And then there were four.
Over the past month, you’ve probably seen either the maps, Ken Pomeroy’s undefeated tweets or watched as the field of all 353 undefeated college basketball teams has whittled down to 16. Amazingly, only four of them — Delaware, Duquesne, Liberty and San Diego State — are outside of the Power-5/American/Big East conferences.
While all four undefeated mid-majors are in the same group, these four teams took fairly different paths to surviving the first month of the season unscathed. Some scheduled poorly, and beat the teams they were supposed to. Others knocked off some Power-5 opponents. And a couple were not expected to get this far, but they’ve won their games nonetheless. Predictably, not all undefeated teams are created equal.
Here is a look at the final four undefeated mid-major teams, how they got here and how long they should stay undefeated — ranked from most to least legitimate.
San Diego State (9-0, 1-0 MWC)
Notable wins: Iowa (neutral site), Creighton (neutral site), at BYU, at Colorado State
Why they’re unbeaten: In case you’ve missed the past week or so of basketball, San Diego State is really good. Like, top 25 in KenPom good. Or probably-going-to-be-nationally-ranked-next-week good. Stud transfer Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell and Matt Mitchell are going to shoot this team into the NCAA Tournament; they’ve already laid the groundwork for an at-large resume.
For those who put stock in advanced statistics and rankings, the Aztecs check all of the boxes, as our own Tristan Jung wrote about on Dec. 5. Don’t just take his word for it. Take it away, at Aztec MBB:
With an 8-0 start, and the Las Vegas Invitational title in hand, here are some national metrics to chew on. SDSU is 3rd strength of Record, 9th Sagarin Ratings, 27th BPI & 39th KenPom. We’re back home on 12/8...GET YOUR TICKETS NOW! #GoAztecs— Aztec M. Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) November 30, 2019
Right now, Bart Torvik’s Tourneycast has the Aztecs as a 4-seed with a 99.9% chance at making the NCAA Tournament. For a program that needed a miracle run in the Mountain West Tournament to make the Big Dance, then fell short in the championship game the next year, these odds are a welcome sight.
Speaking of odds: KenPom gives the Aztecs a 0.9% chance of bringing an unbeaten record into the NCAA Tournament. That might not seem like much, but that’s the highest of any team in the nation.
Potential first loss: at Utah State, Jan. 4
Notable wins: Indiana State (neutral site), Lipscomb
Why they’re unbeaten: Duquesne has some dudes. Sincere Carry hasn’t missed a beat since earning Atlantic 10 All-Freshman honors. He’s averaging more points (13.0) than he did last season while drastically improving his shooting from 43.4% from the field to 52%. He’s also a better shooter from three (from 31.5% to 45.5%) albeit on a 10-22 sample size. Throw in Utah Valley grad transfer Baylee Steele (11.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Marcus Weathers, and the Dukes appear to be a fairly balanced team.
Duquesne is also holding opponents to shooting 25% from three — good for sixth in the nation. The problem? These numbers have come against some bad teams (or at least teams with bad offenses). And on a more alarming note, Duquesne has either trailed or has been tied at halftime in four of their seven games. But on the other hand, they’ve still won all seven games.
KenPom gives the Dukes at least a 60% chance of winning their next seven games. If things break right, Duquesne could be 18-0 when they travel to Rhode Island on Jan. 22. Let that sink in: In an Atlantic 10 season that was expected to be deeper than ever, Duquesne — not Dayton, VCU, Davidson et. al — is the one with an undefeated record.
Potential first loss: vs. Saint Louis, Jan. 2
Notable wins: Radford (?)
Why they’re unbeaten: No matter how you slice it, Liberty’s non-conference schedule up until now has been atrocious. Two of Liberty’s 10 wins have been against non-Division I teams. Four more have been against sub-250 KenPom teams. All told, Liberty’s wins have come against teams that have a combined 16-45 record against Division I competition.
That leaves four wins. Liberty’s six-point home win over Big South power Radford — a 22-win team a season ago that missed the postseason — sounds nice, but the Highlanders have gone 2-3 against D1 competition since. East Carolina would be the sixth-best team in the ASUN. UMKC has a new coach and 11 new players. This leaves Rice, a decent Conference USA team the Flames dispatched in the Island of the Bahamas Showcase, a tournament Liberty had no business losing.
The long and the short of it is: Of course, Liberty is undefeated because anything less than that would be a disappointment.
It’s possible none of these wins will carry any weight in March. This is a team that put together a bad non-conference schedule and instead put all of its eggs in one basket — in this case, winning the ASUN Tournament again — which on the heels last year’s NCAA Tournament win seems a bit anticlimactic. Perhaps high-major coaches didn’t want to go out and schedule Liberty because there’d be nothing to gain and everything to lose. Perhaps Ritchie McKay hasn’t been an aggressive scheduler over the past three seasons (spoiler alert: he hasn’t). Who knows.
But at the same time, it’s difficult to get a read on how good this team actually is. Scottie James is beating up NCCAA big men, as he should. Darius McGhee has improved his three-point shooting against some of the nation’s worst three-point defenses, as he should. Richie McKay’s defense looks elite, as it should. For all we know, Liberty could have some pretty glaring flaws that its competition hasn’t revealed yet. How does that Bible verse about trials building character go again?
On the other hand, Liberty has won the games it was supposed to win, which counts for something given how tumultuous the 2019-20 season has been. As strange as it sounds, the Flames will get their first test against a sub-.500 Grand Canyon team in Phoenix this weekend, but even that win might not mean much. After that, Vanderbilt and LSU await. Maybe then the Flames will have legitimate competition.
Potential first loss: at LSU, Dec. 29
Notable wins: None
Why they’re unbeaten: See above. Delaware’s best win has been against either Oakland on a neutral floor, a home win against Columbia or against a 6-3 Stony Brook team that lost its head coach and star player from last season.
Our own Nick Lorensen already wrote about the Blue Hens and outlined a path for them to be a contender in the wide-open CAA, which looks gradually more plausible because of Nate Darling. For now, Delaware needs to do is win the next game so they’re ranked by the time they play Villanova.
Potential first loss: vs. Villanova, Dec. 14