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Bracketology: Ranking the 16 teams who have a shot at a No. 1 seed

With seven weeks left until Selection Sunday, the teams in contention for the bracket’s four anchor spots are rather clear.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Villanova Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the rest of the bracket is a jumbled mess, the race for top seeds is slightly more settled with seven weeks to go before Selection Sunday. In my view, 16 teams have a chance to hear their names called early on March 12th. These squads represent a half-dozen conferences, with the Big Ten notably missing.

Without further delay, here are my thoughts on each, presented in order of likelihood.

RPI data is from RPIForecast.com and was accurate as of the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 19. Records only account for games against Division I opponents.

1. Villanova Wildcats

18-1; 6-1 Big East; RPI rank: 1; SOS rank: 9; expected SOS rank: 20

The top-ranked team in the RPI at the moment has 12 Top 100 wins, with seven of those coming against Top 50 foes. Plus, the Wildcats’ lone loss of the season came at Butler, who sits fourth.

Nova will have at least four more opportunities to improve its 7-1 Top 50 mark before the Big East Tournament tips in New York. The Wildcats will visit Xavier Musketeers and host Virginia, Butler and Creighton — with those final two in-league challenges scheduled for a four-day span in late February.

Sweep all of those games and the Wildcats probably won’t need to cut down the nets at MSG to secure a spot on the top line.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

16-2; 6-0 SEC; RPI rank: 6; SOS rank: 7; expected SOS rank: 18

Even though the Wildcats are 7-2 against the Top 100 with a 4-2 mark in games against the Top 50, their hopes rely on potential. That’s because the long-term staying power of three of those Top 50 wins (Michigan State, Ole Miss and Arkansas) is questionable. However, UK still plays Florida twice and hosts both South Carolina (Saturday) and Kansas (next Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge). Given that neither the Gators nor Gamecocks look to be on the Wildcats’ level, that showdown with the Jayhawks might be vital in the top seed race.

If Kentucky wins next Saturday and keeps steamrolling the rest of the SEC, it will be back on the top line for the first time since 2015.

3. Kansas Jayhawks

17-1; 6-0 Big 12; RPI rank: 3; SOS rank: 20; expected SOS rank: 8

While the Jayhawks haven’t lost since dropping their opener to Indiana, they haven’t faced a marquee opponent since defeating Duke four nights later in New York. Therefore, while Kansas is 11-1 against the Top 100, it has just four wins against Top 50 foes.

Two gauntlets will play a key role in determine the Big 12 race and the Jayhawks’ top seed hopes. Starting Tuesday, Bill Self’s team will play West Virginia and Kentucky on the road and Baylor back at the Phog in an eight-day span. Then, in mid-February, KU will play its return games against the Mountaineers and Bears within a week.

If Kansas continues its Big 12 dominance, it will likely earn a top seed for the second straight year and the fourth time this decade.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs

18-0; 6-0 WCC; RPI rank: 9; SOS rank: 55; expected SOS rank: 77

In two of the last three seasons, a team has made it to Selection Sunday with a perfect record — Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015. Both earned top seeds, though the Shockers’ wasn’t without controversy.

If the Bulldogs can stay undefeated, we might hear more debate, particularly with the WCC being down this season. Gonzaga does have a 7-0 Top 100 record, though that’s only likely to improve by four more wins — provided the Zags defeat Saint Mary’s twice more (in Moraga and in the WCC final) and BYU in their two matchups. A trio of wins over the Gaels and non-conference triumphs over Florida and Arizona would then give Mark Few’s team a 5-0 record against the Top 50 at worst. That could be enough when paired with perfection.

But lose to Saint Mary’s (or worse, any other WCC foe) and the Bulldogs will surely be a two seed at best.

5. UCLA Bruins

19-1; 6-1 Pac-12; RPI rank: 19; SOS rank: 94; expected SOS rank: 85

The biggest thing working against the Bruins at the moment is a lack of truly quality wins. Of UCLA’s seven Top 100 wins, only the shocking win at Kentucky on Dec. 3 came against a team currently in the Top 50. Improvement by California, Michigan, and Texas A&M would help the Bruins’ case. So would wins in their five remaining contests against teams likely to reach the NCAAs. Steve Alford’s squad gets to pit itself against Arizona twice (including Saturday’s showdown at Pauley), USC home and away, and Oregon in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.

