It’s amazing how quickly the conversation in college basketball can change.
Shortly after Kentucky’s win over Tennessee on Saturday, I pitched our editors here a piece on the overall, No. 1 seed picture. Obviously most folks reading here are Kentucky fans and I actually thought that the Wildcats had a better shot at a No. 1 seed than most were projected.
We agreed that we would go ahead and wait until after Tuesday night’s games to be safe. Assuming Kentucky took care of business against Missouri and Tennessee handled Vanderbilt, it would be safe to run Wednesday morning. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit actually. In no particular order, here is what has changed in the race for the four No. 1 seeds, just since late Tuesday night:
— Reid Travis left Kentucky’s game with a knee injury – sending Big Blue Nation into a frenzy. Thankfully it was just a sprain and Travis will hopefully be back in just a few weeks. Still, with several big games ahead and Travis likely on the sidelines, Kentucky’s path to a No. 1 seed isn’t nearly as clear as it looked when I began this article Tuesday morning. I still think they get one, but this is a major road block.
— Tennessee looked terrible in a win against the SEC’s worst team, Vanderbilt. Ultimately it had no bearing on the Vols pursuit of a No. 1 seed, but with Tennessee facing five straight games against NCAA Tournament caliber teams to close the regular season, it feels fair to wonder if the Vols can finish as strongly as they started.
— Nevada lost on the road at San Diego State on Wednesday night. While the Wolf Pack were a long-shot to get a No. 1, this officially eliminated them from any such talk.
— Zion Williamson went down with a knee injury – flipping the sports world on its head Thursday. Zion is OK, and we can put to rest talking of him “Shutting it Down” for now. At the same time, Duke took a loss no one saw coming, and now they aren’t nearly as much of a lock for a No. 1 as they were before the Carolina game.
— Duke’s unexpected loss resulted in an unexpected North Carolina win – and now the Tar Heels have a realistic, albeit small shot at a No. 1 seed. It would take a minor miracle, but North Carolina does in fact have life in the No. 1 seed debate.
And again, that’s only what happened since Tuesday afternoon when I officially finished the first draft of the article below – can you imagine how much will change in the final two weeks of the regular season?
Ultimately however, the gist of the article didn’t change, and I still believe Kentucky is in prime position to get a No. 1 seed.
Let’s go through all the scenarios and all the teams involved, to give you a clearer picture of where we are, and how the Wildcats fit in.
First, a few simple parameters before we get started
One, when I reference “Quad 1” and “Quad 2” wins and losses below, those are all according to the NCAA’s new “NET” rankings which will help put together the field of 68 and seed those teams. Games, wins and losses are broken up into “Quads” with the biggest games, against the best teams falling into “Quad 1” and so on so forth. The worst wins, against the worst teams in college basketball, fall into “Quad 4.”
Here is how the Quads break down, per the NET rankings:
- Quadrant 1: Home Game 1-30; Neutral Site 1-50; Away Game 1-75
- Quadrant 2: Home Game 31-75; Neutral Site 51-100; Away Game 76-135
- Quadrant 3: Home Game 76-160; Neutral Site 101-200; Away Game 136-240
- Quadrant 4: Home Game 161-plus; Neutral Site 201-plus; Away Game 241-plus
Here are the overall NET rankings for those who are so inclined to dig through each individual team’s “Team Sheet.”
Now with that, let’s look at the competition for No. 1 seeds:
The team that has basically locked up a No. 1 seed: Virginia
While I’m still dubious that Virginia can win six straight games to claim a national championship, I can’t deny they’ve accomplished just about enough during the regular season to get a No. 1 seed. The Cavaliers currently sit at 23-2 overall and 8-2 overall against Quad 1 teams. Their only two losses are to Duke, when Duke was at full-strength, which is nothing to be ashamed about. Outside those two losses, Virginia has an impressive resume that includes wins at North Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Maryland, at NC State and on a neutral court against Wisconsin in the early portion of the schedule.
In terms of “what’s next,” the Cavaliers still have a semi-tough schedule ahead, with two games against Louisville and one game at Syracuse. But considering they’ve owned Louisville over the past few years, it seems hard to believe they’ll lose the requisite games needed to fall off the No. 1 line.
So yeah, in a world where they lose both Louisville games, or a Louisville game and at Syracuse as well as in the ACC Tournament, then they could fall to a No. 2 seed.
But given that Virginia literally hasn’t lost to anyone other than Duke this season, it feels safe to say that sooner, rather than later that they’ll lock up a No. 1 seed.
The team that had a No. 1 locked up until it lost Wednesday: Duke
When I originally wrote this article prior to the Duke-North Carolina game, I had Duke penciled in as a lock for a No. 1 seed. Yes, the schedule was tough down the stretch, but considering that they were 23-2 at the time, and considering the way they were blitzing through everyone in the ACC it was hard to imagine them losing enough to fall off the No. 1 seed line.
