The power conference tournaments all begin Wednesday, except for the ACC, which kicked off its festivities on Tuesday. Teams competing for No. 1 seeds in the 2019 NCAA tournament will be off until the weekend, other than Gonzaga, which lost to St. Mary’s in the WCC championship game on Tuesday night.
Gonzaga's loss has opened up the top of the West Region. Virginia is almost, but not quite, assured a No. 1 seed. That leaves three top seeds totally up for grabs, with the fourth possibly in play, and, as we see it, nine teams vying for the top line. Those teams are Virginia, North Carolina and Duke from the ACC; Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee from the SEC, Michigan State from the Big Ten; Gonzaga from the WCC; and Texas Tech from the Big 12. What would it take for each of those teams to end up on the top line on Selection Sunday? There are realistic paths for all eight, though some are much easier to travel than others.
This is as easy as it gets. So long as Virginia beats the winner of NC State–Clemson in the ACC quarterfinals, the Cavaliers will be a No. 1 seed, and likely close to home with Washington, D.C. hosting the East Region. Virginia enters the ACC tournament ranked second in the country in NET with an 11–2 record in Q1 games, and both of their losses coming against Duke. Even if they lost to NC State or Clemson, they’d be more likely than not to end up as a No. 1 seed, but in that scenario, they may end up in another region. Still, we should all be expecting to see Virginia not only as the No. 1 seed in the East, but the field’s No. 1 overall seed.
Thanks to Zion Williamson’s injury, the Tar Heels are now positioned to end up on the top line, as well. That door may have never been opened without Williamson’s injury, but at this point it’s hard to make an argument for Duke to be ahead of North Carolina in the No. 1 seed pecking order.
If chalk holds in the ACC tournament second round, North Carolina will play Louisville in the quarterfinals. A win there would give the Heels their 10th Q1 win of the season and keep them ranked at worst seventh in the NET. From there, they’d most likely play Duke in the ACC semifinals. A win in that game would all but cement North Carolina’s status as a No. 1 seed. A third win over Duke and 11th Q1 victory would likely give the Heels enough leeway on the top line to absorb a loss in the ACC championship game.
Should the Tar Heels lose their first ACC tournament game, the top-ranked SEC team would certainly finish ahead of them, and the door would be wide open for Duke, Michigan State and Texas Tech to pass them, as well. A win in the quarterfinals followed by a loss to Duke in the semifinals would likely keep the Heels ahead of Texas Tech, but it would give the Blue Devils and Spartans a chance to leapfrog them.
The Blue Devils once seemed unassailable on the top line, but then Zion Williamson made a shoe explode and everything changed. The Blue Devils must advance to at least the ACC championship game to have a shot at a No. 1 seed. If they win it, they’d certainly be back on the top line. If they lose it, they’d need some combination of a North Carolina loss before the ACC semis, the weakest SEC team winning that conference’s championship, and a Big Ten team other than Michigan State claiming the conference title to get back atop a region. Any loss by the Blue Devils before the ACC championship will make them a No. 2 seed.
Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU
We grouped these three together because the path to the top line is the same for all of them: win the SEC tournament. Kentucky is ranked fifth in NET and is 10–4 in Q1 games. Tennessee is sixth, with a 7–4 record in Q1 games. LSU brings up the rear among the three at 13th in NET, but is 9–2 in Q1 games, with a 2–0 head-to-head record against Kentucky and Tennessee. Any one of them that wins the SEC tournament would add at least two more Q1 wins. Kentucky and Tennessee would be top-five NET teams, while LSU would have an outside shot at the top five but would likely be in the top 10. Any of those is a sure formula for a No. 1 seed.
The more interesting question is not what these three teams need to do to earn a No. 1 seed, but rather if two SEC teams could end up on the top line. It’s possible, but unlikely. Here’s what we think would need to go down for two of these three to end up as No. 1 seeds.
