Handicapping the Race for the No. 1 Seeds in the 2021 NCAA Men's Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 5, 2021

Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs
Gonzaga's Jalen SuggsYoung Kwak/Associated Press

With just a little more than a week remaining until the selection show for the 2021 NCAA men's college basketball tournament, the No. 1 seeds picture is coming more into focus by the hour.

It might not seem like much, but the difference between a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed is massive.

For starters, there have been eight No. 15-over-No. 2 first-round upsets compared to just the one No. 16 UMBC over No. 1 Virginia shocker. Dating back to 1999, more than twice as many No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four (33) than No. 2 seeds (16). And when it comes to winning the whole shebang, 14 No. 1 seeds have cut down the nets compared to only two No. 2 seeds in the past 21 years.

There are still quite a few variables between now and next Sunday, though, so which projected No. 1 seeds are safest? And which teams not currently on the No. 1 line have a reasonable path to get there?

For every team with any realistic hope, we've set their chances of securing a No. 1 seed.

Teams are presented in decreasing order of certainty to land a spot on the top line.


Gonzaga Bulldogs (99.8 percent)

Gonzaga is the only remaining undefeated team (24-0) in men's college basketball. And while the West Coast Conference isn't anything special, Gonzaga also scored neutral-site victories over West Virginia, Iowa, Kansas and Virginia within its first seven games of the season. As far as the Bracket Matrix is concerned, that's two No. 2 seeds, a No. 3 seed and a No. 5 seed.

If the Zags are able to win the WCC tournamentwhich only requires two wins, as they have a bye into the semifinalsnot only are they a lock for a No. 1 seed, but they would be a lock for the No. 1 overall seed. Even if they were to lose to Saint Mary's or Loyola Marymount in the WCC semifinals, it's hard to imagine they'll drop all the way to No. 5 on the overall seed list.

The only feasible "nightmare" scenario would be an immediate Gonzaga loss, followed by West Virginia beating Baylor in the Big 12 championship and Michigan losing to one of Ohio State, Illinois or Iowa in the Big Ten championship. In that situation, maybe the four teams playing in the Big 12 and Big Ten title games could bypass Gonzaga. However, I don't even think that would be enough do it.


Baylor Bears (98.0 percent)

Baylor's Jared Butler
Baylor's Jared ButlerEric Gay/Associated Press

Tuesday's road win over West Virginia probably cemented Baylor's spot as a No. 1 seed. There were some brief concerns raised during the close call against Iowa State and the subsequent loss to Kansas, but the Bears are now at least close to looking like the runaway freight train that they were prior to that lengthy COVID-19 pause.

Because of that most-of-the-season dominance, Baylor has seven Quadrant 1 wins and only the one loss at Kansas. Even if the Bears were to lose to Texas Tech on Saturday, they are so far ahead of the six- and seven-loss teams (Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State and Alabama) that it's hard to see anyone other than Michigan catching them from behind, regardless of what happens in the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC conference tournaments.

The one exception would be if Baylor loses to Texas Tech this weekend and loses its Big 12 tournament opener against either TCU or Kansas State. The Horned Frogs are No. 121 in the NET, so that would be a Quadrant 3 loss. The Wildcats are No. 204 in the NET, so that would at least temporarily appear as a Quadrant 4 loss, although Kansas State would almost certainly move into the top 200 if it beats Baylor. Either way, that type of bad loss could knock Baylor down to a No. 2 seed, provided enough of the other candidates for the top line take care of their own business next week.

However, Baylor's average margin of victory in three games against TCU and Kansas State this season was 32.3 points. Winning that quarterfinal shouldn't be a problem.


Michigan Wolverines (92.0 percent)

Between Baylor's road win over West Virginia and Michigan's 23-point home loss to Illinois, Tuesday night brought the national hierarchy back to: Gonzaga and Baylor on the top tier, Michigan alone on the second tier, and everyone else is fighting for fourth place.

While it feels like the Wolverines are securely on the top line, they aren't quite the lock that Gonzaga and Baylor are. That blowout loss to Illinois, taken in conjunction with the previous 18-point loss at Minnesota, leaves the Wolverines at least a little vulnerable to a leapfrog situation.

If they lose at Michigan State on Sunday and if they lose their first Big Ten tournament game (seeding isn't set, but it's looking like that could be a third consecutive game against Michigan State), that would be trouble.

It might not immediately knock the Wolverines off the top line, but it should eventually bump them behind the Big Ten tournament champion (assuming it's Illinois, Ohio State or Iowa). If an Alabama or West Virginia also wins out, it could bump Michigan down a peg.


Winner of Saturday's Illinois at Ohio State Game (70.0 percent)

Loser of Saturday's Illinois at Ohio State Game (15.0 percent)

Holly Hart/Associated Press

Right now, there is minimal separation between the Illini and the Buckeyes. Illinois is 8-5 vs. Quadrant 1 and 13-6 against the top two Quadrants. Ohio State is 7-5 and 12-7, respectively. The Illini surged ahead a bit with that statement win over Michigan on Tuesday, but Ohio State previously won at Illinois and could get a significant leg up on Illinois by completing the sweep.

Put it this way: The winner of this game is definitely going to enter the Big Ten tournament as a projected No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, while the loser almost certainly will not.

That doesn't mean either side is guaranteed to remain in that position, though, as either one could lose in the Big Ten quarterfinals or win that tournament to acquire three more quality wins. But "second-best resume in the Big Ten" in the final few days before Selection Sunday is a good place to be.