Considering the competition on this list, UCLA would be well advised to win as many games as possible between now and Selection Sunday, including in the Pac-12 Tournament.

6. Baylor Bears

16-1; 5-1 Big 12; RPI rank: 2; SOS rank: 16; expected SOS rank: 2

While wins over Michigan State and VCU aren’t looking as awesome as they did back in November, the Bears still own victories over Oregon, Louisville, and Xavier with three more chances at earning marquee wins in conference play. Baylor didn’t look great in losing at West Virginia, and they’ll next have to improve upon their performance when they visit Lawrence, but they get both rematches in Waco in the second half of February.

If Scott Drew’s club can keep adding wins to their 6-1 Top 50 mark, they’ll finish in great position.

7. Butler Bulldogs

16-3; 5-2 Big East; RPI rank: 4; SOS rank: 6; expected SOS rank: 10

Yes, the Bulldogs have lost to Indiana State and St John’s, but they’re also 13-1 against the Top 100 with a half-dozen Top 50 victories, including one over Villanova. However, those two losses give Butler little room for error.

Like Creighton, Chris Holtmann’s team has three games remaining against the Big East’s tournament locks, with two of those coming on the road. However, Butler’s task is made more difficult by the fact they play both Nova and Xavier on the road over four days to close February. If the Bulldogs avoid any further slip-ups, those games could end up being highly significant nationally.

8. Oregon Ducks

16-2; 6-0 Pac-12; RPI rank: 14; SOS rank: 38; expected SOS rank: 36

If you’re going to talk about UCLA, you have to talk about the only team that’s defeated the Bruins so far, a Ducks squad that earned a surprise top seed last spring. Dana Altman’s squad entered the year with sky-high expectations, but thanks in part to the absence of Dillon Brooks early in the season, Oregon struggled early — losing to Baylor at home and to Georgetown in the Maui quarterfinals, a result that ultimately damaged the Ducks’ non-conference schedule.

But Oregon hasn’t lost since falling to the Hoyas on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the unbalanced Pac-12 schedule will help them rack up more quality wins. The Ducks, 2-1 against the Top 50 and 5-2 against the Top 100, are currently lacking in that department. But thanks to a pair of meetings with UCLA and USC and home-and-home series with both Utah and California, Oregon will finish the regular season with three more games against Pac-12 bid contenders than UCLA. And that total includes just a single game against Arizona, which will be played in Eugene.

In other words, don’t be surprised if the Ducks lock up the top seed in the West if they remain red hot. But keep an eye on Brooks’ health. He didn’t play in the second half last night thanks to a foot injury.

9. Creighton Bluejays

17-1; 5-1 Big East; RPI rank: 7; SOS rank: 19; expected SOS rank: 43

Maurice Watson’s knee injury might be devastating to the Bluejays over the long term, but Creighton has more than enough talent to remain a factor in this race. So far, the Jays have racked up a 7-1 mark against the Top 100, with five Top 50 wins and a loss to Villanova. However, the Jays’ non-conference schedule might not have much quality on it beyond a win over Wisconsin when March rolls around, as NC State, Ole Miss, and Nebraska are all struggling.

However, Greg McDermott’s squad still has three big opportunities remaining in conference play: games at Butler and against Xavier at home in a five-day span and a Feb. 25 trip to Villanova. Still, with the Wildcats sitting higher in the pecking order and a questionable non-conference slate, Creighton is another squad that just needs to keep winning.

There are a whopping six ACC squads in contention. But since they’re likely to beat up on each other and eliminate themselves from the race, I’ve placed them all in one group.

10. North Carolina Tar Heels

16-3; 5-1 ACC; RPI rank: 11; SOS rank: 23; expected SOS rank: 7

Losses to Indiana and Georgia Tech have damaged the Tar Heels’ hopes, but UNC can improve upon its 8-3 record against the Top 100 throughout the remainder of the ACC season. More importantly, the Tar Heels still have a half-dozen games left against the league’s top tier, so they’ll have ample opportunity to better a Top 50 record that currently stands at just 3-1. And just two of those games — trips to Duke and Virginia — will come away from Chapel Hill.

