Commentary

Undefeated seasons are rarely achieved

Originally Published: January 4, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

John Calipari was about to adjourn the first meeting of the 1995-96 basketball season when Tyrone Weeks asked to be heard.

Calipari had just asked his Massachusetts basketball team to set some team goals. A year earlier, the Minutemen had rolled to the Elite Eight but they had lost a lot, graduating Lou Roe and Derek Kellogg from their lineup. So when Edgar Padilla said he thought UMass should strive to win a national championship, Calipari smiled. It was an impossible long shot, he knew, but he liked the sentiment. The kid was aiming high and there was something to be said about big dreams.

Jerry Tarkanian
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJerry Tarkanian's 1991 UNLV team was undefeated until it ran into Duke in the Final Four.
Figuring not much more could top that goal, Calipari called for the huddle.

And then Weeks chimed in, "Let's go undefeated. Let's win them all."

"I looked at this kid thinking, what is in his head?" Calipari remembered. "Our first game was against Kentucky in Detroit. I didn't think we were going to win the first game. We left the meeting and I said to my staff, 'That SOB just ruined my whole meeting.'"

Twenty-six games later, Calipari changed his thinking. UMass rolled all the way to Feb. 24 before losing to George Washington, becoming the first of two teams Calipari would coach to 26-0.

He remains the only coach to have two schools toy with perfection so deep into the season, but it isn't enough. A year after leading Memphis to Feb. 23 before losing to Tennessee, Calipari unabashedly admits he wants more.

"Before I retire, I want to coach an undefeated team," he said. "Why? Simple. Because nobody can do it."

As of today, four coaches still have a chance to beat Calipari to the punch, but Roy Williams isn't one of them. His North Carolina Tar Heels, the prohibitive favorite to win the national championship and in the eyes of many loaded with enough talent to get there without a blemish, dropped a stunning home loss to Boston College on Sunday night.

Lest anyone feel like the Carolina blue sky is falling, the Tar Heels are in good company. Thirty-two years ago, Indiana went wire-to-wire without a loss. Since then, a number of teams have pushed the calendar to its limit, but none have heard the final notes of "One Shining Moment" without at least one disappointing loss.

Sitting in his West Coast living room, the man who got the closest in recent memory sat in disbelief as the Heels went down. Jerry Tarkanian told friends he thought Carolina had the stuff to go undefeated, thinking that aside from Duke and Connecticut, no one could give the Heels a run.

But Tarkanian tempered his expectations with his own realities. In 1991, his UNLV Runnin' Rebels came off a national championship year and started right back at No. 1 in the country. They'd stay there all season, leading the nation in scoring margin by beating teams by an average of 26.7 points per game. The Rebs disposed of second-ranked Arkansas 112-105, zipped through their conference 18-0 and entered the NCAA tourney unblemished.

It's really difficult to go undefeated. In the regular season, you know whoever you get is giving you their best effort and then when you get to the NCAAs, all the focus is on you. We never talked about it. Never. But everyone else did.

-- Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian

UNLV won its first four tourney games by an average of 17.7 points before meeting Duke in the semifinals. Just a year earlier, the Runnin' Rebels obliterated the Blue Devils in the national championship game, 103-73.

Duke, of course, won by two.

"It's really difficult to go undefeated," Tarkanian said. "In the regular season, you know whoever you get is giving you their best effort and then when you get to the NCAAs, all the focus is on you. We never talked about it. Never. But everyone else did."

To Phil Martelli, that was the hardest part. His Hawks were more than just an undefeated team. They were the little engine that could, the tiny Catholic school with the equally diminutive point guard, Jameer Nelson, doing the impossible. In a city starved for a champion, St. Joe's fever engulfed Philadelphia as soon as the Eagles lost to the Carolina Panthers in the NFL playoffs.

Martelli embraced the attention, never once closing his practice to the media. He and his players tried to keep things business as usual, but as the calendar pages flipped, the elephant in the room wore fire-engine-red lipstick, neon-green sneakers and a pink tutu.

Players and coaches may treat a perfect season like a pitcher treats a no-hitter, but unlike the pitcher, who has the luxury of solitude during his push to perfection, basketball players have a four-month circus of media attention, campus fervor and incessant questions.

"I remember someone asked me if I had thought about going undefeated," Martelli said. "I thought, 'How do I answer that?' If I say I hadn't thought about it I'd be lying because the person just asked me about it. It absolutely wears on you."

In 2004-05, Illinois went 29-0 before losing its last game of the regular season to Ohio State. In 2003-04, Stanford started 26-0 and Saint Joseph's 27-0. The Cardinal lost to Washington in the regular-season finale and the Hawks finally dropped one in the Atlantic 10 Tournament to Xavier.

In 1999-2000, Syracuse climbed to 19-0 a year after Connecticut got off to a similar start. Both dropped Game No. 20. In 1997-98, Bill Guthridge, in his first season at Carolina after taking over for Dean Smith, went 17-0 until losing at Maryland in February.

To the naysayers hanging at the watercooler remarking that North Carolina is overrated, here's the common thread among the above teams: the loss didn't stop the winning. With the exception of Stanford, which lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, every team made it to the Sweet 16 or better, two (Illinois and Connecticut) went to the title game, and one (UConn) won the championship.

"Carolina will show you how good they are," Tarkanian said. "I'd hate to be the next team that plays them."

Here's to you, Charleston.

There is nothing, of course, like winning to bring out the critics. You can win, but did you win by enough? You can win, but who did you beat? Both Martelli and Calipari were dogged by questions about their undefeated runs because they played in the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA, respectively.

But both argue that when you walk into a run with a loss-less bull's-eye on your back and an opponent so manically focused on beating the best that it rarely makes a mistake, it doesn't matter who the opponent is.

"You might as well not watch tape," Calipari said. "You start watching the game and guys who never make free throws make every free throw. The team you watched on the tape isn't the one you're playing. We played UTEP and this guy hit three 3s. Afterward I said to [UTEP coach] Tony Barbee, 'Who the hell is that guy?' He told me that he had never made a 3 before that night and he hits three."

Martelli flipped over to the Carolina game after his beloved Philadelphia Eagles secured their playoff victory over Minnesota. He said he was surprised by the UNC score, but when his wife, Judy, walked in, she chuckled.

"She said, 'They're kids,'" Martelli said.

You can tell them 400 times to not take an opponent lightly, but kids know which teams are good and which teams just aren't. They lose focus and suddenly what they thought would be a blowout game is a close game and the gym starts to shrink, the pressure starts to swell and the basket starts looking like a doughnut hole.

Recognizing how much weight the albatross of expectation gains as the season wears on, Calipari last year decided to hug the elephant. At the beginning of each season, he writes his team a letter. In his letter a year ago, he never suggested Memphis aim to be undefeated, but he did say if they were interested in trying to win every game, there was only one way to do it.

"You have to embrace it," he said. "In '96, I was so mad that Tyrone brought up the idea of undefeated, but then we won all those games. Those kids were listening."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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