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The Race for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 Seeds Is a Beautifully Unpredictable Mess

Entering this week, Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue seemed like locks to become top seeds in this year’s tourney. Then the Wildcats and Boilermakers both lost. Given the cluster of teams behind them in the rankings, who has the best chance to land on the no. 1 line come March?

Trevon Blueitt, Carsen Edwards, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jay Wright Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With a little more than a month remaining until Selection Sunday, there are still tons of unanswered questions floating around the college basketball world. Can anyone stop Trae Young from winning national player of the year? Will Kentucky and Arizona figure out what to do with all of their talented pieces together by the time the NCAA tournament starts? Should Trae Young be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, or should he go even higher? How good are Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, and Wichita State? If Trae Young were to retire today, would he be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, or would he have to wait to get in on the second ballot? Will Pittsburgh’s Kevin Stallings ever win another game in his coaching career? Will the tournament selection committee treat Oklahoma as one unified team, or split up the Sooners by placing Trae Young in one region and his teammates in another? Also, Trae Young — have you seen this kid, folks?

As we wait with bated breath to learn the answers to these questions, I’d like to call attention to what is rapidly becoming the most intriguing college basketball question of all: Does any team want to become a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? Entering the week, Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue seemed like three near-locks to be no. 1 seeds, while the rest of the country was lagging so far behind that it felt like the committee might just give out three no. 1 seeds and five no. 2 seeds in this year’s bracket. But then Purdue blew a 14-point second-half lead against Ohio State on Wednesday, not long after Villanova lost to St. John’s at home. The Boilermakers and Wildcats are still likely to end up with no. 1 seeds, but with Purdue’s game at Michigan State coming Saturday and Villanova’s matchup at Xavier on the docket for February 17, the picture is murkier than it was last weekend. There has been so much chaos to this point that as Virginia sits alone atop of the no. 1 seed mountain, every other team’s pursuit of a top spot has looked like this Japanese game show.

All we can say for certain is that three teams other than Virginia will (probably?) be no. 1 seeds in March. Which teams is anyone’s guess. Let’s look at the candidates.

The Blue Bloods

Villanova (22–2)

America was stunned Wednesday night when Villanova lost 79–75 at home to a St. John’s team that entered the game 0–11 in Big East play. But maybe the result shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. Maybe we all should have known that Jay Wright had some act of genius up his sleeve, and that this was a PERFECT game for the Wildcats to lose on purpose. Think about it: With Phil Booth sidelined by a broken hand, Villanova’s rotation is basically down to five guys. I know the Wildcats play more than five players, but that’s only because Wright feels like bringing guys off the bench is something a coach is supposed to do. When the NCAA tournament rolls around, Wright will inevitably ride his starting five into the ground, which is why it’d make sense that he’d let off the gas now to save his players’ energy for March. The puzzle pieces all fit: Eric Paschall sat out of the St. John’s game, the rest of the team gave minimal effort on defense, and Villanova pretended to be upset as St. John’s celebrated its program’s biggest win in 30 years.

The kicker to this unmistakably brilliant decision by Wright is that losing to St. John’s will provide a two-pronged benefit to the Wildcats moving forward. First, it’s an amazing manufactured-adversity result. Falling to an 0–11 team at home causes the haters to come out of the woodwork, and an abundance of haters means chips will start piling upon Villanova players’ shoulders. Before you know it, a team with a 22–2 record that has been ranked no. 1 in the country for more than half the season will be able to start convincing itself that it’s an underdog nobody believes in. Perhaps most importantly, though, with a victory over Duke on Saturday and a win over Villanova on Wednesday, St. John’s now represents a quality loss. If you’re a member of the selection committee, would you punish Villanova for losing to a team that took down the Blue Devils and Wildcats in back-to-back games? Of course not. The Cats are still in great shape to land a no. 1 seed.

Michigan State (23–3)

Given the Spartans’ history of regularly playing one of the most difficult schedules in college basketball under Tom Izzo, it’s hard to believe that this 23–3 team boasts only one notable win on the season, a 62–45 victory over North Carolina in Portland on November 26. This underwhelming slate (which can be blamed largely on a down year in the Big Ten) has created a situation where nobody has any idea how good the Spartans are, or what their ceiling looks like. The NCAA selection committee typically gives more weight to “best wins” than it does “worst losses” when evaluating teams in March, which is why Saturday’s matchup with Purdue is massive for Michigan State’s no. 1 seed hopes.

