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41 days ‘til opening day: The teams with the most realistic shot at perfection

NCAA Basketball: Bucknell at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Sept. 30 and we’re just 41 days from opening day.

41 years ago, Indiana entered the championship game against Michigan undefeated. The Hoosiers won, and since then no other team has blitzed through an entire season without a loss.

Gonzaga nearly pulled the trick a year ago, losing on the final day of the regular season at BYU, and then of course losing on the final day of the NCAA Tournament to North Carolina. That should be a reminder of the unicorn that is the undefeated season. What is less rare — but still impressive — is the undefeated conference season.

Vermont did just that last year, going 16-0 in the America East before winning the conference tournament. So with a more realistic idea of 41-year old perfection, which teams have the best shot to see a happy zero attached to their league record in 2017-18?

The two most likely contenders are in the Eastern half of the country.

Vermont returns much of last year’s core, including AE Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes and AE Rookie of the Year Anthony Lamb. Games against Albany and its potent offense will be tough, and New Hamphshire’s Taylor Leissner will be a handful. But the Catamounts are the heavy favorite and this group has proven it can run the table. Can they do it again? It might not be probable, but it’s possible.

The Patriot League didn’t see similar perfection last season, but Bucknell dominated it nonetheless, with a 15-3 record and league tournament title. The Bison return one the best mid-major frontcourt duos in Nana Foulland (15.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and Zach Thomas (15.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG), as well as the other three starters. Will the league’s most efficient offense and defense roll through it unscathed? Lehigh loses a lot (Tim Kempton, especially), but BU and Navy should make perfection a longshot.

Florida Gulf Coast deserves mention since the Eagles, who went 12-2 in the ASUN last year, are loaded. The two games against Lipscomb, especially Jan. 18 in Nashville, are tough since the Bisons are experienced and have two all-league talents in guard Garrison Matthews and forward Rob Mayberry. And even without Dallas Moore, North Florida should present a challenge.

Cursory glances should be given to Belmont, which went 17-1 in OVC play a year ago, and Texas Southern, which has been a SWAC behemoth under Mike Davis. Both should be good again next season, but lose the players of the year in their respective conferences in friend-of-the-site Evan Bradds (graduation) and Zach Lofton (transfer to New Mexico State).

And then there’s Saint Mary’s.

Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and the Gaels will be very, very good. Second weekend of the NCAA Tournament good. They should be favored in every one of their non-conference games, as they won’t leave the state of California.

The toughest games in that stretch should be Harvard (neutral), Saint Joe’s (neutral, if it happens in the Wooden Legacy), rebuilding Cal (away) and Dayton (home), which lost a high-impact senior class, as well as Archie Miller. The early tilt with a talented and big New Mexico State won’t be easy either.

Can they win them all? There’s a decent chance. Can they win all of their conference games too? While it’s tempting to say, “sure,” betting on that in a league with Gonzaga, even with some unproven pieces, would be foolish. But if you insist on the idea of pure 1976-level perfection living in the back of your mind, Saint Mary’s is your team.