Thursday, January 15, 2009

Last of the Unbeatens

With exactly two months remaining until Selection Sunday, the contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders and the NCAA Tournament picture is getting somewhat smaller than it was just a few short weeks ago. However, one of the main questions left to be answered is the always fun, "Which team will be the last to lose?"

There are three candidates remaining: Pittsburgh (16-0), Wake Forest (15-0) and Clemson (16-0). Pittsburgh has four games under its belt in conference play, while Wake and Clemson have played two ACC games each. Let's take a look at each undefeated squad's resume up to this point, as well as their respective remaining schedules.

Pittsburgh: The top-ranked Panthers have just two wins by single-digits, back-to-back road victories over Florida State and Rutgers. Outside of those two games, Pitt has simply dominated teams. Its best win is over Georgetown on the road, a game in which the Panthers took apart the Hoyas in the second half en route to a 16-point victory. Victories over Siena, Miami (Ohio), Texas Tech and Washington State are decent, at best.

The next big test for the Panthers is Saturday at Louisville. The Cardinals are playing very solid basketball lately and have the talent and personnel to pose problems for Pittsburgh. After that, the Panthers go home to face a high-scoring Syracuse team, and then head on the road to face West Virginia and Villanova. I don't think Pitt is getting out of this stretch unscathed -- and I actually don't think they will get out of this weekend unscathed.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are the talk of the town this week after defeated North Carolina in impressive fashion at home on Sunday. Obviously, their win over the Tar Heels is their best victory so far, but don't forget their victory on the road at BYU. The Cougars never lose at home, so Wake's seven-point comeback victory in Utah was huge. The Deacons also defeated a very good Baylor team on a neutral site back in November. Wake has also knocked off Boston College and UTEP on the road.

Of course, Wake Forest's undefeated showdown with Clemson on Saturday is the game that is currently circled on every hoops fan's calendar. The Demon Deacons have more talent than the Tigers, but Clemson is tough to beat at home. If they pass that test, the Deacons go home for games against Virginia Tech and Duke. A road game at Georgia Tech wraps up January. If Wake gets past Clemson this weekend, it might get to February with zero losses.

Clemson: Not surprisingly, the Tigers are undefeated in January. This year seems different, though, as I wouldn't expect Clemson to have its annual February collapse in conference play. The Tigers have a host of impressive wins away from home, including a victory over Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; a dominating win at Miami (Fl.); and a comeback win at South Carolina. Wins over Alabama and North Carolina State are solid, as are victories over TCU and Temple.

Like Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, Clemson's next big test comes this Saturday. The Tigers will host fellow unbeaten Wake Forest in a game that will narrow the undefeated crowd. Clemson will need to contain Jeff Teague, and make sure to slow down the slew of Wake Forest big men. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their next game after this weekend comes at North Carolina on Wednesday. Clemson is very unlikely to get past these two games, but if they do, games against Georgia Tech and at Virginia Tech are winnable.

Who's the most talented team of this group? Wake Forest. Who's the team most likely to go the furthest in the NCAA Tournament? Probably Pittsburgh. However, with the way the schedule breaks, I think Clemson is going to be the final unbeaten remaining after this weekend. Pittsburgh has a tough road game against a hot Louisville team, while Wake Forest has to play Clemson on the Tigers' homecourt. As a result, expect to see Clemson sitting by itself as the lone unbeaten come Saturday night.

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