The Extremely Tough Road Mids Face in Earning #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 7th, 2016

A quick glance at the top of the college basketball rankings reveals that blue-bloods roam the landscape. Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky and defending champion Villanova all currently inhabit the top 10. For a mid-major school, the path to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is fraught with so many hurdles that it may seem all impossible. This is certainly not a new development, of course, as 37 of the last 40 top seeds in the Big Dance came from a power conference — the exceptions were Wichita State (2014), Gonzaga (2013) and Memphis (2008). Those three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference and Conference USA, respectively, entered the NCAA Tournament with a combined record of 98-3, and their three losses came to teams with an average KenPom ranking of #32. Furthermore, each of those non-power conference top seeds played a top-40 non-conference schedule.

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014. (Getty)

The point of this is to show that mid-majors can most certainly earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their margin for error is next to nothing — the recipe seems to involve running the regular season table or suffering a maximum of one loss. This year’s crop of teams constituting the elite of the non-power conferences is made up of three excellent teams. There are significant barriers to entry, but each of the three has at least a respectable chance of joining the top line conversation on Selection Sunday if their regular season goes exceptionally well. Let’s examine what each team must do to get there.


Gonzaga is the obvious choice if any mid-major this season has designs on a #1 seed. The Zags are currently #6 in the RPI and already have good-not-great wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Arizona, San Diego State, Florida and Iowa State. With non-conference games still to come against power conference foes Washington and Tennessee, Gonzaga will have a case to make to the committee on Selection Sunday. An unbeaten regular season that would necessarily include at least two wins over St. Mary’s (currently #3 RPI) could put Mark Few‘s team into contention for a coveted top seed. A one-loss Bulldogs team would have a much tougher time given a non-conference schedule that rates weaker than years past and all the firepower at the top of the polls this season, so anything less than perfection probably means a ceiling of a #2 seed for the Zags.


St. Mary’s

St. Mary's (USA Today Images)

St. Mary’s Faces an Uphill Climb to Earn a Top Seed (USA Today Images)

Jock Landale has paced the Gaels by scoring nearly 20 points per game in their six wins, four of which came against top 150 RPI team. The problem? St. Mary’s has only four more games remaining that will bolster its resume (home-and-homes with BYU and Gonzaga), and they’ll need to win them all. Compared with the teams outside the power conferences that have earned a #1 seed over the last decade, St. Mary’s just won’t have the meat in a non-conference schedule to support such a result. Randy Bennett‘s team has a pair of nice road wins over Dayton and Stanford but neither is likely to be the kind of eye-opener that will catch the committee’s eyes. An unbeaten St. Mary’s team would make for an interesting story come Selection Sunday, but even that would be unlikely to result in a top seed for the Gaels.


Wichita State

The Shockers are here to note that the path to a great resume was laid out in front of them, but a pair of competitive losses to Louisville and Michigan State in the Battle 4 Atlantis all but eliminated the Shockers from a #1 seed. Even if they run the table the rest of the way — which would necessarily include wins over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — their number of quality wins would pale in comparison with the power conference teams battling through the nightly rigors of the ACC or Big Ten. Currently sitting all the way back in the triple-digits of the RPI, Wichita State is probably looking at a ceiling of somewhere in the #3 or #4 range.

Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

Shane McNichol is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at and has contributed to and Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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