WICHITA — Phil Martelli remembers the crowds that started showing up for practices at Saint Joseph’s, bigger and bigger with every victory the Hawks put on the board.
Bruce Weber recalls going to a movie before a game at Northwestern, and his Illinois team was besieged while leaving the theater by fans seeking autographs and photos.
“It was so crazy,” Weber said this week. “It got to the point, in hotels we had to go in kitchen elevators to go up. We couldn’t go through the lobby. People would call the room and say they had room service, and they’d show up with armfuls of basketballs to sign.”
Attention, scrutiny, pressure — the price that comes with pursuing perfection.
As the season enters the homestretch, Syracuse and Wichita State — two programs with very little in common — are still unbeaten, locked in an intriguing race, not against each other, but against history. No team has entered its conference tournament unbeaten since Saint Joseph’s a decade ago, and no team has won a national championship without a loss since Indiana in 1976.
“College basketball is so deep now, and there are so many good teams, I think the road those teams are on is extraordinarily challenging,” Martelli said. “I don’t care what team you play on, though, when you’re undefeated, it becomes a different animal.”
Free time becomes non-existent, replaced by endless cycles of interviews, practices and games. It becomes a chore to walk through campus between classes. Everywhere you go, people are whispering and pointing, and those are the people with the decency to keep their distance.
So far, the ‘Cuse and the Shockers have handled it well.
While ripping off 24 straight wins, the latest a heart-stopping, last-second victory over No. 25 Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, Syracuse has managed to deflect much of the attention that comes with the best start in school history. Longtime coach Jim Boeheim has been a stabilizing force, but so have veterans such as C.J. Fair, a senior and the Orange’s leading scorer.
“You know you’re going to get everyone else’s best game. We’re going to get challenged day-in and day-out,” Fair said. “It’s not going to be an easy game for us any day.”
The Shockers know how that goes. They became the first team since Memphis in 2008 to start 26-0 by beating Southern Illinois on Tuesday night, a game they pulled out despite trailing at halftime for the ninth time this season. That means they’re off to the best start by a Missouri Valley team since 1979, when Larry Bird and Indiana State won their first 33 games.
“That’s been the theme, you know, whether we’re up, down, tied. This team just somehow finds a way,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who returned most of the key players from a Final Four run a year ago. “You’re not going to play the perfect game every time.”
You just need to play well enough to stay perfect.
The question now becomes how far each team — the big-name school in the big-time conference or the mid-major in the Missouri Valley — can go before it finally succumbs — to the pressure, to the weighty expectations, to something as simple as a lousy shooting night.
In the case of Saint Joseph’s, that didn’t happen until the Atlantic 10 tournament, when it ran into a hot-shooting Xavier. The Hawks later lost to Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament.
“Look, we were in a rare atmosphere, maybe never to get back there again, and we accommodated as many people as we could along the way,” Martelli said, “and I think the cumulative effect took its toll. We were very, very good, but we didn’t keep getting better.”
The following year, Illinois ran roughshod through its first 29 games, still the best start since UNLV won its first 34 in 1990-91. The Illini wound up losing to Ohio State in a nail-biter, bounced back to handily capture the Big Ten tournament, and then lost to North Carolina in a tense, back-and-forth national championship game.
“It was good for us to lose,” said Weber, now the coach at Kansas State. “All of a sudden, it wasn’t the talk about perfection. We could focus on what we wanted to do.”
Yes, losing can be helpful for a team with national championship aspirations.
Folks remember the Hoosiers’ undefeated championship in 1976, but tend to forget that Indiana also ran through the previous season unbeaten, losing only to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
That taught the Hoosiers how fragile a season can be.
“I didn’t think of any other thing than to win the game we had to win, which was always the next game,” said Quinn Buckner, a member of both Indiana teams. “So going undefeated was never the goal. The goal was to win the championship.”
That’s certainly the goal for Syracuse and Wichita State, too. But doing it without a defeat would be a history-making bonus, putting them in the rarest of company: Only seven times has there been an unbeaten national champion since 1939, the year of the first NCAA tournament.
Syracuse has the tougher path with seven games still to go, including road games against Duke and Virginia, before the ACC tournament. The Shockers only have five games left, just one against a team with a winning record, before starting the Missouri Valley tournament.
“At the beginning of the season, who knew?” said Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney. “But an undefeated season can’t be in your mind. It’s pretty cool, but it can’t be in your mind.”