin, it was 6,000. It was incredible."
This season's two unbeaten teams have both required memorable comebacks to survive some of their most challenging road games.
Syracuse would have lost at longtime nemesis Pittsburgh on Wednesday night were it not for a game-winning 35-footer at the buzzer from freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. And Missouri State appeared poised to spoil Wichita State's perfect season when it took a 19-point second-half lead on Jan. 11 before the Shockers stormed back to win in overtime behind stars Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet.
As long as the Orange and Shockers keep zeroes in their loss column, the slim possibility remains they could do something the 1976 Hoosiers were the last to do – hoist the NCAA championship trophy without losing a game. Buckner said the members of that Indiana team are proud of being the last undefeated national champion, but they won't be popping champagne a la the 1972 Miami Dolphins if Wichita State and Syracuse both lose.
"I get what the Dolphins do. Those are grown men," Buckner said. "These are young people and frankly there's no way I can root against them."