College Sports

How long can Virginia stay undefeated?

Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) drives against Boston College forward Garland Owens (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, in Boston.
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) drives against Boston College forward Garland Owens (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, in Boston. AP

Virginia is winning like no Virginia team has in more than 30 years, off to its best start since 1981, and yet we don’t hear that same kind of chatter about an undefeated season that has surrounded Kentucky for a while now.

Rightfully so, perhaps. Any undefeated talk sounds silly in this day in college basketball, what with all the parity – Kentucky nearly lost to Mississippi and Texas A&M, after all – and the fact that no team has finished the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976.

So there’s that – the fact that speculation about going undefeated is pretty much ridiculous nowadays.

But then there’s the other side of it. Any time a college basketball team starts the way Kentucky and Virginia have – they’re both 17-0 – the impossible fantasy of an undefeated season seems a little more, well, possible. Not that it’s remotely probable.

But let’s pose the question, anyway: How long can the Cavaliers go without losing? And is an undefeated season – the regular season, at least – within the realm of possibility?

Ken Pomeroy seems to think so. He’s the statistician behind the popular kenpom.com site, which has become a mecca for college basketball stat geeks and, really, anyone who wants to understand the game on a deeper level.

According to Pomeroy’s data, Virginia has a 21.7 percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. (Kentucky, by the way, has a 34.5 percent chance of finishing undefeated.)

Virginia, it would appear, has some things going for it. It plays Duke just once, in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers play North Carolina once, on the road. They’ve played Notre Dame, which is second in the ACC with a 5-1 record. And Virginia plays Syracuse just once, on the road.

So, to recap, Virginia plays just one time against each of the three teams directly below it in the league standings. And just once against Duke. So that’s only four games against four of the ACC’s best teams. Virginia will play that many against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, two of the league’s worst teams.

Virginia should be 19-0 after upcoming games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. And then comes its lone game against Duke, at home, on Jan. 31. That begins a challenging three-game stretch against Duke, at North Carolina and at home against Louisville.

Logic says the Cavaliers will lose at some point during those three games. And that they could lose more than one of those games. But after navigating a schedule that to this point has included Maryland, VCU, Davidson, Miami, N.C. State and Notre Dame, Virginia has already defied the odds by making it this far without a loss.

Tony Bennett, the Virginia coach, recently spoke of the “fine line” between teams nowadays – how there isn’t that separation there used to be. There’s no shortage of evidence of that.

“The days of just pure domination – forget records – are pretty much gone,” Bennett said.

Even so, his team has been better than most at dispatching the upset-minded hopes of lesser competition. Outside of the double-overtime victory at Miami, Virginia has played just one other game decided by single digits – the six-point victory at Notre Dame.

Already, the Cavaliers’ start is among the best in the ACC during the past decade. Syracuse won its first 25 games a season ago but, before that, you have to go back to 2008 to find another winning streak to start the season that equals Virginia’s.

UNC that season won its first 18 games. Duke won its first 17 games, meanwhile, in the 2005-06 season. Those three teams – 2006 Duke, 2008 UNC and 2014 Syracuse – have another thing in common aside from their memorable starts: Their seasons ended in disappointment.

Only one of those three teams reached the Final Four – UNC in 2008 – or even an NCAA tournament regional final. Syracuse, a season ago, lost six of its final nine games after that 25-0 start, and it didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

So what have the ACC’s most impressive starts in recent years taught us? Mainly, that they don’t mean much come March, when seasons can end in an instant – or after a long 40 minutes of one poor performance.

The same can be said of long winning streaks, too. Virginia began the 1980-81 season with 23 consecutive victories. If the Cavaliers can match that this season – they’d need, in succession, to beat Duke, UNC, Louisville and N.C. State on the road – then their schedule sets up nicely for them to be unbeaten entering March.

Not so fast, still

Pace of play continues to be a concern in the ACC, where only two teams – UNC and Wake Forest – are averaging at least 70 possessions per game. UNC, which is averaging 74.9 possessions per game, according to statsheet.com, entered Sunday ranked ninth nationally in that category.

The league isn’t as slow as it was last season – though Virginia, which is averaging 59.8 possessions per game, is still setting the standard when it comes to slow, deliberate offense. The Cavaliers rank 349th nationally in possessions per game.

According to kenpom.com, just two teams in the country – The Citadel and American – play more slowly than Virginia. Games have been becoming slower for a while now. But the dropoff in pace has been dramatic.

Ten years ago, according to kenpom.com, 73 teams nationally finished the season averaging at least 70 possessions per game. Now, 25 teams are on pace to finish the season with 70 possessions per game.

The ACC experimented with a 30-second shot clock in exhibition games this season but, still, the league – and college basketball as a whole – is a long ways away from reversing a trend that has made the game a lot more difficult to watch than it used to be.

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