Hello, college basketball fans!
While who gets into the NCAA tournament and who doesn't is far more important, many eyes tend to be focused on who will get the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament.
This is not insignificant.
The last four NCAA tournaments have been won by a top seeded team. Five of the last six years a No. 1 seed came out on top (the one year a non-No. 1 seed won, there were no number one seeds in the Final Four). Eight of the last 11 tournaments have been won by a top banana.
So let's figure out who is in contention for the No. 1 seeds. I think we can narrow the race to five conferences: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, and MWC. I do not see a team from any other conference getting a No. 1 seed (sorry Pacific 10, SEC and all other conferences). In these five conferences, I point to one team leading the conference and one or two teams in contention for the lead (I call these teams the "challengers").
When seeding teams for the NCAA field, I often go by the NFL rule that has teams in the same division be compared inside the division before being compared with other conference teams outside their division. So the question then is who will be the "top" team in each of these five conferences. I feel that the team I consider to be the "best" Big Ten team should not be seeded below the second best team (same with other conferences). This of course does not mean one conference could get two No. 1 seeds (one year the Big East had three teams on the top line).
When considering who is the best team in each conference's pecking order, you should consider the following:
1. Regular season and conference tournament champions. Of course if one team from a conference wins both, without a doubt they are the best in the conference. The question is if two different teams win. Obviously, if Illinois wins the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State and Purdue are still better teams. But if the second-place team wins, who gets the nod?
2. Head-to-head performance. Does one team have a clear advantage over the other? If one team beats the other two times out of three or sweeps them in two or more games, you would have to consider that team better with all other things being equal.
3. Regular season gap between teams and/or conference tournament performance. If Team A is two or more games better than Team B and Team B wins the tournament, you are less likely to consider Team B the better team. But if the lead is only one game, then Team B should come out ahead. Another consideration is the performance of the team that won the regular season. If they lose their first tournament game, that knocks them down and gives the challenger a better chance of passing the leader for "best team in-conference" if the challenger wins the conference tournament.
4. Non-conference play. I consider this to by far be the least important but with other things being equal it could be a good tie-breaker too.
So, I will examine each conference's leader and challenger(s) for each conference.
The leader: Duke (based on non-conference record over North Carolina)
The challenger: North Carolina
This is by far the most exciting race. The two meet in Chapel Hill and the winner gets sole possession of the regular season crown. Should Duke win, they will also have swept their rivals from Chapel Hill. Even if North Carolina wins the ACC Tournament and beats Duke in the final, you have to consider Duke the better ACC team when choosing No. 1 seeds.
Now if North Carolina wins, then they get the regular season by one game and the season series is split. So if Duke wins the ACC Tournament either by beating North Carolina or by the Tar Heels losing early, Duke should get the nod as the best ACC team. Likewise, if North Carolina wins both the ACC regular season and tournament, they should be considered the top dog in the ACC. I'm not sure North Carolina can get a No. 1 seed even if they win out, but if Duke loses twice in the next two weeks the Blue Devils should not be a No. 1 seed.
The leader: Pittsburgh
The challenger: Notre Dame
Pittsburgh currently holds a one-game lead and has a home game against Villanova, a team that can't buy a victory at this point. Notre Dame has a tough road game at Connecticut. It looks pretty likely Pittsburgh will win the regular season and I would imagine a two-game margin of victory is a very strong possibility.
The one thing that gives Notre Dame hope in catching Pittsburgh is that the one time the two played Notre Dame won in Pittsburgh. It's hard to argue that if Pittsburgh wins over Villanova and makes it to the final before losing to Notre Dame that the Panthers deserve a No. 1 seed. But how can you consider Pittsburgh a better team than Notre Dame if the Fighting Irish win the tournament and beat Pittsburgh twice (neither time, I remind you, at South Bend)? The two-game lead (if Notre Dame loses to UConn) might be enough to keep the Panthers ahead though.
The leader: Ohio State
The challenger: Purdue
Ohio State is up by one game. The Buckeyes host a good Wisconsin team in the finale. Purdue travels to Big Ten doormat Iowa. Should Ohio State win, they win the regular season outright, otherwise (unless Iowa stuns Purdue) it's a tie.
Purdue and Ohio State split two games this season. Should they meet in the Big Ten final would you consider Purdue for a No. 1 seed if they win? Just like Pittsburgh, of course Ohio State would have to be a No. 1 if they win out and make it to the final before losing. But if Purdue wins and makes it two of three, does Purdue deserve consideration for a No. 1 seed then?
I don't know if Wisconsin is in play here, but what if they go into Columbus on Senior Day and win, then win the Big Ten Tournament, beating both Purdue and Ohio State along the way? That's clearly a No. 2 seed and could they possibly get consideration for No. 1? I know I wouldn't want to play them.
