Handicapping the Midseason Battle for the #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 20th, 2017

The College Football Playoff has caught a lot of flak for a system that rewards four teams in an environment where five power conference champions all feel that they are deserving. The NCAA Tournament with its 68 teams is obviously a lot more inclusive, but the pursuit of the four top seeds shares some of the flaws of the football system. College basketball features a less defined definition of its power conferences, but depending on your opinion of the Big East and American, our landscape features a minimum of six power conference champions which presumably would have a shot at the top line. On top of that, there are always a handful of mid-majors capable of having a stake in selection of the #1 seeds. With the American sitting at eighth in the RPI this season, Cincinnati would likely need to run the table for a chance at a top seed, an unlikely outcome. That leaves seven entrants, loosely defined to include conferences, for only four spots. Let’s examine each in turn.

Are Wisconsin fans gearing up for a possible #1 seed? (Photo by David Stluka)

  • Big Ten. Thanks to a pair of unexpected swoons by Indiana and Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin seem to be the only Big Ten teams with a semi-realistic chance of making a run at a #1 seed. However, the margin of error is already thin for both. The Boilermakers have four reasonable losses with wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin, while the Badgers’ likely best win came at Assembly Hall against a struggling group of Hoosiers. It would be difficult to imagine that these resumes could turn into top-seed material by March. The Big Ten’s best teams appear to have suffered too many hiccups before conference play and are now slowly cannibalizing themselves into the lower seed lines.

  • ACC. The same could be said of the ACC, but the difference is that whichever team survives the gauntlet will have numerous quality wins of which to boast to the Selection Committee. Preseason favorite Duke has lost three of its last five games and appears to be spinning its wheels without Mike Krzyzewski and a healthy Amile Jefferson. North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia are poised to benefit from the Blue Devils’ absence at the top, but those three teams must play four more games against one another. Unless one of those three can sweep the other two in order to win the conference going away, the elite ACC teams may slowly lose ground to the others despite universal recognition of the toughness of this league.
  • Big 12. The Big 12 finds itself in a similar boat, with West Virginia, Baylor and Kansas all slated to play home-and-home series this season. If one team (presumably Kansas) can sweep the other two or even manage a 3-1 record against their peers, that team would be a factor. The more likely scenario is that these three teams mostly split their meetings and enter the NCAA Tournament as a group of very dangerous #2 and #3 seeds. West Virginia’s surprising home loss to a struggling Oklahoma squad earlier this week puts the Mountaineers even a step further behind.

Is this the year Mark Few and Gonzaga finally break through? (Getty)

  • Gonzaga. The Zags face three distinct possibilities. If they run the table and enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated, Gonzaga will receive a #1 seed. If they lose a game other than their mid-February trip to St. Mary’s, they will fall off the top line. If the Bulldogs only lose their game at St. Mary’s, things will get fishy. A 31-1 Gonzaga squad with its only loss coming in Moraga — especially a close defeat — would be an interesting dilemma for the committee, depending on how the power conference contenders look in March.
  • UCLA. The 19-1 Bruins have a little more margin for error, but their schedule still features two tilts with Arizona and a rematch with Oregon. Winning at a pair of those three games along with a strong Pac-12 Tournament showing should lock up a #1 seed. UCLA’s massive win at Kentucky is the crown jewel of its resume (and perhaps any team’s resume this season), but there are enough solid victories beyond that to fully impress the committee. The other interesting question is whether Gonzaga or UCLA will get the friendly Sacramento/San Jose track through to Arizona if both get #1 seeds.
  • Kentucky. Faced with a lackluster SEC slate, the Wildcats have a fairly simple road to a #1 seed. The only remaining games Kentucky has against likely NCAA competition are against South Carolina, Florida (twice) and Kansas. The game against the Jayhawks next weekend could be the determining factor short of a surprising collapse down the stretch of SEC play.
  • Villanova. This is another set of Wildcats in a very similar situation. Villanova has already won at Creighton, waxed Xavier at home, and avoided land mines against the rest of the Big East (save Butler). Should the defending champions continue their current level of play, they would be in great shape even with another loss or two. Villanova also has a key non-conference game against Virginia next weekend to bolster its resume head-to-head with the ACC contenders.
Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

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

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