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.
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.