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Bracketology: Breaking down the 11 teams with a shot at a No. 1 seed

Villanova and Purdue lead a field that’s not quite as crowded as 2017’s.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

At this time last season, I wrote that a whopping 16 teams could conceivably hear their names called as No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday. But even though the 2017-18 campaign looks to be even more wide open overall, there isn’t the same quality at the top. Not only is 2018’s crop of top seed contenders considerably smaller than 2017’s, it also lacks a few teams anticipated to be in the hunt back when we tipped off back in mid-November.

Here are the 11 teams that have the best shot to anchor a region on March 11, ranked roughly in order, starting with the top three teams from Tuesday’s bracket. Here are the updated RPI win groups for reference.

New RPI Win Groups

RPI Group Home Neutral Road
RPI Group Home Neutral Road
1 1-30 1-50 1-75
2 31-75 51-100 76-135
3 76-160 101-200 136-240
4 161-351 201-351 241-351

Note: All RPI and schedule data is from and accounts for all games played through Thursday, Jan. 18. Records only account for games played against Division I teams.

Villanova Wildcats

17-1, 5-1 Big East; RPI: 3; SOS: 33; non-conf. SOS: 68; KenPom: 1

Record vs. Group 1: 5-1; Potential Group 1 games left: 7
Record vs. Group 2: 3-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 3
Top 2 Wins: No. 5 Xavier (home) and No. 14 Tennessee (neutral)
Loss: at No. 32 Butler

While the Wildcats didn’t meet either their Arizona namesakes or Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis final, Villanova’s early round wins over Western Kentucky and Tennessee count as Group 1 victories, somewhat unexpectedly. And with the Big East offering Jay Wright’s squad 10 quality win chances before tournament play, expect Nova to continue to add to what’s already a top seed’s profile. While five of the Wildcats’ seven remaining Group 1 win chances are scheduled for away from home, that ratio shouldn’t be much of a worry for a team that’s 5-1 in true road games so far.

Purdue Boilermakers

18-2, 7-0 Big Ten; RPI: 10; SOS: 36; non-conf. SOS: 67; KenPom: 2

Record vs. Group 1: 7-2; Potential Group 1 games left: 2
Record vs. Group 2: 1-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 4
Top 2 Wins: No. 15 Louisville (home) and No. 20 Arizona (neutral)
Losses: No. 14 Tennessee and No. 34 Western Kentucky (both neutral)

While the Boilermakers hold the national lead for Group 1 wins, they might have a difficult time staying at the top thanks to a down Big Ten. Just two of Purdue’s remaining 11 regular season games qualify for top-tier status as of this moment. With that in mind, the best advice I can give the Big Ten leaders is to keep winning. A slip-up could be costly for Matt Painter’s club simply because the majority of their rivals on this list will have far more opportunities to pad their quality win totals.

Kansas Jayhawks

15-3, 5-1 Big 12; RPI: 7; SOS: 3; non-conf. SOS: 16; KenPom: 10

Record vs. Group 1: 6-2; Potential Group 1 games left: 5
Record vs. Group 2: 3-1; Potential Group 2 games left: 6
Top 2 Wins: No. 12 Kentucky (neutral) and No. 18 TCU (away)
Losses: No. 16 Texas Tech (home), No. 27 Arizona State (home), and No. 54 Washington (neutral)

Just when you thought the Jayhawks were finally set to surrender the Big 12 title, and the No. 1 seed likely to come with it, they’re suddenly all alone atop the standings. That’s thanks to a big Monday night win at West Virginia and midweek losses by both Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Sure, hurdles remain, as Kansas must still play the Sooners twice, host WVU, and visit the Red Raiders — who have already won in Lawrence. But the Jayhawks’ ability to rise to the occasion on the road — their six best wins have all come away from Phog Allen — should keep them in the hunt all the way to Selection Sunday.

Duke Blue Devils

16-2, 4-2 ACC; RPI: 1; SOS: 5; non-conf. SOS: 7; KenPom: 4

Record vs. Group 1: 4-2; Potential Group 1 games left: 6
Record vs. Group 2: 2-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 4
Top 2 Wins: No. 22 Miami (away), No. 30 Michigan State (neutral)
Losses: No. 64 Boston College and No. 73 N.C. State (both away)

While the Blue Devils are the top team in the RPI and possess a quartet of Group 1 wins, all away from home, they don’t yet have a true marquee victory on their profile. But with the traditional home-and-home series with North Carolina, a visit from Virginia, and a trip to Clemson — all games against squads currently in the RPI top six — remaining, Duke will certainly be able to rectify that deficiency before the ACC tournament tips off.

