With one week left in the regular season, the race for NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds is coming to a photo finish. Which teams are the favorites to land on the top line?
There’s just one week left in the regular season, and we can safely make three assumptions about the top line. First, Kansas will be there, likely as the No. 1 overall seed. Second, a Big East team will be there, with Villanova holding the inside track. Third, an ACC team will join them, with Virginia, North Carolina and Miami all in contention.
That’s all we can say with any certainty as we put a bow on the regular season and head into championship week. Of course, there’s still one spot unclaimed, with at least three more contenders casting a gaze toward the top line. That spot went to Michigan State in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Spartans may have the surest path to the final No. 1 seed among the contenders, especially with the way they’ve played in the last six weeks. If they win the Big Ten tournament, they’ll likely add a few more strong wins to the résumé and climb into the top 10 in RPI. Chances are that would be enough, regardless of what the competition does the rest of the way. Michigan State, the top team in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com, should win out in the regular season with games against Rutgers and Ohio State this week.
Xavier got its best win of the season last week, knocking off Villanova at home, 90–83. In fact, the Musketeers held onto a No. 1 seed in our behind-the-scenes Bracket Watch file all week after that win, until they fell to Seton Hall on Sunday. That wasn’t a bad loss, but it was enough to nudge Michigan State up and the Musketeers down. Still, they have a very realistic path to the top line, though it must culminate in a Big East tournament championship, ideally with a win over Villanova.
Finally, Oklahoma, which spent more time as the Bracket Watch’s No. 1 overall seed than any team this season, can still get back to the top line, even if Kansas is a No. 1 as well. Like Michigan State and Xavier, the Sooners will have to win their conference’s tournament to be a No. 1 seed, something that remains within their reach even though they hit a rough patch in the second half of the Big 12 schedule, going 3–4 in their last seven games. Any realistic run to the conference tournament title would feature three wins over the likes of Iowa State, Baylor, Texas, West Virginia and Kansas. If Oklahoma adds wins over three of those five teams to its résumé, it will be awfully tough for the Selection Committee to place it anywhere but the top line.
At the opposite end of the bracket, four teams likely punched their tickets last week. Seton Hall had a phenomenal week, beating Providence and, more importantly, Xavier. That gave the Pirates, which have won eight of their last nine games, their first victory over a team inside with an RPI rank above 25. Colorado already appeared safe, but it may have gotten over the hump with a win over Arizona last week. The Buffaloes could certainly remove all doubt by winning at Utah on Saturday. Wisconsin’s win at Iowa gave them victories over the top four teams in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Iowa, Maryland and Indiana), two of which away from Madison. After beating Michigan Sunday, the Badgers have now won 10 of their last 11 games. Pittsburgh got the signature win it needed on Sunday, cruising to a 76–62 win over Duke. A loss to Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech this week, or a bad loss in the ACC tournament, could have the Panthers nervous on Selection Sunday, but absent a negative turn along those lines, they should be safe.
Last Four In
Vanderbilt (18–11, 10–6 SEC): The Commodores are in great shape after beating Kentucky on Saturday. So long as they don’t suffer an ugly loss the rest of the way, they should hear their names called on Selection Sunday. They could get out of the First Four by beating Texas A&M on Saturday.
Butler (19–9, 8–8 Big East): The Bulldogs got a win over Georgetown they absolutely had to have, though they nearly gave it away. The Hoyas closed regulation on an 18–3 run to force overtime, though the Bulldogs were able to prevail in the extra period. They could do themselves a huge favor with a win over Seton Hall on Wednesday.
Alabama (17–11, 8–8 SEC): The Crimson Tide replaced fellow SEC team Florida in the field of 68, but there’s a lot left unsettled for those two squads. The SEC tournament could very well break a de facto tie between the two.
Tulsa (19–10, 11–6 AAC): The Golden Hurricane knocked off Temple last week, adding that to wins over Cincinnati and SMU in the last three weeks. Unfortunately, they followed that with a loss at Memphis. They won’t be able to move up much higher and are the last team in our field, but they certainly could get out of the First Four if they make a deep run in the AAC tournament.
First Four Out
Florida (17–12, 8–8 SEC): The Gators have lost three straight games and are now just 2–9 against the RPI top 50. They’ll need to outperform fellow SEC bubble squads Vanderbilty and Alabama to be able to feel good on Selection Sunday.
VCU (21–8, 13–3): The Rams’ win at George Washington last week definitely kept them on the at-large radar, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they have as many top-50 wins as they do sub-150 losses (two).
St. Bonaventure (20–7, 12–4 A-10): The Bonnies have won three straight games, though victories over Duquesne and Massachusetts last week don’t really move the needle. A win over Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday, however, would certainly open some eyes.
Gonzaga (23–7, 15–3 WCC): On one hand, it seems that the Bulldogs are in decent shape to make a last-minute run at an at-large bid, given that they’re one of the first four out. On the other, they’re just 3–7 against the RPI top 100. Realistically, they’ll have to win the WCC tournament to get into the dance.