How Do Undefeated Teams Do in March Madness?

march madness upset picks

The Gonzaga Bulldogs wrapped up February 2021 and the 2020-21 WCC regular season with their 25th straight win. They then went straight to the West Coast Conference Tournament semis, where they blew out Saint Mary’s for win #26. After getting “punched in the face” in the first half of the WCC final against BYU, they roared back to win by double digits.

The Bulldogs are the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, the #1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament and the country’s only currently undefeated NCAA men’s basketball team.

Does that take the madness out of this March and make the Bulldogs a shoo-in to polish off a perfect season with six straight wins and an NCAA title? Far from it. Four other teams have gone into the NCAA Tournament undefeated since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. None of them managed to stay that way.

So, before you slot Gonzaga in as 2021 NCAA Tournament Champions in your March Madness bracket contest, here’s what happened to those other undefeated DI men’s college basketball teams below.

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2015 Kentucky Wildcats: 31-0 to 39-1

Gonzaga is the first team to finish the NCAA basketball regular season undefeated since the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats.

March Madness themed basketballThe John Calipari-coached Wildcats dominated the 2014–15 college basketball season and finished the regular season at 31–0. The team was stacked with players that would eventually become professionals, including current NBA stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker and NBA role players Trey Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Tyler Ulis and the twins, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, had pit stops in the NBA before going on to play pro ball in Europe.

Kentucky had a bye to the quarterfinals in the 2015 SEC Tournament and they beat Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas to win it. They put the Wildcats at 34-0 heading into the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky made it all the way to the National Championship game in 2014 before a six-point loss to the Shabazz Napier-led, No. 7 seed UConn Huskies. Add that to the undefeated record, and expectations were through the roof for 2015.

The 34-0 Wildcats

The Wildcats entered the 2015 NCAA Tournament as the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed. Hampton beat Manhattan in a First Four game and was forced to play Kentucky in the First Round. Kentucky won by 23.

Then, the Wildcats struggled shooting the ball but still beat Cincinnati by 13 to move onto the Sweet 16. The Midwest Regional Semifinals was a No. 1 vs. No. 5 matchup with Kentucky taking on West Virginia. The Wildcats destroyed the Mountaineers from the opening tip. They ultimately held them under 25% shooting to post a 39-point win in a game where West Virginia only scored 39 points total.

The Midwest Regional Finals was a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup with Kentucky taking on Notre Dame. This game was an instant classic with Kentucky winning 68-66 when Aaron Harrison hit two clutch free throws late and the Fighting Irish had no answer, putting the Wildcats in the Final Four.

2015 Final Four

Kentucky was matched up with the West Region’s top seed, Wisconsin, in the National Semifinal. The Wildcats trailed by as much as nine points in the first half and eight in the second. However, they shut down the Badgers and took a four-point lead into the final five minutes of the game.

Suddenly, Wisconsin went on an 8-0 run and ultimately beat the Wildcats 71-64, ending Kentucky’s hopes for a perfect season. Wisconsin went on to lose the National Championship game to Duke.

2014 Wichita State Shockers 31-0 to 35-1

A year before the Kentucky Wildcats entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated, the Wichita State Shockers did it.

The Missouri Valley Conference is hardly the SEC, but Wichita State dominated its 2014–15 regular season nonetheless, finishing 18-0 in the conference and 31–0 overall.

The team was led by Naismith College Player of the Year finalist Fred VanVleet, who would go on to help the Toronto Raptors win its first NBA title in 2019 as an undrafted free agent, and Oscar Robertson Award and John R. Wooden Award finalist Cleanthony Early.

Wichita State rolled through the Missouri Valley Tournament winning 80–58 over Evansville in the quarterfinals, 67–42 over Missouri State in the semifinals, and 83–69 over No. 2 Indiana State in the finals.

The Shockers were 34-0 heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament and the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed. Wichita State handled Cal Poly with ease in the First Round, posting a 27-point win over the No. 16 seed.

However, the Shockers somewhat ironically lost to Kentucky in the Second Round. They ultimately ended their season with a 35-1 record when VanVleet shot a three for the win in the dying seconds of the game, but missed, allowing No. 8 Kentucky to win by a bucket. Kentucky went on to make the National Championship game and lose to the UConn Huskies.