As things stand, the Spartans are 1–3 against probable NCAA tournament teams. Those three defeats came when they lost 88–81 to a Duke team that played most of that game without Marvin Bagley III, were blown out 80–64 at Ohio State in early January, and had their asses handed to them during a 82–72 home loss to Michigan. If Michigan State were to win out from here, it would likely add two wins over Purdue, a win over Ohio State, and a Big Ten tournament title to its résumé, pushing its record to 31–3 entering the NCAA tournament. Since the Spartans are loaded with talent (and that matters to the committee, even though it shouldn’t) and have a name brand that basketball fans trust in March, you’d have to think that a 31–3 record would be plenty enough to earn them a no. 1 seed.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though: The Spartans won’t win out. They’re going to lose at least one more regular-season game, get bounced in the Big Ten tournament semis, get the no. 4 seed in Virginia’s region of the bracket, upset the Hoos in the Sweet 16, and make the Final Four. As is tradition.

Marvin Bagley III
Marvin Bagley III
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke (19–5)

Don’t act like you’re surprised to see Duke on this list just because the Blue Devils have dropped three of their last four and have lost games to Boston College and St. John’s. By now you should know that the Duke is never out of no. 1 seed consideration, and I do mean NEVER. Even after a national champion is crowned this April, I still won’t be certain that Duke is out of the running for a no. 1 seed. For God’s sake, people seriously thought the Blue Devils should have been a no. 1 seed last season when they finished fifth in the ACC and had eight regular-season losses. That was a real thing. You think I’m going to count Duke out now that it’s third in the ACC and has five losses? What kind of idiot do I look like? (Don’t answer that.)

All jokes aside, I don’t think that Duke’s no. 1 seed hopes are dead just yet. It’s going to take at least one miracle for the Blue Devils to pull it off, starting with the team magically learning to play defense after three months of ineptitude. But the Blue Devils still have plenty of significant opportunities left — including a game at Clemson, a rematch against North Carolina in Durham, and the ACC tournament — and they have a ton of great wins under their belt. Just take Duke’s 88–81 defeat of Michigan State in the third game of the season and … uhhh … I swear there are other ones, too. You just have to trust me on this.

Kansas (19–5)

One of the worst Kansas teams that Bill Self has ever coached is still very much in the hunt for a no. 1 seed, a situation that says just as much about Self’s dominance in Lawrence as it does about the crop of teams vying for no. 1 seeds this season. The Jayhawks have been wildly inconsistent and have a number of unfixable flaws, so anyone thinking of betting on them to advance to the Final Four might as well just light their cash on fire now. After all, things were already looking shaky for this group before it lost at home to Oklahoma State last Saturday, which, if I’m being honest, is something that I would not have recommended doing for a team trying to earn a no. 1 seed. Still, Kansas somehow remains in the driver’s seat for yet another outright Big 12 regular-season title, and being crowned champion of the toughest conference in America would carry significant weight with the committee, especially if Kansas can win a Big 12 tournament title, too.

Also helping matters is that the Jayhawks don’t necessarily need to run the table from here, as their incredible strength of schedule affords them more room for error than a team such as Michigan State has. But I can’t stress enough how much I hate this Kansas team and would not trust it to cut my grass, let alone go through the rest of the season without suffering another head-scratching loss. That’s also something to keep in mind.

The Purdue Bloods

Purdue (23–3)

Even though the Boilermakers choked so badly in Wednesday night’s 64–63 loss to Ohio State that Matt Painter is likely going to have to carry around an oxygen tank for the rest of the month, Purdue is still in excellent shape to secure a no. 1 seed. Blowing a 14-point second-half lead at home is brutal, but a one-point loss to a top-15 opponent doesn’t represent a seeding backbreaker. The Boilers still have a ridiculous résumé that counts wins over Arizona, Butler, and Louisville to go along with a season sweep of Michigan. In fact, I would argue that Purdue remains a heavy favorite for a no. 1 seed, and that should stay true unless something drastic changes.