Then Wednesday happened, Zion’s foot burst through his shoe and the internet went insane. And even though we found out Zion will be OK and likely return soon (maybe as early as Saturday), it did – at least temporarily – put Duke’s status as “No. 1 seed lock” on hold. We still don’t know exactly when Zion will be back, and it doesn’t help that the Blue Devils have a legitimately tough schedule down the stretch that includes games at Syracuse (Saturday), at Virginia Tech and at North Carolina to close the season. Plus the ACC Tournament.
Ultimately, I think this weekend at Syracuse should give us a clearer picture of what Duke’s one-seed status looks like. Win that, and they’re back in the driver’s seat, and it would probably only take a win at North Carolina or a deep run in the ACC Tournament to lock in a No. 1.
Lose it, and all of a sudden there is a legitimate conversation about whether or not Duke will be on the one-line come Selection Sunday.
Teams that are good, but not really in the mix for a No. 1 seed: North Carolina, Kansas, Nevada, Texas Tech
Let’s quickly break down the teams that are good, but not seriously in the conversation for a No. 1 seed:
- North Carolina: Credit to the Tar Heels, who put themselves into the conversation for a No. 1 seed following that Duke win on Wednesday night. The problem is that while they currently sit at 21-5 overall, they are just 6-5 against Quad 1 teams. To me, it feels like the Tar Heels would basically have to win out – beating Duke at home to close the regular season, then win the ACC Tournament to even be in the discussion. And even then, it might not be enough. Still, credit where it’s due, had North Carolina lost to Duke they would have been completely out of this conversation. Now, they are somehow still alive.
- Kansas: On a positive note, the Jayhawks have the second most Quad 1 wins in all of college basketball with nine (second only to Michigan State’s 10). But keep in mind a handful of those came when the team was at full-strength (Michigan State, Tennessee etc.). Kansas obviously won’t be anywhere close to full-strength with Udoka Azibuke out for the season and LaGerald Vick on “leave” from the team. The committee does and will factor that in when seeding them. More importantly, Kansas is just 2-6 in true road games, including 2-5 in Quad 1 road games. It would take Kansas basically winning out – something I don’t think they’ll do – to get a No. 1 seed. And even that might not be enough.
- Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are quietly 21-5 overall – which is better than most people realize. But they are just 4-5 in Quad 1 games, with a tough road ahead (at Iowa State, at TCU, Kansas at home). The rise of Texas Tech hoops is a great story under Chris Beard. But they aren’t a team getting a No. 1 seed. Not this year anyway.
- Nevada: Incredible stat: To date, Nevada still hasn’t played a single Quad 1 game. I don’t mean that they haven’t “beaten a Quad 1 opponent.” I mean they haven’t played one. Now part of that is out of their control – Nevada tried to schedule up and the teams they played (USC, Arizona State, Utah) just aren’t that good. Plus, the Mountain West is way down this year. Still, when you factor in the “Zero Quad 1 games” to date (they could play up to two more) with the fact that they just dropped their second game of the season at San Diego State, it means the Wolf Pack – as dangerous as they may be – have no realistic shot at a No. 1 seed.
- Houston: The computers love Houston (currently ranked No. 4 in the NET rankings) but it’s hard to envision their schedule allowing them to move up to the No. 1 seed line. The Cougars are 25-1 overall (including an impressive win over LSU) but just 5-1 in Quad 1 games, with only one (at Cincinnati) left on their schedule. Considering that their resume is currently inferior to the rest of the No. 1 seeds, and considering it can’t get much better, it seems more likely that Houston ends up as a No. 2 or 3 seed come Selection Sunday.
Teams that are seriously in the running for the remaining No. 1 seeds: Michigan, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Tennessee and… Kentucky
So now that we’ve gotten all the other stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at the chase for the remaining No. 1 seeds. If we’re to assume that one has been basically wrapped up (Virginia) and another one should be soon (Duke), that means that two are available, with five teams logistically vying for those spots.
Those teams are: Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, Gonzaga and Kentucky.
Let’s look at them in order from “least” to “most” likely to get those No. 1 seeds:
- Michigan State: Working in Michigan State’s favor is that they have the most Quad 1 wins of any team in college basketball with 10. Not working in their favor is that they have two Quad 2 losses (at Illinois and Indiana at home… eww). Add in the fact that they really have no sparkling wins out of conference (their best out of conference win is what, maybe Texas?) and this just doesn’t stack up like the resume of a No. 1 seed. It’s also worth noting, that in a specific, head-to-head matchup with Kentucky, Michigan State has two losses to teams Kentucky beat (Kansas and Louisville). That might be a minor factor. But it could indeed be a factor.
By the way, did I mention that poor Michigan State just can’t escape the injury bug? The Spartans lost their third leading scorer for the season when Joshua Langford hurt his foot a few weeks ago, and now their second leading scorer Nick Ward is out indefinitely with a hand injury. He could be done for the season.
With two games left against Michigan and a road game at Indiana, Michigan State in theory could do enough to make a run at a No. 1 seed. But with injuries mounting and a few bad losses, it just doesn’t seem likely right now.
- Tennessee: We already know what Tennessee has working against them: To this point, the Vols SEC schedule has been laughably easy, as up until Saturday they hadn’t faced the second, third, fifth or sixth or seventh ranked teams in SEC play (LSU, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn respectively). That changed with the Kentucky loss on Saturday, leaving the Vols with a pretty pedestrian 4-2 record against Quad 1 teams right now. That’s the same as Gonzaga.
