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15 teams that can get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament

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The 2019-20 season has been wild so far. And that means there are some unexpected names in the crowded race for the top four spots in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Kansas
Baylor and Kansas are two of the teams fighting for an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed. But they’re far from alone in the race.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Did you realize that Selection Sunday is now less than two months away?

Seriously, I didn’t notice it myself until about 9 p.m. on Wednesday — when it struck me that it really was January 15th and that the second half of the season was indeed well underway. At this time last year, I examined the cases of the 14 teams most likely to end up on the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seed line eight weeks in the future. Indeed, four of those squads — Gonzaga and a trio of ACC squads in Duke, North Carolina and Virginia — found themselves atop the bracket’s four regions on March 17th. Similarly, four of the 11 squads featured in 2018’s version of this exercise, namely Kansas, Villanova, Virginia and Xavier, anchored regions in that season’s tournament.

So, at this point of the season, it’s a rather simple exercise to whittle the top seed race from 353 teams to a dozen or so. However, the, um, uniqueness of the 2019-20 season so far means our group of contenders is a little larger — and more flawed — than usual.

Teams are grouped by conference, starting with the Big 12.

Note: Records, NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings and strength of schedule (SOS) data reflect games against Division I opposition only played through Thursday, January 16th. Data from WarrenNolan.com.

Baylor Bears (14-1, 4-0 Big 12)

NET ranking: 1
SOS rankings: 67 (overall)/162 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 5-1 vs. Quad 1/2-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 2 Kansas (away), No. 7 Butler (home), No. 15 Arizona (home), No. 20 Villanova (neutral)
Loss: No. 45 Washington (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 8 (2 home, 6 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 away)
Most important remaining games: at Florida (January 25th), West Virginia (February 15th), Kansas (February 22nd), at West Virginia (March 7th)

Baylor first served notice that it might be a national contender on November 24th, when the Bears took down Villanova in the Myrtle Beach Invitational title game. Since then, Scott Drew’s club has put together one of the most impressive collections of victories in the country, capped by Saturday’s road win at Kansas. While 2020’s version of the Big 12 isn’t quite as fertile from a Quad 1 victory perspective as 2019’s, particularly when considering home games, Baylor has a great chance to improve upon its top-tier victory total the rest of the way. After all, it gets both Kansas and West Virginia in Waco and has already won at both KU and Texas Tech. That means the Bears aren’t likely to be intimidated in any remaining road environment, save perhaps Gainesville, where they lost in the 2018 Big 12/SEC Challenge, and Morgantown, site of their regular-season finale.

Kansas Jayhawks (12-3, 3-1 Big 12)

NET ranking: 2
SOS rankings: 1 (overall)/1 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 7-3 vs. Quad 1/1-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 6 Dayton (neutral), No. 8 West Virginia (home), No. 9 Stanford (away), No. 20 Colorado (home)
Losses: No. 1 Baylor (home), No. 5 Duke (neutral), No. 20 Villanova (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 4 (0 home, 4 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 8 (6 home, 2 away)
Most important remaining games: Tennessee (January 25th), at West Virginia (February 12th), at Baylor (February 22nd)

The strength of the Big 12 and a typically stout non-conference schedule keep Kansas a in the chase even after Saturday’s loss to Baylor. One factor that works against the Jayhawks is a backloaded Big 12 schedule. They’ve yet to meet Texas Tech and must play both Baylor and West Virginia on the road after splitting their home games against the pair. Also factor working against Bill Self’s squad: an uninspiring matchup with Tennessee for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. If the event used a Bracketbusters-style flexible scheduling model, we probably wouldn’t have gotten an Auburn-Kansas rematch, as the Tigers are also slated to play at home, but an LSU-KU contest would have been a possibility.