Something drastic like, say, getting blown out at Michigan State on Saturday because Izzo plays a lineup that forces Isaac Haas to match up with Jaren Jackson Jr. (allowing Jackson to have his way with Haas on both ends of the floor), and then the Spartans again giving Purdue the business in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, creating a scenario where it’d become virtually impossible to argue that the Boilers deserve a no. 1 seed over Michigan State. You know, something like that, for example.

Brandone Francis
Brandone Francis
John Weast/Getty Images

The New Bloods

Texas Tech (20–4)

Nerds on the internet will tell you otherwise, but I don’t think getting a no. 1 seed matters all that much. No. 1 seeds don’t automatically have an easier path to a title than no. 2 seeds do, and while the data indicates that more no. 1 seeds make Final Fours and win championships than any other seed, I’d argue that has more to do with no. 1 seeds typically being the best teams in the country than being given a cakewalk to a trophy. So many other factors (the location of games, the early-round matchups, the other high-seeded teams in a region, etc.) play into which programs get the easiest path to a Final Four, so if I were a Duke or Michigan State fan, I wouldn’t stress too much about what number will be affixed next to the Blue Devils’ or Spartans’ names entering the NCAA tournament.

If I were a Texas Tech fan, however, I would go nuts for a no. 1 seed. The Red Raiders are exactly the kind of team that benefits the most from securing a top seed, since it represents a massive accomplishment for an up-and-coming program to hang its hat on. Shoot, I still think Stanford has a great basketball program just because I remember the Cardinal being kings of the no. 1 seed during the early 2000s. The best NCAA tournament seed the Red Raiders have received was a no. 3 in 1996, which also happened to be the only time the program ever earned a top-five seed. No matter how the Red Raiders fare in this year’s NCAA tournament, getting a no. 1 seed would boost their national reputation and provide a huge lift for recruiting. (Assuming Tech doesn’t become the first no. 1 seed to lose to a no. 16 seed in the first round, of course.)

So what are Tech’s no. 1 seed chances? Not bad, actually. The Red Raiders are on the outside looking in as of now, and their 70–52 blowout loss at Iowa State in January was what we in the business would classify as “no bueno.” But with Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas State, and the Big 12 tournament all remaining on their schedule, the Red Raiders will have plenty of opportunities to improve their standing and make a serious push for a no. 1 seed.

Auburn (21–3)

The Tigers all but ruined their shot at getting a no. 1 seed by losing 81–80 to Texas A&M on Wednesday, a development that feels a little strange given that they still have an excellent résumé at first glance. Auburn is 21–3, leads the SEC outright, has no inexcusable losses, and beat Tennessee by double digits (94–84) in Knoxville in January. The problem is that while the SEC is one of the deepest conferences in America from top to bottom this season, it lacks any teams that jump out as surefire national title contenders. That makes it difficult for Auburn to raise its “best win” ceiling to the point that would be necessary to lock up a top seed in the tourney.

Even if the Tigers run the table the rest of the way, there’s no win they could pick up that could move the national needle all that much. (That includes a hypothetical SEC tournament title victory over Tennessee, whose no. 1 seed situation we’ll get to in a bit). It looks like Auburn is going to have to settle for a best-case scenario of entering the NCAA tournament as a three-loss no. 2 seed, which is more than any reasonable fan of the program could have dreamed of at the start of the 2017–18 season.

Clemson (20–4)

Clemson has better wins (home against North Carolina, at Ohio State), a better strength of schedule, and a better chance to impress the selection committee the rest of the way than Auburn does, which is why these Tigers aren’t quite the no. 1 seed long shot that those Tigers are. But Clemson still faces an uphill climb, especially if anyone on the committee saw the disgusting things that Virginia’s defense did to the team during a 61–36 Cavaliers win a couple of weeks ago. I hold no statistics degrees of any kind and I’m certainly not a bracketologist, but my hunch is that for Clemson to land a no. 1 seed, it will need to win all of its remaining regular-season games (one of which is against Duke on February 18) and advance to the ACC tournament title game (where Virginia will again likely rip it apart limb by limb). That feels unlikely, but so does the idea of Auburn and Texas Tech both having great teams, St. John’s toppling Villanova and Duke in a span of five days, and Purdue’s two 7-footers combining to grab just five rebounds against Ohio State on Wednesday even though they were matched up with a 6-foot-6 guy for most of the night. So who the hell knows what’s going to happen?