The good news for Tennessee is that the Vols have about a billion chances to pick up more quality wins. To be more exact, all five of their remaining regular season games are Quad 1 matchups. And that’s before they even enter the SEC Tournament, where they can pick up a few more. It doesn’t hurt that unlike Michigan State, their only losses are quality (vs. Kansas, at Kentucky) so far.
Right now, it feels like 4-1 in the final five games locks in a No. 1 seed for Tennessee and 3-2 probably puts them in good position as well. At that point you’d be looking at a resume of 27-4 overall, with a 7-4 record against Quad 1 heading into the SEC Tournament with more chances to pick up quality wins in Nashville.
Still, based on what we’ve seen the last two games, is it realistic to expect the Vols to go 3-2 in their final five? We’ll begin to get the answer Saturday when they play at LSU.
- Michigan: I’ve never bought into Michigan being a national title contender, and right now I’d say their path to a No. 1 seed isn’t even necessarily as easy as some people think. Yes, the Wolverines are 22-3 overall, but they are just 7-3 in Quad 1 games and 3-3 in Quad 1 road games. One of those Quad 1 losses (Penn State) could easily be a Quad 2 loss by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around (Frankly, the fact that a game at Penn State counts as a Quad 1 matchup tells you everything that is wrong with the quad system).
To Michigan’s advantage, they still have opportunities to pick up key wins with Quad 1 games remaining against Michigan State Sunday, at Maryland and at Michigan State to close the season.
Win two out of three, and Michigan will be in good shape to get a No. 1 seed. Lose two out of three and it’s not nearly as likely.
- Gonzaga: To Gonzaga’s credit, they did everything they could to bulk up their out of conference resume. Seriously, they played Duke, Tennessee and North Carolina in either true road games or on neutral courts. They also played the best team in the Pac-12 (Washington) and Creighton and Arizona as well. Therefore, instead of crushing Gonzaga for the weakness of their conference (like so many people choose to do), we should credit them for taking a “We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere” mentality in the out of conference.
At the same time, while the WCC is improved, it still just doesn’t give Gonzaga the overall body of work that other teams have. They are just 4-2 overall in Quad 1 games, with only two more chances to pick up Quad 1 wins (at Saint Mary’s, and against Saint Mary’s in the conference tournament).
The bottom-line is that just everyone on this list still has a bunch of tough games left and Gonzaga really doesn’t. Depending on how those games play out, that could work for or against the Zags. Right now I’d say it’s 50/50 they get a No. 1 seed.
(Now, it’s worth debating whether you’d rather have Gonzaga as the No. 2 seed in your region, as opposed to say Virginia, Michigan or Michigan State as a No. 1. But for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t appear as though Gonzaga is getting any higher than a No. 2).
- Kentucky: Finally, let’s talk Wildcats. Again, nothing is guaranteed. But I do think that they have a way better shot at a No. 1 seed than anyone is really discussing right now.
First off, the Wildcats have taken care of business against a significantly tougher schedule than people realize. They have eight Quad 1 wins, which is tied for third most (behind only Michigan State and Kansas) and with games at Tennessee, at Ole Miss and against Auburn, they have a chance to pick up more. There is also a chance that depending on what Florida does over the course of the rest of the season, beating them at home could end up as a Quad 1 win as well.
And that’s their resume before the SEC Tournament. I don’t want to jinx anything, but considering that Kentucky has won the last four SEC Tournaments, six of nine in the Calipari era and they made the title game eight of nine years, it feels pretty reasonable to me that they will pick up a couple more quality wins in Nashville as well.
Of course none of that has factored in Reid Travis’ absence the next few games. However, as I said on my podcast yesterday, if there was “good news” that came out of the injury (and that’s debatable) it happened at an alright portion of the schedule. Auburn is a perimeter-based team where Travis’ absence won’t be nearly as impactful as other games, and Arkansas is flat-out terrible. A road trip to Tennessee is a game that many thought Kentucky could lose even with Travis, so if they do lose, it won’t be held against them.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is any “magic number” for Kentucky to get a No. 1 seed. But with my doubts about Tennessee and Michigan State and with Gonzaga’s resume basically complete, Kentucky should be OK if they just win the games they’re supposed to on their remaining schedule.
Obviously if Kentucky wins out, they are a lock to get a No. 1 seed and I would say that if their only loss going forward was either A) at Tennessee or B) In the SEC title game, my hunch is that’s enough for a No. 1 seed as well. Realistically, I think they could lose both and I still get a No. 1 seed, although it might not be in the preferred destination of Louisville.
At this point, there are lots of issues to debate: What needs to be done to make sure the path goes through Louisville? Would you rather be a No. 2 with say Michigan State or Virginia as your No. 1, as opposed to a No. 1 seed out West with Gonzaga as your No. 2 (don’t laugh, the Zags have more fans than you think).
Those are questions for another day though.
Like I said, if Kentucky does what they are supposed to, I believe they will end up with a No. 1 seed.