If either Illinois or Ohio State wins the Big Ten tournament, lock it in as a No. 1 seed. If neither one wins it and either Alabama wins the SEC tournament or West Virginia, Kansas or Oklahoma State wins the Big 12 tournament, it's likely that both Illinois and Ohio State would be No. 2 seeds.

But here's why Saturday's game is huge: If Michigan wins the Big Ten, Baylor wins the Big 12 and someone other than Alabama wins the SEC, it's the Illinois at Ohio State winner would likely get that fourth No. 1 seed.


Alabama Crimson Tide (10.0 percent)

We've mentioned Alabama several times already, but the Crimson Tide are more of a potential party crasher than a major threat to secure a No. 1 seed.

That isn't because Alabama would be undeserving of a spot on the top line if it wins the SEC tournament. This team already has seven Quadrant 1 wins and seven Quadrant 2 wins. As of Thursday morning, those 14 victories against the top two quadrants are the most in the country. (Granted, Alabama has played 26 games, which is also the most among teams in the NET Top 15.)

It's more a problem of limited opportunity for the Crimson Tide.

Winning the SEC tournament would be an impressive achievement. As things stand, their path to a title might run through Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. But based on the latest Bracket Matrix update, that's a non-tournament team, a No. 6 seed and a No. 4 seed. Meanwhile, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia will likely need to go through at least two if not three legitimate Final Four candidates to win its conference tournament. That would push/keep that team ahead of Alabama on the overall seed list.

Alabama's best chance is to win the SEC tournament while Baylor and Michigan win the Big 12 and Big Ten tournaments. That would probably do the trick. But only twice in the past two decades (2007 and 2010) did the No. 1 seed win each of the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC tournaments, hence the 10 percent odds. 


West Virginia Mountaineers OR Kansas Jayhawks OR Oklahoma State Cowboys (9.0 percent)

Cade Cunningham
Cade CunninghamBrody Schmidt/Associated Press

Individually, it's probably more like 6.5 percent for West Virginia, 2.0 percent for Kansas and 0.5 percent for Oklahoma State. But if any of these three teams wins the Big 12 tournament, it will have a compelling case for a No. 1 seed.

Neither Kansas nor West Virginia has suffered a loss outside of Quadrant 1. They split the season series with each other, and they both swept Texas Tech. For each team, some of those near-the-bottom-of-Quadrant-1 results could slide down into Quadrant 2 within the next nine days. If either one wins the Big 12 tournament, though, it's going to be something like 9-7 vs. Quadrant 1 with no bad losses. That's pretty solid.

Oklahoma State does have a pair of questionable losses on its docket, as the Cowboys were inexplicably swept by TCU. However, they have eight Quadrant 1 wins and could add a ninth Saturday when they close out the regular season at West Virginia. Win that one and the Big 12 tournament, and you're talking about 12 Quadrant 1 wins in a year where no one else currently has more than eight.

Any of the three would be outstanding resumes.

However, in addition to the not-great odds of winning the Big 12 tournament, it's pretty unlikely that they would leapfrog Gonzaga, Baylor or Michigan even with that title. And while the fourth No. 1 seed is definitely in play, Illinois, Ohio State or Iowa would have the best case for it if any member of that trio wins the Big Ten tournament. There's also a chance the selection committee would prefer SEC champion Alabama over one of these potential Big 12 champions. 


Iowa Hawkeyes (4.0 percent)

The metrics have loved Iowa all season long, but it wasn't until the 15-point win at Wisconsin on Feb. 18 and the 16-point win at Ohio State on Feb. 28 that the Hawkeyes started to feel like a legitimate threat to claim a No. 1 seed. They now have a 6-5 record in Quadrant 1 games, plus noteworthy home wins over Rutgers, North Carolina and Michigan State.

The problem is that Iowa was swept by Indiana and lost at Minnesota. Neither of those teams is likely to make the NCAA tournament at this point, and three losses to non-tournament teams is a major red flag in this year's loaded race for the No. 1 seeds.

The Hawkeyes do still have a home game against Wisconsin on Saturday, in which they could pick up a seventh Quadrant 1 win and likely lock up the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament. From there, their likeliest path to a title appears to be Wisconsin-Illinois-Michigan. Winning those three games on a neutral court would be huge for a team that's already ranked No. 6 in both NET and KenPom.


Florida State Seminoles OR Villanova Wildcats (2.0 percent)

As far as our crystal ball is concerned, the odds of Florida State or Villanova getting a No. 1 seed are the same as Baylor's odds of not getting a No. 1 seed.

Between the two teams, the best win of the season was Villanova's road win over Texas back in early December. Florida State has a few nice blowout wins on its resume, but that's the only victory either team has in the top half of Quadrant 1. They also each suffered a bad loss (Florida State vs. UCF; Villanova at Butler).

The two main things working in their favor are a limited supply of losses (four each) and the fact thateven in what is undeniably a down year for the ACCsweeping both the regular-season and league-tournament titles in a major conference will always look good on the resume. Still, Florida State and Villanova need to win out and get a healthy amount of chaos in the other tournaments to have a shot at the top line.


The Field (0.2 percent)

This is a catch-all for Houston, Arkansas, Virginia, the Pac-12 champion and the third-tier teams from the Big Ten and Big 12. Maybe there's a mathematical chance for some member of that group to sneak up and grab the fourth No. 1 seed. But a whole lot of things would need to go haywire for that to happen.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.