Naji Marshall
Naji Marshall
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Overdue Bloods

Xavier (22–3)

Hang on just a second. Do my eyes deceive me, or is Xavier listed as a no. 1 seed on BracketMatrix? Could it be? Could this be the year that the stars align for the program’s first-ever Final Four berth?

I know I wrote earlier that getting a no. 1 seed doesn’t matter as much as some people like to pretend, because teams that are good enough to win a national championship as a no. 1 seed can just as easily do so as a no. 2 seed. I stand by that and also think that even though Xavier has never previously earned a no. 1 seed, the Musketeers are familiar enough with success that getting a no. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament shouldn’t be cause to pop champagne.

But there is this bit of trivia to consider: Despite having never made a Final Four, Xavier has also been upset in the NCAA tournament only twice in its last 12 appearances. The most recent time came when no. 2 Xavier lost to no. 7 Wisconsin on a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater in the second round of the 2016 tournament. The other instance came when the no. 6 Musketeers lost to no. 11 Marquette in the first round in 2011. In other words, while a narrative could be formed that the Musketeers often choke in March because they always seem to have decent teams but have never reached a Final Four, the truth is that Xavier rarely ever loses in the tournament when wearing its white jerseys. That’s worth noting, because if the Musketeers get a no. 1 seed in 2018, something will have to give: Either Xavier will suffer a rare upset loss, or it will make its first Final Four.

Cincinnati (22–2)

The Bearcats have a very good basketball team that occasionally becomes a great basketball team. They have one of the best non-Virginia defenses in recent college basketball history, have not lost a game in two months, and are a KenPom darling. But Cincinnati has also played a garbage schedule, is a member of the American Athletic Conference (a league that the selection committee seems to hate), and got pasted at Xavier (89–76) in December. With the Musketeers owning the no. 1 seed tiebreaker over the Bearcats, Virginia being a virtual lock for a top seed, Villanova and Purdue sitting not far behind the Hoos, and a ton of other teams lingering in the mix, Cincinnati probably needs even more chaos than we’ve already seen to this point to have any hope at getting a no. 1 seed. But hey — at least I mentioned the Bearcats as a candidate! That’s pretty good!

Tennessee (18–5)

As of Wednesday, ESPN’s Seth Walder was of the opinion that Tennessee has the best chance of earning a no. 1 seed behind Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue. This seemed preposterous when I first stumbled across it, so I decided to dig deeper and try to make sense of the claim. After an hour of sifting through numbers, comparing blind résumés, poring over quality wins and damaging losses, assessing strength of schedule, studying historical precedence, and factoring in the eye test, I gotta say: Bracketology is boring as shit. I have no idea how these guys do it as a full-time gig.

Anyway, I’m sticking with my initial reaction. Tennessee can’t be a no. 1 seed. I mean, technically it could be, but I just cannot understand what makes the Volunteers’ case any better than that of Auburn (which, lest anyone forget, beat Tennessee by 10 in Knoxville). Is a win over Purdue that came before Thanksgiving and took place in a damn Bahamian conference center that big of a deal? Are we supposed to be impressed that the Vols swept a Kentucky team that even Big Blue Nation gave up on a month ago? What am I missing here?

I don’t mean to disparage Tennessee, which is undoubtedly a good team that deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it this season. I just can’t envision a scenario where a group of people who have followed college basketball all year will honestly conclude that the Vols have emerged as one of the four best teams in America by mid-March. If we’re working under the assumption that Virginia, Villanova, and Purdue are likely to secure three of the four no. 1 seeds, there’s just no way in hell that Tennessee will get put on the no. 1 line above Xavier, Michigan State, Cincinnati, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Duke. That is, there’s no way unless …

I can’t tell if I’m joking when I say that we should just have all of the head coaches of the teams in no. 1 seed contention determine who gets that spot by playing this game. Tell me with a straight face that you wouldn’t drop 20 bucks to see a heavily oiled Mick Cronin tackle Chris Mack at the top of the staircase. Tell me you don’t want to see Coach K, Tom Izzo, and Bill Self crawling on their hands and knees in brightly colored onesies. You can’t.