Arizona State and 3 Undefeated NCAA Basketball Teams That Are Pretenders
Going into Friday’s action, 6 NCAA teams had yet to taste defeat in 2017-18. It might not surprise you that the Duke Blue Devils top the list at 11-0, or even to see Miami off to an 8-0 start. But you probably didn’t expect Arizona State, TCU, Florida State and Mississippi State to be the only 4 other teams to go through the first few weeks of the campaign without a loss.
However, when you’re this early in the college basketball season, not all undefeated teams are created equal. In fact, these early-season records can be very misleading. It often isn’t until conference season begins that we can get an actual gauge on what many teams are truly capable of since they’ll finally be competing with their peers instead of beating up on teams that are just happy to share the same floor with them.
Just in case you were impressed enough by these unbeaten teams to be considering an NCAA championship futures wager on any of them, I present 3 “perfect” teams who I don’t feel are worth your money.
1. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-0)
Coming off consecutive losing seasons, the Sun Devils weren’t on anybody’s radar to content for an NCAA championship before the season began.
They weren’t ranked in the preseason Top 25 and coach Bobby Hurley didn’t exactly inspire thoughts of a title run when he told AZCentral Sports, “We’ve made steady progress. Not a big jump, but just moving up the charts in the league. I think the program is in good shape for continued forward movement.”
Hurley is right that Arizona State continues to make strides, carrying a 7-0 record into Friday night’s home game against St. John’s (the Sun Devils are 5-point favorites in that game to remain unbeaten). But we have to keep this perfect record and their #16 AP ranking in perspective.
After all, who have the Sun Devils beaten? Of their first 7 opponents, only 2 of those were impressive wins – beating Kansas State and Xavier on a neutral floor at the Las Vegas Invitational. K-State and Xavier are both 8-1 on the year, but Kansas State has spent most of the year beating up on teams like American, UMKC, Cal Irvine, Northern Arizona, George Washington and Oral Roberts, while Xavier has played just 1 true road game this season (granted, it was a 10-point win at Wisconsin).
Otherwise, Arizona State has fattened up on some pretty soft competition. Four of the Sun Devils’ other five wins came against San Francisco, Cal Irvine, Northern Arizona and Idaho State, and Arizona State was favored by 16 points or more in each of those games. That helps explain why the Devils are fourth in the entire nation in offense at 92.7 points per game and third in field goal percentage (53.1%).
Ultimately, I think this team’s demise is at the defensive end of the floor. Their interior D has been atrocious over the past couple of years and there have been few signs of improvement in that department despite the 7-0 start. Arizona State has allowed an average of 73.6 points per game this season, ranking 209th in the NCAA.
5Dimes still lists the Sun Devils at +25000 to win the NCAA title this year and BetOnline isn’t even offering championship futures on Arizona State yet. I don’t mean to dump all over the progress Hurley is continuing to make in the desert, but those odds (or lack thereof) should tell you all you need to know about the Sun Devils’ “contender” status in 2017-18. Stuck in the shadow of big brother Arizona (+1600 to win it all this year), USC (+2500) and even Oregon (+6600) in the Pac-12, just getting to the tournament will be an accomplishment for Arizona State.
2. Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (9-0)
I’m a big fan of TCU head coach Jamie Dixon from the work he did in Pittsburgh, so it’s nice to see the Horned Frogs off to such a great start in Dixon’s second season in Fort Worth.
Unfortunately, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, it’s time to pick apart TCU as an NCAA championship contender. (In fairness, I don’t think Dixon would try to pretend that they are, but their #20 ranking in the most recent AP poll might have you thinking differently.)
Just like Arizona State, TCU’s unbeaten record is a mirage because of the low level of competition the Frogs have faced. Opening up against Louisiana Monroe, Tennessee Tech, South Dakota, Nebraska Omaha, New Mexico, St. Bonaventure, Belmont and Yale is a nice way to build your team’s confidence, but it can’t really teach us that much about TCU’s potential. The Horned Frogs did beat rival SMU 94-83 a few days ago as 4-point chalk, but the Mustangs may have been a bit complacent coming off a rout of USC 3 days earlier.
They won the NIT championship last season and are on a nation-high 14-game winning streak dating back to last season. The Frogs look to extend that streak late Friday night in Los Angeles when they face Nevada in the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic (TCU is favored by 2 points).
I’m just not convinced (yet) that they’re deserving of the +8000 odds 5Dimes is currently giving them of winning the 2018 NCAA championship. They’re giving up a lot of points (71.6 per game, 175th in the country), and we haven’t seen yet how they react to their first taste of adversity. There’s bound to be some of it when you’re playing a tough Big 12 schedule that includes games against perennial contender Kansas (+700 to win it all at Bovada), Texas (+3300) and West Virginia (+6600).
Don’t get me wrong, Jamie Dixon (who for the record only advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 3 of his 13 years at Pitt, despite finishing second or higher in the Big East 5 times). I’m pulling for you. I just don’t think you’ve quite got the horses to live up to this current #20 ranking.
3. Miami Hurricanes (8-0)
So the Hurricanes are 8-0. Big deal. Virtually every other team in the ACC has a sparkling record as well.
Duke’s 11-0. North Carolina is 9-1. Florida State is 8-0, Virginia and Virginia Tech are both 8-1, Clemson and Syracuse are 7-1, NC State and Notre Dame are both 7-2… you get the idea. And to me, that’s one of the biggest issues with labeling #13 Miami as an NCAA championship contender. They’ve got a murderous conference season to get through first.
There are benefits to playing in a conference as tough as the ACC, for sure. I’m a believer in that you get better by playing the best, and Miami will certainly be battle-tested by the time the conference season concludes in February. But will the Canes emerge with a good enough record in conference play to earn a favorable seed in March Madness? It’s possible, but obviously far from guaranteed.
My first critique of Arizona State and TCU as contenders was the schedule they’ve played. That argument goes to a whole new level with Miami. The caliber of opposition they’ve faced early on has been so low, only 3 of their 8 games have even had betting lines attached. I guess the oddsmakers weren’t quite sure what to expect from Gardner Webb or Florida A&M, and Miami beat up on those 2 teams by a combined score of 167-104.
The Canes are already showing signs of doing that again this year, allowing the second-fewest points per game (57.1) in the country and holding opponents to just 35.3% from the field. But can Miami score the ball? That’s the more pertinent question and one that has held them back in the Larranaga era. The Hurricanes were 260th in the nation in that department last year, 103rd in 2015-16, and they’re 101st right now despite their early cupcake schedule.
Miami went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2015-16 as well as 2012-13, but it’s never advanced further in the tournament in the entire history of the program. This year’s Hurricanes are also extremely young, and there’s always the possibility that the FBI comes after Larranaga at some point this season as it continues its investigation into corruption in NCAA basketball. (Larranaga himself has told reporters that he believes he’s been targeted in the same investigation that cost Rick Pitino his job in Louisville.)
With so much that can go wrong in Miami this year and little history of everything going right, there’s nothing tempting to me about the +5000 you can get on the Hurricanes to win the NCAA championship at 5Dimes