By BEN COHEN
It doesn't take multivariable calculus to understand that winning every game in any sport is really, really hard. The last Super Bowl champion without a loss was the 1972 Miami Dolphins. In other pro leagues, the feat is virtually impossible. Even the robotics program Nick Saban disguises as Alabama's football team lost en route to each of its last two BCS titles.
But the holiest grail in sports is an undefeated season in college basketball. And what makes it so is that the game itself, now more than ever, conspires against perfection.
It has been 37 years since Indiana became Division I's last undefeated team and 21 years since UNLV took a perfect record into the NCAA tournament. Out of 347 teams, only No. 1-ranked Duke, No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Arizona and unranked Wyoming remain perfect—and they barely have hit the road. Duke visits dangerous North Carolina State on Saturday; Michigan is at rival Ohio State on Sunday.
Perfection is a cruel business in college basketball because it seems just attainable enough that some haven't stopped chasing it. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recently said his 2011 team starring Kyrie Irving, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, could have "maybe run the table" before Irving suffered a toe injury in December. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said the Orange had a "legitimate shot" at it last season until "circumstances interfered" in the form of player suspensions.
John Calipari wasn't as subtle. As soon he won his first national championship last season, the Kentucky coach announced he had already set his sights on a new goal. "I would like to coach an undefeated team before I'm done with this," he said.
Most teams are more realistic. At a preseason dinner with season-ticket holders, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey delivered some bad news to his most loyal fans. "By the way," he said, "we ain't going undefeated." Notre Dame, now ranked 17th, lost their third game of the season.
Just seven teams in college-basketball history won the NCAA tournament without losing a game along the way. Bill Russell did it with San Francisco in 1956. North Carolina beat Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas for an unbeaten season in 1957. Under coach John Wooden, UCLA did it four times between 1964 and 1973.
Why hasn't it been done since Indiana in 1976? There are several culprits, the clearest of which is the three-point shot. No team has gone undefeated since its introduction to college basketball in the 1987 season, and of the 10 longest winning streaks of all time, none are from the last 20 years. The three-pointer is the sport's great equalizer, enabling upsets when underdogs get hot and making it harder for favorites to protect leads.
But the three-pointer isn't the only rules change working against wannabe unbeatens. The 1986 season brought the shot clock, which prevented superior teams from playing stall ball. The reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 created more parity between the sport's blue bloods and arrivistes. The season is also longer now, meaning there are more opportunities to lose. UCLA's undefeated teams won 30 games. The magic number for Duke and Michigan this season is 40.
The lure of the NBA hasn't helped, either. Until 1971, players weren't permitted to declare early for the NBA draft. In 2006, the NBA required players to be at least 19 and a year removed from high school before they could be eligible for the draft. The result is that the best recruits often enroll in college for just one season. "College basketball has become like a pond that has been systematically overfished," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "We restock it every year with freshmen, but the overall quality of the game is in large measure determined by the quality of the freshman class."
The problem is that coaches believe it takes old guys to go undefeated. Bob Knight's team in 1976, for example, started four seniors and one junior. "I'd be shocked if someone would keep enough veterans together," Boeheim said.
Then there's the Wyoming conundrum. The Cowboys' three top scorers are seniors, but to go undefeated they eventually will have to compete against the kings of college basketball, who annually land recruits who are well out of Wyoming's league. "We've got some pretty good guys who play a pretty good brand of basketball," Cowboys coach Larry Shyatt said. "But I'd consider us more in the category of the have-nots than the haves."
A handful of teams over the last decade nearly tasted perfection. In 2004, St. Joseph's had its unblemished record ruined in its conference tournament. The next year, Illinois's first loss came on a last-second three-pointer by Ohio State in the Fighting Illini's final regular-season game. In 2008, Memphis—then coached by Calipari—made it 26 games, the longest streak of the last seven seasons.
Yet another complicating factor has come along since then: social media. Four decades ago at Indiana, Knight built a "cocoon" that insulated his players from national media attention, said Quinn Buckner, a former Knight player turned broadcaster. Now, he added, the pressure builds every time a player watches television or checks Twitter. "Unless they take your mobile device," he said, "the things that are being said about you and your team cannot be kept from you."
This season, of the four unbeaten teams, No. 1 Duke is the best bet to remain so. It's also a lousy bet: The Blue Devils have about a 9% chance of making it through the regular season undefeated, according to basketball stats site kenpom.com. Krzyzewski certainly isn't banking on it. For a team to go undefeated, he said, it needs mega-talented players who can win on off nights. "I don't think that's our team this year," he said.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org