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Unblemished: Breaking down the performance of Wisconsin's unbeaten peers

The Badgers are the second-most surprising -- and impressive -- unbeaten team.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Just seven college basketball teams made it to 2014 unbeaten: Wichita State, Iowa State, Syracuse, Oregon, Ohio State, Arizona and, of course, Wisconsin. Winning more than a dozen games in a row is a great accomplishment for any team, against any schedule. But whose unblemished record is the most surprising? And whose is the most impressive?

Most surprising unbeatens: Wichita State and Wisconsin

To try to answer the first question, I analyzed the schedules of each of the Magnificent Seven using the current Pomeroy ratings (as of Jan. 1) for each team and each of their opponents. From this, we can calculate the win probability for each game, and therefore calculate the likelihood that each team would go undefeated if it played all its games again:

Wichita St. 7% at St. Louis (41%)
Wisconsin 8% at Virginia (58%)
Oregon 9% Georgetown (n) (55%)
Iowa St. 10% at BYU (59%)
Arizona 11% at Michgan (52%)
Syracuse 15% at St. John's (69%)
Ohio St. 29% at Marquette (69%)

This table shows how surprising each team's undefeated record is. Some conclusions:

  • It's no huge surprise that Ohio State is undefeated, as it has played a very easy schedule. Notably, this 29 percent figure includes the game Tuesday at Purdue, one of the Buckeyes' toughest tests so far.
  • Wichita State is the most surprising undefeated team. There are two reasons for this: The Shockers are ranked only 16th in the Pomeroy ratings, and their win at St. Louis was by far the most unlikely win of any of the unbeaten teams. Indeed, it is the only game that any of these teams has played in which they wouldn't be favored to win if it were replayed today.
  • Wisconsin's undefeated record is an unlikely and surprising accomplishment that the Badgers should be really proud of.

Most impressive unbeatens: Arizona and Wisconsin

The chart above doesn't necessarily mean that Wichita State's schedule has been the toughest, because it only shows how likely Wichita State was to go undefeated against its own schedule. If, for example, Ohio State (a better team) had played Wichita State's schedule, it would have been more likely to go undefeated against it.

So to analyze which team's unbeaten record is the most impressive, I calculated an elite team's chances of going undefeated against each schedule. I created a dummy team with adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency numbers two standard deviations above the mean (it turns out that dummy team would have about the same Pomeroy rating as Ohio State) and re-ran the numbers:

Arizona 12%
Wisconsin 14%
Syracuse 18%
Wichita State 19%
Iowa St. 25%
Ohio St. 28%
Oregon 33%

Arizona's undefeated run is the most impressive, as the Wildcats have three of the four most impressive wins: At Michigan, at San Diego State and Duke on a neutral court. Wichita State's win at St. Louis is the other.

But the Badgers are a close second, mainly on the strength of their five decent wins away from the Kohl Center. Their win at Virginia is still the fifth-most impressive win among the unbeatens, even with Virginia's recent slide.

Justified excitement for the Badgers

It's hard to compare schedules. For example, last year's non-conference schedule is rated much lower than this year's because the Badgers played so many more cupcakes last year -- but they also played at Florida, an almost unwinnable game that has no equivalent on this year's schedule.

Looking at how likely an elite team is to go undefeated against a particular schedule is a useful acid test, and it puts this year's great run in perspective. It's been surprising, impressive and a whole lot of fun to watch.