We pre-occupy ourselves with bubble talk, because people like to speculate about who might make the NCAA tournament. Truthfully, most of those teams will be eliminated before the first weekend of action is completed. The other end of the spectrum–involving teams that are competing for the top spots in the tournament–is far more likely to be relevant to who wins the title.
The thing about No. 1 seeds is, I don’t think the reason they do better is because of draw (the difference between facing a 7 or 8, and a 3 or 4, is negligible), but rather, because they are better teams. This year, though, there is still plenty of murky water on who those teams are, as we approach the final weekend. Ten teams have at least a puncher’s chance of a No. 1 seed if they prove capable of winning a conference tournament.
Here’s a summary breakdown of the ten teams, showing their record against various levels of teams that could be in the tournament, from projected top 3 seeds, to teams that get in at the at-large cut line, to bubble teams projected to miss and appear in the NIT.
So let’s handicap the field.
Arizona and Florida should be set as a 1 seed. The other contenders simply cannot match their overall profile, even if they add a loss between now and Selection Sunday. Arizona, 4-0 against teams projected to be among the top 6 seeds, should be on track as the No. 1 overall team (not that such a thing provides any real benefit beyond telling us about team quality).
That leaves two spots for the rest of the teams.
Wichita State is in line to get the third spot, if they win the Missouri Valley tournament. (We already discussed whether Wichita State should get it). You can get into all kinds of theoretical debates that go beyond the quality of the teams. My thought: none of the other teams, at this point, have a strong traditional No. 1 profile, and Wichita State is undefeated. Thus, the evidence that they are not worthy is lacking. Kansas, for example, is 11-7 against teams likely to be in the tourney as at-larges. Wichita State is 3-0. Am I really to believe that the Shockers couldn’t have gone 8-7 if they replaced 15 games?
If they lose, then yes, that opens the door, but the Shockers have beaten everyone in front of them, most handily. They get it if they are still undefeated.
Kansas and Wisconsin are the next to discuss. Kansas is seen as the next possibility, though I believe Wisconsin actually has the better profile to date. Kansas, on the other hand, has two players who should go top five in the NBA draft, and a tough schedule. That’s why they are #1 in the RPI. Both have played very challenging schedules and have plenty of quality wins. Wisconsin is 7-2 against teams that project as top 6 seeds; Kansas 6-4. Both have similar records against other types of tourney contenders. Wisconsin does have that loss at home to Northwestern in January. It’s an interesting debate, and one that Kansas was on the opposite side just a year ago (remember the loss to TCU, but all the quality wins at the top?)
Kansas is seen as slightly in front now. I don’t think either can hold on without a tournament title. If both win, which would be a long shot given the depth of the Big Ten and Big 12, then it will be an interesting debate.
Michigan falls next in line. Right now, that 1-4 record against other top contenders will keep them out of the top spot. A run to the Big Ten tourney title, with wins over Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, though, and that comparison looks a lot more favorable. Add in a regular season and tourney title in perhaps the strongest league, and Michigan could move past the ACC teams, if Kansas also falters.
Duke, Virginia, and Syracuse are all still in contention, though to varying degrees. Duke has the best RPI and would have the clearest path if they win the ACC tournament, though I think they are still behind Wisconsin and Kansas. Virginia has been one of the hottest teams in basketball–they’ve risen all the way to #2 in Pomeroy’s ratings (they were #42 at the start of January, after a blowout loss at Tennessee). A 17-1 record in the ACC is no joke, even if they only played Duke, Syracuse, and North Carolina once each. Still, for committee purposes, they have a 4-4 record against likely tournament teams right now. Win the ACC and beat, say, North Carolina and Duke, then things may change.
Syracuse, on the other hand, has much bigger problems. They need to play better. The Orange has lost 4 of 5, and their last three wins have all come in the final possession. Nothing has been easy. If they do turn it around, and close with a quality win at Florida State and an impressive run in the ACC Tournament, they can then boast a 10-2 record against likely tournament teams. That may not be enough to overcome home losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College, but it will have them in the conversation.
Finally, Villanova is lurking in case of the doomsday scenario where someone besides Kansas wins the Big 12, Wichita State loses in the MVC tournament, Michigan and Wisconsin are both eliminated from the Big Ten, and someone like North Carolina wins the ACC. Villanova doesn’t have anything approaching a bad loss (well, by opponent, the two losses to Creighton were bad). They have beaten everyone on their schedule outside the top teams, so they are basically Wichita State against the rest of their schedule. Avenge the bad losses to Creighton, and that may minimize those. Outside chance at best, but probably solidly on the 2 seed line.