2004 Saint Joseph’s Hawks: 27-0 to 27-1 to 30-2

The 2004 Saint Joseph’s Hawks finished the NCAA college basketball regular season undefeated but didn’t exactly get to the NCAA Tournament with that undefeated record intact. The Hawks finished 16-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference and 27–0 overall.

The team was led by a couple of players that went on to make names for themselves in the NBA, including Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. Saint Joseph’s finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country and received a bye to the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, where disappointment soon followed.

Xavier beat Saint Joseph’s by 20 in that quarterfinals game, the worst loss for a top-ranked team against an unranked team in NCAA basketball history. Xavier went on to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament and get into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. Saint Joseph’s entered the 2004 NCAA Tournament with that one blemish on its record as the No. 1 seed in the East Rutherford Regional.

The Hawks beat No. 16 Liberty by 19 in the First Round and No. 8 Texas Tech by five in the Second Round. They also beat No. 4 Wake Forest by four in the Sweet 16, but met their match against No. 2 Oklahoma State in the Regional Final.

John Lucas hit a 3-pointer for Oklahoma State with 6.9 seconds left and Nelson missed a buzzer-beater for Saint Joseph’s. Oklahoma State won by two, handing Saint Joseph’s just their second loss of the season.

1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels: 30-0 to 34-1

March Madness blocked shotThe 1990–91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were the defending national champions. The Jerry Tarkanian-coached team went 18-0 in the Big West Conference and 27-0 overall in the regular season. The Runnin’ Rebels were almost like a college basketball all-star team with a host of players that ultimately went pro, including eventual NBA stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony.

UNLV was the No. 1 ranked team in the country all year long and that continued as they demolished the competition in the Big West Tournament, beating Long Beach State by 20 in the quarterfinal, UC Santa Barbara by 29 in the semifinal, and Fresno State by 24 in the final to win the Big West Tournament Championship. UNLV rolled into the 1991 NCAA Tournament boasting a 30-0 record as the West Regional’s No. 1 seed.

The Runnin’ Rebels beat No. 16 Montana by 34 in the First Round. No. 8 Georgetown was closer in the Second Round, but UNLV still beat them by eight. Then, UNLV handled No. 4 Utah easily in the Sweet 16, winning by 17. The Regional Finals were also a bit of a cakewalk, as UNLV won over No. 3 Seton Hall by 12 and rolled into the Final Four still the favorite to repeat as National Champions and finish the perfect season.

Blue Devils and Runnin’ Rebels

Finally, in an instant-classic National Semifinals game that had 17 ties and 25 lead changes, Duke beat UNLV by a bucket, or a pair of free throws to be exact. Duke’s Christian Laettner hit those two foul shots late and Anderson Hunt missed a three-pointer at the buzzer to give Duke the win and a measure of revenge for its 30-point loss in the National Championship game against UNLV a year before.

UNLV finished with a 34–1 record having just missed a shot at immortality and a perfect season. Duke went on to win the National Championship.

NCAA basketball teams with a perfect season

Of course, it’s also worth noting that several teams have completed a perfect season, winning every regular season and tournament game they played. However, they all did it before the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The list of eight teams that have put together a perfect season since college basketball started hosting postseason tournaments in 1938 is:

  • 1939 LIU Blackbirds (24–0, NIT champion)
  • 1956 San Francisco Dons (29–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels (32–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1964 UCLA Bruins (30–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1967 UCLA Bruins (30–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1972 UCLA Bruins (30–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1973 UCLA Bruins (30–0, NCAA champion)
  • 1976 Indiana Hoosiers (32–0, NCAA champion)

If the Gonzaga Bulldogs do go on to stay undefeated and win the NCAA Tournament, they won’t be the first to accomplish such a feat. However, they would be the first in the modern era, the first in a field of 64+ teams, and the first since 1976. Plus, they would be the only one of five teams in the modern era who finished the regular season undefeated to go on to win the National Championship, or even make it as far as the National Championship Game.

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