West Virginia Mountaineers (14-2, 3-1 Big 12)

NET ranking: 8
SOS rankings: 2 (overall)/3 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-2 vs. Quad 1/6-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 17 Wichita State (neutral), No. 18 Ohio State (neutral), No. 32 Texas Tech (home)
Losses: No. 2 Kansas (away), No. 74 St. John’s (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 7 (2 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 6 (4 home, 2 away)
Most important remaining games: Missouri (January 25th), Kansas (February 12th), at Baylor (February 15th), Baylor (March 7th)

West Virginia has recovered nicely from last season’s 15-21 campaign that ended in the College Basketball Invitational (after a run to the Big 12 Tournament semifinals). Bob Huggins’ club has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2019-20 season and non-conference wins over Wichita State (in Cancun) and Ohio State (right when it looked like the Buckeye were set to ascend to the top spot in the polls) established them as national contenders. But with the Buckeyes falling back down to earth and a questionable loss to St. John’s in the Big East/Big 12 Battle, the Mountaineers really need a true top-tier win or three to establish themselves as a true No. 1 seed threat. The Big 12 schedule provides that with a visit from Kansas and pair of games with Baylor. But an SEC Challenge game against a Kentucky or LSU would have been preferable to a contest with Mizzou.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke
Duke is one of three ACC teams with a chance at a No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils will meet another, Louisville, on Saturday.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Duke Blue Devils (15-2, 5-1 ACC)

NET ranking: 5
SOS rankings: 11 (overall)/8 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 4-1 vs. Quad 1/2-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 2 Kansas (neutral), No. 10 Michigan State (away), No. 34 Virginia Tech (away)
Losses: No. 73 Clemson (away), No. 93 Stephen F. Austin (home)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 4 (2 home, 2 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 away)
Most important remaining games: Louisville (Saturday), Florida State (February 10th), Virginia Tech (February 22nd), at Virginia (February 29th)

Duke is the first of three ACC contenders — and the gap between the trio and the rest of the 12 teams in the conference could really damage all of their chances at the top line. It’s a good thing that the Blue Devils own two of the best non-conference wins possessed by the lead pack, as they won’t have many chances to add to their Quad 1 win total the rest of the way. That’s thanks to the league’s collective struggles and an unbalanced schedule. At this point last season, Mike Krzyzewski’s team had more than twice as many Quad 1 win opportunities available, nine, than the four currently on the schedule. Plus, as Tuesday’s setback at Clemson illustrates, Duke will always be in danger of picking up questionable losses — and they already have two. Keep adding to that total, and the chances of consecutive No. 1 seeds will drop.

Florida State Seminoles (15-2, 5-1 ACC)

NET ranking: 14
SOS rankings: 29 (overall)/45 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-1 vs. Quad 1/4-1 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 13 Louisville (away), No. 31 Purdue (neutral)
Losses: No. 47 Indiana (away), No. 80 Pittsburgh (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 6 (1 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 2 (0 home, 2 away)
Most important remaining games: at Virginia (January 28th), at Virginia Tech (February 1st), at Duke (February 10th), Louisville (February 24th)

Florida State was expected to be decent this season, but an Opening Night loss to Pitt led many to believe the Seminoles would take a step back following two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. But Leonard Hamilton’s squad routed Florida in its next game and hasn’t looked back, other than in an 80-64 loss at Indiana in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Victories at contender Louisville and over struggling Virginia in the past two weeks have cemented FSU’s status in the lead pack. However, the lack of a true marquee non-conference win means the ‘Noles will likely need to win at Duke and complete a season sweep of Louisville to enter the ACC Tournament with a shot at securing a shocking No. 1 seed.

Louisville Cardinals (14-3, 5-1 ACC)

NET ranking: 13
SOS rankings: 10 (overall)/72 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 1-3 vs. Quad 1/4-0 vs. Quad 2
Best win: No. 28 Michigan (home)
Losses: No. 14 Florida State (home), No. 32 Texas Tech (neutral), No. 38 Kentucky (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 5 (0 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 4 (3 home, 1 away)
Most important remaining games: at Duke (Saturday), at Florida State (February 24th), Virginia Tech (March 1st), at Virginia (March 7th)

Louisville is the final potential ACC contender and the one with the longest odds, thanks to a relative lack of quality non-conference wins — the Cardinals’ second best came against MAC-leading Akron. That means they may rue a Jimmy V Classic loss to Texas Tech and overtime setback at Kentucky as major missed opportunities on Selection Sunday. Making matters worse for Chris Mack’s club, while they have five Quad 1 win opportunities left, none of those are set for the KFC Yum Center.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue
Cassius Winston and Michigan State still have No. 1 seed hopes despite a blowout loss at Purdue on Sunday.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State Spartans (13-4, 5-1 Big Ten)

