Going Undefeated In Conference Play Is Incredibly Hard

What a difference a week makes. Just a week ago, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, the Akron Zips, and the UNC Wilmington Seahawks were undefeated in their respective conference and on the bubble for an at-large berth.

Since then, UNCW lost twice (to William & Mary and Charleston), Akron was destroyed at Ohio, and MTSU fell to a bad UTEP squad. Though the Seahawks are still tied for the lead, Akron holds a three game lead, and MTSU leads by two games, those results prove yet again that running the table in conference play is almost impossible.

Of the 32 Division I men’s basketball conferences, we are currently down to six total teams with an unblemished conference record. Power five programs currently make up zero of the undefeated, while almost power five members Cincinnati (AAC) and Gonzaga (West Coast) are the only true power programs to make it to this point undefeated. Good for them, but let’s instead focus on the true underdogs.

Vermont (21-5 overall, 11-0 America East):

How have they done it?

The Catamounts have been able to take control from the opening tip and blow out the majority of their America East brethren. Just listen to some of these scores: 90-77, 85-54, 81-67, 79-66, 67-50, 74-53. That is just a sampling of the control Vermont has over the conference this season. They have only been in two single digit games with UMBC (81-72) and Stony Brook (71-64) able to stay somewhat close.

Credit has to be given to the coaching staff and administration for scheduling a tough non-conference slate. They traveled to Providence, South Carolina, and Butler while hosting Wofford, Yale, Northeastern, Houston, and Harvard. Vermont was able to play a tough schedule that would result in a battle hardened team, but made sure to not over schedule to the point of demoralizing the team.

Where could they slip up?

With five games left in the regular season, there are only two games that could worry Catamount fans: at UMBC and home against Stony Brook. Those two teams have been the only conference foes to look capable of an upset. If it happens, expect Stony Brook to win the regular season finale on February 25.

Princeton (12-6 overall, 5-0 Ivy League):

How have they done it?

The Tigers are still perfect in Ivy League play due to playing fewer games than other conferences at this point. While Belmont and Vermont have played more than 10 conference games, the Tigers are sitting on five at this point in the season.

One thing about Ivy League basketball that differs from the rest of college basketball is the fact that they play a backloaded schedule that involves games in early March. They are able to do so since they do not play a conference tournament like the rest of the country. That makes the regular season in the Ivy League more important than any other conference’s regular season.

Princeton also plays a slower tempo that results in lots of games in the high 50s to early 60s. If they keep the game at their pace, they are very likely to win.

Where could they slip up?

While a February 17 game at Yale makes the most sense, the penultimate game of the regular season versus Harvard is my best bet. Amacker and company have struggled to live up to expectations this season, the Crimson is still capable of beating anyone in the country on any given night.

Belmont (17-4 overall, 11-0 Ohio Valley):

How have they done it?

The Bruins are having another successful season due to a Rick Byrd staple: unselfishness. The Bruins are top 25 nationally with 16.8 assists per game, including a top five national ranking from point guard Austin Luke (7.4 apg.). Belmont has a do it all player in Evan Bradds that is shooting over 62% while putting up 21.2 points per game. He is the star of the team, but six different players score 7.9 points per game or better.

Maybe I am a bit of a homer, but the Bruins have one of the best coaches that no one knows about in Rick Byrd. He has been with the Bruins since the 1986-87 season when they were a minnow in the NAIA pool. Since then, he has led Belmont to the NCAA with seven trips to the big dance and a postseason trip of some sort in 10 of the last 11 seasons.

Where could they slip up?

The way Belmont has been playing in OVC play, it is hard to imagine a setback before the conference tournament. If I were to take a stab at a possible loss, I would pick the season finale at home versus an underachieving Tennessee State squad. Belmont won by 17 in the first meeting of the year.

New Mexico State (22-2 overall, 8-0 WAC):

How have they done it?

The Aggies have been successful by attacking the boards at an impressive rate. They sport to players with 8.4 or more rebounds per game and average 39.8 rebounds per game, good for #22 in the nation. NMSU can get away with a leading scorer shooting 39.1% when they are able to corral 13 offensive rebounds per game.

The Aggies also possess an ability to play team ball, a common trait among all four teams we have mentioned. When fully healthy, the Aggies have five players averaging double digit points per game. They could be getting a boost this week as Sidy N’dir may finally get on the court for the first time since December. Getting him back in game shape heading into March could turn NMSU into a trendy pick to make waves in the Bid Dance.

Where could they slip up?

Thursday night is the best bet. The Aggies head to the Golden State for a return matchup with Cal State Bakersfield. The Roadrunners gave NMSU everything they could handle in an earlier meeting and are heading into this game as winners in seven of their last eight games. That one loss was at New Mexico State.

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