North Carolina Tar Heels

15-5, 4-2 ACC; RPI: 2; SOS: 1; non-conf. SOS: 6; KenPom: 9

Record vs. Group 1: 5-3; Potential Group 1 games left: 6
Record vs. Group 2: 4-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 3
Top 2 Wins: No. 6 Clemson (home), No. 14 Tennessee (away)
Losses: No. 4 Virginia (away), No. 30 Michigan State (neutral), No. 46 Florida State (away), and No. 102 Wofford (home)

Yes, the Tar Heels’ Dec. 20 home loss to Wofford is the worst one suffered by a team on this list by some margin. But it may not matter, as UNC should be able to use the nation’s sixth-ranked non-conference schedule and the ACC’s strength to amass an enviable quality win total. And while Virginia will have an advantage on both Carolina and Duke in claiming the unofficial ACC regular season crown, both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils could pass the Cavaliers on the seed list because of their schedule quality.

West Virginia Mountaineers

15-3, 4-2 Big 12; RPI: 21; SOS: 49; non-conf. SOS: 216; KenPom: 11

Record vs. Group 1: 4-3; Potential Group 1 games left: 7
Record vs. Group 2: 2-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 4
Top 2 Wins: No. 4 Virginia and No. 8 Oklahoma (both at home)
Losses: No. 7 Kansas (home), No. 16 Texas Tech (away), and No. 38 Texas A&M (neutral)

The Mountaineers responded to a season-opening loss to Texas A&M by racking up 15 straight wins. That streak ended in Lubbock on Saturday, with a home loss to Kansas following roughly 48 hours later. But the sudden skid isn’t the major issue with WVU’s candidacy. Even though the Mountaineers defeated Virginia in non-conference play, the rest of their early schedule does them no favors, though a home win over Kentucky in the Big 12/SEC Challenge would give that ranking a late boost. The visit from the Wildcats is one of three remaining potential Group 1 home games for Bob Huggins’s squad — TCU and Texas Tech are the others. On the other hand, WVU must travel to Fort Worth, Norman, and Lawrence between now and the Big 12 tournament.

Oklahoma Sooners

14-3, 4-2 Big 12; RPI: 8; SOS: 16; non-conf. SOS: 112; KenPom: 20

Record vs. Group 1: 5-3; Potential Group 1 games left: 6
Record vs. Group 2: 1-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 5
Top 3 Wins: No. 16 Texas Tech (home) and No. 18 TCU (home and away)
Losses: No. 21 West Virginia (away), No. 25 Arkansas (neutral), and No. 71 Kansas State (away)

Even though Trae Young and the Sooners are 2-2 in true road games, both of those losses have come in Big 12 play, which doesn’t bode well for their title chances. And while Oklahoma will welcome both Kansas and West Virginia to the Lloyd Noble Center before the regular season ends, Lon Kruger’s squad must also visit the Jayhawks, Texas Tech, and Alabama for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. If any of those squads are able to contain Young the way Kansas State did on Tuesday night, the Sooners could be chased from this race relatively quickly.

Virginia Cavaliers

17-1, 6-0 ACC; RPI: 4; SOS: 34; non-conf. SOS: 111; KenPom: 3

Record vs. Group 1: 2-1; Potential Group 1 games left: 7
Record vs. Group 2: 5-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 2
Top 2 Wins: No. 2 North Carolina (home), No. 11 Rhode Island (neutral)
Loss: No. 21 West Virginia (away)

While the Cavaliers have won 17 games so far, only their top two victories qualify for Group 1 status. But a backloaded schedule in a strong ACC will allow Virginia to quickly increase that total. The conference’s unbalanced schedule also helps Tony Bennett’s team in its chase for the top seed in the ACC tournament — the Cavaliers only have to play UNC, Clemson, and Duke once each, though the game against the Blue Devils is at Cameron Indoor.

Xavier Musketeers

17-3, 5-2 Big East; RPI: 5; SOS: 12; non-conf. SOS: 27; KenPom: 16

Record vs. Group 1: 3-3; Potential Group 1 games left: 6
Record vs. Group 2: 6-0; Potential Group 2 games left: 2
Top 2 Wins: No. 23 Creighton and No. 24 Cincinnati (both at home)
Losses: No. 3 Villanova (away), No. 27 Arizona State (neutral), and No. 43 Providence (away)

Even though the Musketeers rank in the RPI top five, their position in this race isn’t all that secure. That’s because Xavier’s two best wins came at home against teams ranked in the mid-20s, and they could drop out of the top 30 with an ill-timed skid. Picking up a home win over Villanova and a sweep of Seton Hall would not only keep Chris Mack’s team in the thick of the Big East race, but also do wonders for its No. 1 seed hopes.

