NCAA Tournament 2014: Breaking Down the Race for No. 1 Seeds

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

NCAA Tournament 2014: Breaking Down the Race for No. 1 Seeds

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    Does anyone want to be a No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA basketball tournament?

    With less than a week until the official 68-team field is announced, the top lines of the bracket are far from set. In most years, there is an overabundance of schools that are deserving of a No. 1 seed, and thus one or more end up getting snubbed and slotted all the way down at No. 2.

    But while two or three top spots appear to be locks (depending on your feelings about unbeaten Wichita State's resume) there is a dearth of teams that are playing at the level one would expected of a No. 1.

    That leaves us with only the conference tournaments, crapshoots that they are, to help the cream rise to the top. Or the situation could end up even muddier than before.

    With that in mind, here's how the race for No. 1 seeds sits entering the final week before the NCAA tourney.

    (NOTE: Records are through games of March 9)

The Locks

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    Arizona (28-3)

    The Wildcats won the Pac-12 Conference by three games and went perfect in the non-conference season with victories over Duke, Michigan and San Diego State, the last two in true road games.

    Arizona spent eight weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, more than any other school this season, and while it has dropped three in its last 10 games that has all come since forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the year with a foot injury.

     

    Florida (29-2)

    The current No. 1 team in the country is riding a school-record 23-game win streak, which includes being the first school to ever go 18-0 in SEC play. The Gators are clicking on all cylinders, with only seven games decided by six points or less since their last loss on Dec. 2.

    The SEC tournament is as unimportant as its ever been for Florida, which doesn't play until Friday against the winner of Missouri and Texas A&M. That game will mean far more for whoever the Gators face, as a loss won't knock them off the top line.

The Solid Bet

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    Wichita State (34-0)

    If there was a team with a 34-0 record from one of the power conferences, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Even if that team played the kind of cupcake non-conference schedule that many upper-division schools set up, entering the tournament undefeated would make that team a stone cold lock for a No. 1 seed.

    But this is Wichita State, of the Missouri Valley Conference, whom CBS Sports' Jerry Palm rates as the 11th-best conference out of 32. That rating would probably be far worse without the Shockers, who despite their perfect run have plenty of doubters that seem to forget this team is a near carbon copy of the one that reached the Final Four last year.

    While not a done deal, the only way Wichita wouldn't end up as a No. 1 seed is if two or more of the other candidates (from power conferences, mind you) look absolutely dominant in their respective postseason tournaments. But seeing as how most of these teams have been moving backwards instead of forward of late, you can start penciling the Shockers in.

The Strong Contenders

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    Duke (24-7)

    The Blue Devils are the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament, not the kind of seeding you'd expect from a team in contention for top slot in the NCAA tournament. But remember, this is Duke, so all assumptions should be checked at the door.

    Duke has six wins over the top 50 teams in the latest RPI, including four against the top 25, but it also has two losses against teams rated below 100. Winning the ACC can erase all other data, though, especially if the Devils were to beat second-seede Syracuse and regular-season champ Virginia along the way.

     

    Kansas (23-8)

    Kansas won the Big 12 for the 10th year in a row, taking the title by two games against arguably the deepest conference in Division I. But despite a very strong RPI (enhanced by a killer non-conference slate) the Jayhawks can't escape the fact they have eight losses, which is more than any other No. 1 seed has had entering the NCAA tourney.

    Kansas could rewrite history with a Big 12 tourney title, which depending on who it faces along the way could bump its win total against top-50 RPI teams from 12 to 15. The Jayhawks aren't the favorites to get that fourth No. 1 seed, but they're also not a long shot.

     

    Michigan (23-7)

    The Big Ten has had a No. 1 seed in each of the previous three tourneys, but that streak is in doubt with how much uncertainty there's been in the league this season. All of the top teams lost at least once at home, but somehow the Wolverines managed to finish with a 15-3 mark to take the regular season title by two games.

    Michigan lost four times in its first 10 games, but the selection committee is usually much more interested in what a team is doing now instead of then. The Wolverines are on a six-game win streak, and with a Big Ten tourney championship would be a solid candidate for a No. 1 seed if no other contender separates itself from the field.

     

    Villanova (28-3)

    The Wildcats appear to be the biggest winner in the disbanding of the old Big East, winning the new version by two games over Creighton (despite losing twice to the Blue Jays, and badly in both instances). Villanova's only other loss came at Syracuse in late December, back when the Orange was at its best.

    Villanova moved up to No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll, and looks like the front runner for that last top seed. But to hold on to that spot it will need to win the Big East tournament, which very likely means having to knock off Creighton in Saturday's title game at Madison Square Garden.

     

     

The Long Shots

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    Louisville (26-5)

    The defending national champions have the same record they had entering their conference tournament last season, with two major differences: in 2013 that tourney was the Big East, not the spinoff American Athletic Conference, and the Cardinals already had plenty of quality victories under their belt.

    This season, Louisville is 6-5 against teams in the top 50 of the latest RPI and 20-0 against everyone else. It's 3-5 against teams that were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the time of the game, but that does include victories at Cincinnati and SMU in the last three weeks.

    If the Cardinals were to win the AAC tournament as the No. 2 seed (only after losing a coin flip, of all things, to regular-season co-champion Cincinnati) and others falter this week, the title defense could start from the No. 1 line.

     

    Syracuse (27-4)

    Three weeks ago it would have been grounds for a psychiatric exam to say Syracuse wasn't going to be a No. 1 seed. The Orange were 25-0 and even with a loss looked like a shoo-in for the top overall seed.

    Then that loss came, but to lowly Boston College of all teams, and at home. That was followed by a "good" loss at Duke, then after a narrow victory at Maryland came two more losses. The first was at Virginia, which put Syracuse's chances of getting a No. 1 seed in serious risk, but the next one at home to Georgia Tech pretty much sealed the deal.

    But Syracuse does have street cred, with a 6-2 mark against RPI top 50 teams, and if it can right the ship by knocking off the likes of Duke and either North Carolina or (preferably) Virginia en route to an ACC tourney title, a No. 1 seed might still be in play.

     

    Virginia (25-6)

    The ACC regular season champion went 16-2 in the league and won 13 straight before falling Sunday at Maryland. That loss put a little tarnish on a Cavaliers team whose conference performance was helping to mask a non-conference showing that included scoring 38 points in a loss to Wisconsin, falling at mid-major Green Bay and getting blown out at bubble team Tennessee.

    Similar to how SEC football principals believe there's some sort of automatic bid to the national championship game for its best team, so too do the ACC basketball people seem to feel it should be guaranteed a No. 1 seed. But that didn't happen in 2013, and it will only happen for Virginia if it wins the conference tourney and gets a lot of help elsewhere.

     

    Wisconsin (25-6)

    The Badgers started the year 16-0 before losing five of six in a 19-day stretch, but then eight straight wins (including at Big Ten regular season champ Michigan) had Bo Ryan's squad looking like a solid choice for a No. 1 seed.

    Then Wisconsin lost at Nebraska in its finale on Sunday, giving it six conference losses and all but eliminating itself from top-seed consideration. Stranger things have happened, and the Big Ten's history of getting No. 1 seeds could work in the Badgers' favor if they run the table in the conference tourney.

Prediction

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    East No. 1: Villanova

     

    Midwest No. 1: Wichita State

     

    South No. 1: Florida (top overall seed)

     

    West No. 1: Arizona