The leader: Kansas
The challenger: Texas
For a while, it looked like Texas was the clear favorite in the conference. Now Kansas has clinched at least a tie and the way Texas is playing it could be a two-game margin in-conference (although Kansas has to go to Missouri, a tough place for the Jayhawks historically, to play on Saturday). Texas did win at Kansas this year in their only meeting and that complicates things a bit. What if Texas runs the table and wins the tournament and beats Kansas again? Should Kansas win in Columbia and make the final, of course they are a worthy No. 1 seed. But how can you seed Texas behind Kansas then? Of course, the way Texas is playing these days, this is quickly becoming a moot point.
The leader: BYU (based on head-to-head sweep over San Diego State)
The challenger: San Diego State
Both teams are at home and should be favored (BYU is playing an awful Wyoming team and San Diego State is playing Colorado State). It should end in a tie which means BYU should be considered the better team at this point. Would a win by the Aztecs in the MWC tournament erase that? The season series would still be 2-1 in favor of BYU at that point. I don't even want to touch the whole suspension thing but of course precedence has been set that when a team loses a star player late the Committee has often rated them down as a result. Clearly in the case of BYU they will have to judge the Cougars without Brandon Davies (first impression was not good). I think if they win out they will have a clear argument for a No. 1 seed. But I don't see BYU as a No. 1 seed otherwise. As for San Diego State, I'm not sure if I would rank San Diego State ahead of BYU even if they win the MWC Tournament. Two losses including a huge one in San Diego still lingers. Remember these two schools aren't just fighting for a top seed. One of these teams will get to stay in the West and one will be shipped elsewhere. I'm not sure you can keep San Diego State in the West Regional now unless they win the MWC and BYU loses early in the same tournament.
At the top of my board as of Friday, March 4 is Pittsburgh and Ohio State.
Without a doubt the Big East is the toughest conference in basketball and the sole regular season championship has to mean something in terms of No. 1 seeds: Ohio State has only lost two games, both on the road at Purdue and Wisconsin, two teams that are undefeated at home this season (Pitt lost a home game to a very good Notre Dame team). One advantage Pitt has in maintaining a No. 1 seed: if Ohio State loses their first Big Ten tournament game to likely opponents Minnesota or Northwestern they will have a hard time justifying their place on the top line. Who will Pittsburgh's first Big East game be against? Maybe West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown or some other top 30 team. Even a first-round loss won't be that bad of a loss. Unless there are a lot of teams getting hot, Pittsburgh may be able to lose their first Big East Tournament game and stay a No. 1 seed (if they beat Villanova Saturday).
Kansas is clearly behind these two. Ohio State beat Purdue this season and won at Florida. Pittsburgh has so many quality Big East wins I lost count (don't forget a win over Texas, a team Kansas lost to at home). Kansas' best wins are Arizona and Kansas State at home. In the Jayhawks' only game against a Top 10 level team, they choked at home (and that home loss to Texas looks even worse now although of course Texas was much better back then). I'm not sure Kansas can remain a No. 1 if they lose in the Big 12 tournament, especially if several of Duke, Notre Dame, Purdue, North Carolina or BYU run the table.
If I had to bracket today, I think I would have Duke as my last No. 1 seed over BYU. If both BYU and Duke win out, I would have to say Duke would be No. 1 if I had to choose between the two (Duke would have beaten North Carolina twice and maybe three if they meet in the ACC Tournament).
Right now, I think BYU has to win out to get a No. 1 seed.
As for the challengers:
If Notre Dame can run the tables in Madison Square Garden, they certainly can lay claim for a top seed (even more of an argument if they go into Storrs tomorrow and win). A Purdue Big Ten tournament crown with wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State will also help the Boilermakers stake a claim for the top line.
North Carolina would be a long shot. I still put Purdue and Notre Dame ahead of them if either or both win their conference tournament. But UNC has a chance at something Purdue and Notre Dame don't: an outright conference regular season crown. It's going to take a win over Duke and a tournament title (possibly over Duke in the final). But if it came down to North Carolina winning out and Kansas not winning out, I think North Carolina should get the last No. 1 over Kansas. Should North Carolina lose on Senior Night against Duke, they are playing for a No. 2 seed next week at best.
The two absolute long shots would have to be Texas and San Diego State. Right now Texas needs to right the ship before even considering a No. 1 seed. If Notre Dame beats Pitt, it helps Notre Dame more than it hurts Pitt. If Purdue beats Ohio State, it helps Purdue more than it hurts Ohio State. But if Texas beats Kansas, it hurts Kansas more than it helps Texas.
As for San Diego State, they haven't beaten a Top 25 RPI team and have only beaten one opponent comfortably in the field as of today (UNLV). The timing couldn't have been worse with the whole BYU mess. Even if San Diego State beats BYU in the final (a much less impressive win now), is that enough to get them a No. 1 seed? I doubt it.
So will the leaders flex their muscles and erase all doubt to their place as leaders of their conferences? Or will the contenders step up to the plate and build cases for their place as No. 1 seeds (or at least high No. 2's)? This weekend and Championship Week will decide a lot and any big college basketball fan can't wait to find out.