Clemson Tigers

15-3, 4-2 ACC; RPI: 6; SOS: 10; non-conf. SOS: 47; KenPom: 13

Record vs. Group 1: 5-2; Potential Group 1 games left: 5
Record vs. Group 2: 4-1; Potential Group 2 games left: 4
Top 2 Wins: No. 15 Louisville (home), No. 19 Ohio State (away)
Losses: No. 2 North Carolina (away), No. 51 Temple (neutral), and No. 73 N.C. State (away)

The Tigers’ case would have become considerably stronger had they won in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night, but Clemson lost there for the 59th straight time. While Brad Brownell’s surprising team has five Group 1 wins, that total, like so many others described here, lacks a true marquee victory. Clemson has three more chances to earn one during the regular season — encounters against UNC and Duke at Littlejohn and Tuesday’s trip to Charlottesville.

Auburn Tigers

16-2, 4-1 SEC; RPI: 9; SOS: 39; non-conf. SOS: 95; KenPom: 21

Record vs. Group 1: 3-1; Potential Group 1 games left: 7
Record vs. Group 2: 4-1; Potential Group 2 games left: 4
Top 2 Wins: No. 14 Tennessee (away) and No. 25 Arkansas (home)
Losses: No. 28 Alabama (away) and No. 51 Temple (neutral)

A 14-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to the top of the SEC, ahead of a trio of teams expected to be on this list at the beginning of the season — Kentucky, Florida, and Texas A&M. However, Wednesday’s loss at Alabama dropped Bruce Pearl’s squad a half-game behind the Gators in the race for the conference crown. Like Clemson immediately above, the most noteworthy flaw on Auburn’s profile is a Charleston Classic loss to Temple. But Bruce Pearl’s squad joins their ACC feline rivals in also lacking a true marquee win. And with no SEC team currently joining Auburn in the RPI top 10, the Tigers will likely need to make their case for a top seed without owning a top-tier victory.

But what about _________?

You might be wondering why certain teams are missing from this list, so here’s a quick look at them and why they failed to make the cut.

While a surprising Jan. 2 win at Kansas pushed Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2) into the national conversation, a Big 12 title looks to be its only path to a top seed. That’s because Tech’s home-heavy non-conference schedule, which featured seven home Group 4 wins, cannot compare to the November/December slates of the majority of teams above.

Hopes were high for the Wichita State (15-3, 5-1) as it entered the American Athletic Conference. But while Gregg Marshall’s team is 7-3 against Groups 1 and 2, the Shockers own just one top-tier win — a Maui Invitational semifinal victory over Marquette. Making matters worse, they’ll likely play just six more Group 1 games in the regular season — with a home-and-home series with Cincinnati the most significant of those matchups.

Big East surprise Seton Hall (15-4, 4-2) has been on the fringe of the RPI top 10 all season and has yet to play either Villanova or Xavier. But the Pirates have been dreadful away from home — 2-3 in true road games, with a loss to the awful Rutgers Scarlet Knights to their name. To jump into the No. 1 seed race, Kevin Willard’s team will need to improve that form.

Perennial SEC favorite Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) is a disappointing 4-4 in contests that qualify for Groups 1 and 2, with only the Wildcats’ blowout win over Louisville ranking among the top tier. And while Kentucky has eight Group 1 win chances left this season, only two of those, visits from Tennessee and Alabama, are scheduled for Rupp Arena.

Preseason No. 1 seed Michigan State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) has won just five of eight Group 1 and 2 matchups, and is 1-3 against the top tier. Yes, that win came over No. 2 North Carolina in the PK80 Victory final, but Michigan State’s next-best victory is currently a home triumph over No. 47 Maryland. A weak Big Ten won’t help MSU’s case. Tom Izzo’s team will play just one game against a likely NCAA tournament team between now and when the league tournament tips at Madison Square Garden — Feb. 10’s visit from Purdue.

Out West, Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) and Arizona State (14-4, 2-4 Pac-12) have similar problems. For starters, this season’s Pac-12 is bad and the schedule-makers did the Wildcats and Sun Devils no favors. Barring late pushes by Colorado, UCLA, and USC, the only remaining Group 1 win opportunities left for the Arizona schools are their rematch in Tempe and their respective early February matchups against Washington in Seattle. The lack of marquee wins available the rest of the way make the Wildcats’ 0-3 trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis and Sun Devils’ slow start to Pac-12 play look like serious missed opportunities in this race.

On Tuesday, I’ll be back with a full bracket projection. Next Friday, it’s time to take our first look at the bubble for 2018.