It’s hard to believe we’re nearing college basketball’s home stretch already. Conference play seemingly just started, but teams are already separating themselves in the standings and making their case for tournament bids and seeds. With the entirety of non-conference play in the rearview mirror, the Selection Committee already has a large portion of the information that will lead to the bracket that is revealed in mid-March.
Even though there are plenty of games left on the schedule and much to be decided for something as prestigious as a No. 1 seed, the crop of contenders has already whittled down to just a handful of teams. These eight teams have the best chances to secure a spot atop one of March Madness’ four regions.
Despite similar talent levels and performance this season, Louisville edges Dayton for the last spot on this list. As good as the Flyers have been, they face the unfortunate reality of playing in a mid-major conference. To reach the top line from a non-power conference, the committee expects near perfection. No Atlantic-10 team has even been a 3-seed in March since Xavier did so all the way back in 2008. The ACC meanwhile has had nine top seeds since expanding to its current size in 2015, with at least one team from the conference earning a No. 1 each of those five years. Louisville has laid the groundwork, with wins over Akron, Michigan and a crucial victory at Duke. If the Cards can hold serve the rest of the way in conference play, they’ll have a chance to earn a top seed during the ACC Tournament.
7. West Virginia
Bob Huggins is in the midst of an epic turnaround, with his Mountaineers already winning more games this season than they did all of last season. It hasn’t been due to an easy schedule. The NCAA ranks West Virginia’s slate as the 2nd-toughest in the nation. The Mountaineers have Quadrant 1 wins at neutral sites over Ohio State, Northern Iowa and Wichita State. The schedule doesn’t get easier either. West Virginia has six more Quadrant 1 road games, facing the best of the Big XII away from Morgantown. Should they survive that gauntlet relatively unscathed, they’ll earn a spot on the top line.
6. Michigan State
The case for Sparty is simple: they are the best team in the nation’s toughest conference. That’s usually a pretty good playing card in the committee room. There’s a downside to that claim, however. Though they may climb out of the hell of Big Ten play on top of the standings, they may do so with as many as six losses. That would give the Spartans nine losses for the season, likely too many for a top seed. Playing in a tough conference helps but also makes the climb more difficult.
5. San Diego State
While Michigan State may have too many losses, San Diego State has yet to lose any games this season. There’s plenty of precedent for a mid-major to coast through the season nearly unscathed and earn a top seed, thanks to the Gonzaga and Wichita State teams of the past.
The Aztecs are in a good spot, ranking 2nd in the NCAA’s NET and Strength of Record metrics. Wins over Iowa, Creighton and BYU look strong, yet SDSU has no more Quadrant 1 games scheduled. With even one loss, San Diego State will need to root for the power conference teams to cannibalize each other to keep a top seed realistic.
If Louisville’s claim rests on an ACC title, Duke’s case may be even stronger. The Blue Devils have just as good a chance to win the conference and boast two of the nation’s best nonconference wins. Duke beat Kansas on a neutral court and won at Michigan State. Those wins are like two aces in the hole when comparing resumés. Louisville’s head-to-head win at Cameron Indoor does loom large in the discussion, yet Duke may have a chance to avenge the loss in the ACC Tournament.
The Jayhawks have quite the resumé. Kansas has the top-ranked schedule in college basketball and just three losses, all at the hands of top-15 teams. In order for them to secure a top seed though, the Jayhawks will need to fair well in Big XII play. Their schedule has already included home dates with the other top two teams in the conference, Baylor and West Virginia. To stay in the conversation for a top seed, the Jayhawks need to steal a win in Waco or Morgantown. If not, their non-conference brilliance could be for naught.
Things are lather, rinse and repeat for the Zags these days. Every year they play a tough non-conference schedule, win some big games and then lay waste to the West Coast Conference. This season, the Bulldogs topped Oregon, Washington, North Carolina and Arizona, with their lone loss on the year coming versus Michigan. In total, the Zags are outscoring opponents by 22 points per game.
Unlike past years, their destruction of the WCC is notable. The conference currently has seven top-150 KenPom teams, the league’s high since 2015. If Gonzaga continues to plow through a conference that earns as many as three bids to the NCAA Tournament, a top seed would be well deserved.
In a year that has become noteworthy for its lack of top-tier teams, Baylor has separated itself from the pack as the clear top team in college basketball. Even if you question the Bears talent, coaching or overall ability, you can’t challenge their performance or resumé.
Baylor hangs its hat on wins over Villanova, Butler, Arizona and Florida. In the Big XII, no team can claim superiority without a win over Kansas. Earlier this month, Baylor did just that, on the road at Allen Fieldhouse, by double-digits.
The Bears’ lone loss came on November 8 versus Washington, yet several tests remaining on the schedule. Kansas will have a chance to avenge its loss, and Baylor still has a home-and-home with West Virginia. If Baylor wins at least two of those three games and performs well throughout the rest of conference play, the Bears will be the NCAA Tournament’s top seed.
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