Kentucky is likely the only one of the three that can get a top seed without winning the tournament. Since the Wildcats are on the same side of the bracket as Tennessee, opposite LSU, that means LSU beating Kentucky in the championship game is the linchpin to the SEC getting two No. 1 seeds.
Next, North Carolina, Duke and Michigan State would all have to lose some bracket capital. If North Carolina or Duke wins the ACC championship, it would be more deserving of a No. 1 seed than a Kentucky team that lost to LSU in the SEC championship. A North Carolina team that loses in the ACC championship would also likely remain ahead of this version of Kentucky. Similarly, a Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State would have a strong argument for moving ahead of the Kentucky in this scenario on the seed list. If you’re looking for two SEC teams on the top line, you want LSU to beat Kentucky in the SEC championship, Louisville to make a run through North Carolina and Duke in the ACC tournament, and a Big Ten team other than Michigan State to hoist the trophy in Chicago. Speaking of the Spartans...
...they’re likely the only Big Ten team that can get to the top line. Purdue and Michigan have outside chances, but they both hurt their standing on the overall seed list late in the regular season. Even if they make a run to the Big Ten title, they’d need a lot of help in other conferences to get all the way ahead of every other team we’ve discussed. Michigan State, however, is the one Big Ten team that could not only take advantage should a team like North Carolina or Kentucky slip up but also bully its way ahead of one of them. Why? It’s all about Q1.
Michigan State goes into the Big Ten tournament with a Q1 record of 11–4, tied with Virginia for the most Q1 wins. The Spartans’ first game in the Big Ten tourney will be against the winner of Indiana and Ohio State. If it’s the former, it will be a Q1 game. If it’s the latter, it could be a Q1 game. If the Spartans win that, their semifinal game will almost certainly come against either Wisconsin, which earned a double-bye and is already in the quarterfinals, or Maryland, which only has to beat the Nebraska-Rutgers winner to face Wisconsin in the quarters. That would definitely be a Q1 game. Then, unless a team like Iowa, Minnesota or Penn State went on a run, the Spartans would play Michigan or Purdue in the finals. In other words, a Big Ten tournament championship would add at least two, and possibly three, Q1 wins to the Spartans’ résumé. At 14–4 in Q1 games with a sweep of both Big Ten titles, the Spartans would have a strong argument for a No. 1 seed.
The Bulldogs really screwed up this one. All they had to do was go out and beat Saint Mary's for a third time, and they'd be assured not only a No. 1 seed, but possibly the No. 1 overall seed. Instead, they scored 47 points and 0.78 points per possession in the loss to the Gaels, bringing into doubt their No. 1 seed bona fides. They may be ranked second in NET, but they're just 4-3 in Q1 games. They played three teams this season that are at-large locks—Duke, Tennessee and North Carolina—and went 1-2 in those games. Their only other wins over potential at-large teams came against Creighton and Washington. Relative to the other potential No. 1 seeds, that just isn’t a strong enough résumé.
What do they need to remain on the top line? Chaos. They need Michigan State to lose in the Big Ten tournament, preferably early. They need one of Duke or North Carolina to go down before the ACC semis, and it'd be better if they both lost their first game. They need LSU to fall short of the SEC championship game, and it would really be better if at least one of Kentucky or Tennessee lost before the semis. If all that happens, Gonzaga could still find itself a No. 1 seed.
Finally, there’s Texas Tech. The Red Raiders need a lot of help to get to the top line, but they’re ranked ninth in NET and have six Q1 wins, so it is in play, if just barely. First, they’d need to maneuver their way through the hardest possible road in the Big 12 tournament to raise their profile. That would mean beating Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, Kansas in the semis, and Iowa State or Kansas State in the championship game. Additionally, they’d need Michigan State, North Carolina and Duke to all lose early in their respective conference tournaments. If all that happened, they could end up sneaking onto top line as the final No. 1 seed, joining Virginia, Gonzaga and the SEC tournament champion.