11. Florida State Seminoles

17-2; 5-1 ACC; RPI rank: 9; SOS rank: 21; expected SOS rank: 27

On the flip side, after Saturday, the worst will be over for Seminoles, as they’ll have then played five games against the ACC teams on this list. However, their final two — rematches against Notre Dame and Duke — are both on the road.

While FSU’s non-conference schedule wasn’t great (they’re another squad that lost to Temple in the NIT Season Tip-Off), wins over Florida and Minnesota provided unexpected boosts. Largely taking care of business in league play so far has been even more important, but those two remaining marquee road trips might lead to some seed regression late. But Leonard Hamilton’s team has the talent and depth to keep on surprising.

12. Louisville Cardinals

16-3; 4-2 ACC; RPI rank: 8; SOS rank: 3; expected SOS rank: 1

The difficulty of the Cardinals’ schedule could end up costing them, as the ACC schedule makers gave them four road games against the teams in this group (out of seven total). On Saturday, Louisville heads to Tallahassee, and they’ll also visit Charlottesville and Chapel Hill before the season’s over. In fact, Rick Pitino’s club won’t get another top-tier ACC foe at home until the last day of the regular season, when Notre Dame visits looking for a sweep.

If the Cardinals can survive their road tests, early-season wins over Kentucky, Indiana and Purdue might just push them over the top.

13. Virginia Cavaliers

14-3; 4-2 ACC; RPI rank: 17; SOS rank: 25; expected SOS rank: 6

Thanks to losses to West Virginia and FSU at home and Pittsburgh on the road, the Cavaliers are a bit off the radar. But much like Oregon last season, Tony Bennett’s team will be able to make up ground late. Starting with Tuesday night’s trip to Notre Dame, Virginia has six games remaining against top-seed contenders, thanks to a Jan. 29 trip to Philly to take on Villanova.

Of their five remaining marquee ACC games, three will be at home (Louisville, Duke, and the back half of a home-and-home with UNC). Plus, the Cavaliers don’t have to visit Tallahassee.

While a trip to the top line isn’t likely without a few upsets, Virginia is in great position to make a late run.

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

16-3; 5-1 ACC; RPI rank: 20; SOS rank: 36; expected SOS rank: 35

On consecutive December Saturdays, the Fighting Irish blew halftime leads in neutral-court showdowns with both Villanova and Purdue. Thanks to those defeats, Notre Dame’s best two non-conference wins came against Colorado and Northwestern in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. That means the Irish will have to work extra hard to stay in this race.

Like Virginia, three of Notre Dame’s five remaining games against teams of this class come at home, though arguably the two most difficult contests left for Mike Brey’s squad — North Carolina and Louisville — are road trips.

But with a lack of great non-conference wins, Notre Dame is another squad that faces long odds.

15. Duke Blue Devils

14-4; 2-3 ACC; RPI rank: 16; SOS rank: 24; expected SOS rank: 12

Curiously, the team many pegged as the preseason favorite to cut down the nets in Glendale sits in an unfavorable position in late January. Thanks to injuries and disappointing results, the Blue Devils sit far down the pecking order. And don’t expect things to get better. Of Duke’s seven scheduled games against other ACC contenders, only two of those will come at Cameron Indoor. And the Blue Devils are 0-2 so far in their five road games.

Unless that trend turns around quickly, Mike Krzyzewski might have a disappointing seed waiting for him when he returns to the bench after back surgery.

We return to the Big 12 for our final team.

16. West Virginia Mountaineers

15-3; 4-2 Big 12; RPI rank: 41; SOS rank: 101; expected SOS rank: 58

Combine Wednesday’s surprising home loss to Oklahoma with a non-conference schedule that doesn’t compare favorably to most other contenders and the Mountaineers have their work cut out for them in earning a top seed. While WVU did win at Virginia, their next best win came over Illinois in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals — with a loss to disappointing Temple following the next afternoon.

A Big 12 title is therefore imperative for West Virginia. But Bob Huggins’ squad faces the opposite task Baylor does in its final three games against league heavyweights. After hosting Kansas on Tuesday, the Mountaineers must go to both Lawrence and Waco in February.

Honestly, the only way West Virginia gets to the top line is by winning both Big 12 crowns and getting help elsewhere.

Check back Tuesday for my next full projection. In the meantime, who do you think earns the four top seeds on Selection Sunday?