Quick, who is the greatest college basketball team of all time? Wait, before you answer this question, what would you say would be the core elements to define your answer? Would it primarily be based upon wins? Streaks, points per game, margin of victory? Many would say that all of the above would factor into their choice. But there is one question that seems to be a no brainer — Is it imperative that this team have a national championship as part of their resume?
This season, Wichita State did what no other team in the history of Division I college basketball has done. The Shockers are the first college team in 10 years to end the regular season unblemished, and the only team in NCAA history to get to 34-0; and without hardly a scare we might add. Impressive right? Although it is a record-breaking season, it does not come without its detractors who claim that their path was not the true test that most other teams face.
The evidence against Witchita State's credentials is that it's played two-thirds of its games against fellow Missouri Valley Conference cupcakes. The conference is the 11th strongest in D-I hoops according to Sports-Reference.com.
Before you judge consider these facts:
– Wichita State’s average margin of victory was 15.9 points per game (second in the nation only to Louisville). Although playing in the Missouri Valley Conference and being ranked 99th in strength of schedule according to the RPI, only six of the 31 games played were decided by single digits.
– The Shockers are just the fifth team to make it to the Final Four the previous season and start the next season with 31 wins. Houston (1968), UCLA (1972 & 1973), and UNLV (1991) were the only other teams to accomplish this feat. All returned to the Final Four with UCLA actually winning both of their seasons.
But is undefeated enough to propel you to the top of the list? The last team to run the table in the regular season was a 2003-04 St. Joseph’s squad led by current Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson and former NBA journeyman Delonte West, who at the time were considered the nation’s best backcourt.
Despite the success of running through opponents at an unblemished 27-0, the Hawks lost in the opening round of the A-10 Tournament to Xavier. The very next season, Illinois made a similar run reaching 29-0 before losing to Ohio State in the regular season finale. They would however bounce back and advance to the National Championship game only to lose to North Carolina despite tying an NCAA record for most wins in a season with 37. A great team, but with a title that eluded them drops them into a category of “does anyone remember that one team that…”
With all of this said, I believe there is one team in the history of college basketball that defies explanation AND they did not win the national championship. The aforementioned 1990-91 UNLV Running Rebels are in my opinion, the greatest college basketball team of all-time. Call it what you will, but in all of my years of watching this game I cannot recall a more dominate squad. You can choose from more than 75 teams who have hoisted the trophy as National Champions, but I’m not sure that in a seven-game series – or even three games- any of them would be able to defeat Jerry Tarkanian’s outlaw squad. With three NBA Draft lottery picks (all in 1991) in Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony, you would be hard-pressed to find this level of talent on any team throughout history.
Check the numbers — during the 1991 season UNLV destroyed every opponent in site by an average of 26.7 points per game, which is fifth all-time. They posted a ridiculous 45-game winning streak dating back to the previous season which ended with cutting down the nets as national champions. And although playing in the relative “non-power” Big West conference, the Rebels did not hide from anyone. In 1991, their schedule included wins over 23rd-ranked Louisville, No. 4 Michigan State, and a showdown with second-ranked Arkansas in which they posted 112 points.
So why didn’t this team win the championship? In a rematch against the Duke Blue Devils, the title game opponent from the previous season, they would square off in game two of the Final Four. While Pro-Duke fans will point to a masterful plan by coach Mike Kryzewski, which included the strategy of holding Johnson and Augmon to a combined 16 points, everyone else on the planet believes that a “highly questionable” charging foul that disqualified point guard Greg Anthony is the result of a conspiracy theory that continues to haunt Duke to this day. There are even some that have conspired to believe that “the fix” was in from jump. No other team in history draws such contrived story which is my reason for believing that this team deserves their due. They may have a loss in the column, but I think their one loss is better than others perfection.
You see, undefeated is an incredible accomplishment, but the title of being undisputed is what I believe would be the case had it not been for that one “surprising” night.
Is Wichita State in this class? While you may be in the almost non-existent minority of people who believes the Shockers stack up to the Rebels, only time will reveal. While UNLV was seen as a team that cannot lose, Wichita is a team that wears the majestic mark of an undefeated squad but lacks the confidence of the people. And just like Duke in 1991, anything can happen. Right?