NET ranking: 10
SOS rankings: 27 (overall)/31 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-4 vs. Quad 1/3-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 12 Seton Hall (away), No. 22 Rutgers (home), No. 28 Michigan (home)
Losses: No. 5 Duke (home), No. 31 Purdue (away), No. 34 Virginia Tech (neutral), No. 38 Kentucky (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 11 (4 home, 7 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 0
Most important remaining games: Wisconsin (Friday), at Wisconsin (February 1st), at Michigan (February 8th), Maryland (February 15th), at Maryland (February 29th), Ohio State (March 8th)

The Big Ten has the opposite problem of the ACC: a ton of depth (thanks to the presence of 12 teams in the top 50 of both the NET and KenPom rankings) ,with a dearth of contenders for the top line. It hasn’t always been like this in the 2019-20 season. Back on December 2nd, Michigan State, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State all resembled serious challengers for both the Big Ten title and No. 1 seeds. But the final month of 2019 wasn’t kind to three of those teams, leaving the Spartans at the top of the heap. However, an inexplicable blowout defeat at Purdue last Sunday knocked Tom Izzo’s team down the seed list a bit. The good news for Michigan State is that conference play will give them plenty of opportunities to rebound. The bad news is the conference’s depth could result in the Spartans picking up too many losses to be seriously considered for a top seed.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Butler
With Seton Hall winning at Butler on Wednesday night, both teams have a chance at earning a spot on the No. 1 seed line.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Butler Bulldogs (15-2, 3-1 Big East)

NET ranking: 7
SOS rankings: 60 (overall)/118 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 4-2 vs. Quad 1/5-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 9 Stanford (neutral), No. 30 Creighton (home), No. 31 Purdue (neutral)
Losses: No. 1 Baylor (road), No. 12 Seton Hall (home)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 8 (1 home, 7 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 5 (5 home, 0 away)
Most important remaining games: at Villanova (January 21st), Villanova (February 5th), at Seton Hall (February 19th), at Creighton (February 23rd)

Wednesday night’s game at Hinkle Fieldhouse might have just changed both the trajectory of the Big East and No. 1 seed races, as Butler entered its showdown with Seton Hall in the driver’s seat and left it having ceded control to the Pirates. Still, all is not lost for the Bulldogs, thanks to the copious Quad 1 win opportunities this season’s conference slate provides, though they’ll need to do a ton of work on the road to take advantage of them. But not everything is guaranteed in the quality win department, as I’m not sure Stanford will remain as highly-ranked as it is now. If that changes, the loss to the Pirates and a 53-52 defeat at Baylor could leave LaVall Jordan’s team in the lurch in two months’ time.

Seton Hall Pirates (13-4, 5-0 Big East)

NET ranking: 12
SOS rankings: 25 (overall)/103 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 5-4 vs. Quad 1/3-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 7 Butler (away), No. 16 Maryland (home), No. 35 Marquette (home)
Losses: No. 10 Michigan State (home), No. 21 Oregon (neutral), No. 22 Rutgers (away), No. 69 Iowa State (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 8 (3 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 4 (3 home, 1 away)
Most important remaining games: at Villanova (February 8th), Creighton (February 12th), Butler (February 19th), Villanova (March 4th), at Creighton (March 7th)

Seton Hall served notice of their intentions on Wednesday, long after many fans had assumed the Pirates were not a national contender thanks to four early losses, with consecutive defeats at Iowa State and Rutgers the most damaging (particularly since the Hall had defeated the Cyclones in the Bahamas just 10 days earlier). But Myles Powell missed most of that game in Piscataway (along with a pair of subsequent wins) and Sandro Mamukelashvili hasn’t played since breaking his right wrist early in Ames. If Kevin Willard’s Pirates can keep it up, and they get back to full health, the Selection Committee will evaluate them as a whole unit. And that means the door is open for the Hall to earn a surprising No. 1 seed.

Stanford Cardinal (15-2, 4-0 Pac-12)

NET ranking: 9
SOS rankings: 129 (overall)/172 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 0-2 vs. Quad 1/2-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 45 Washington (home), No. 58 Oklahoma (neutral)
Losses: No. 2 Kansas (home), No. 7 Butler (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 9 (3 home, 6 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 4 (3 home, 1 away)
Most important remaining games: Oregon (February 1st), at Colorado (February 8th), Arizona (February 15th), Colorado (March 1st), at Oregon State (March 5th), at Oregon (March 7th)

The original draft of this article featured two Pac-12 teams, but Oregon sleepwalked its way to a loss at Washington State on Thursday night — their fourth of the season overall and second against a sub-100 team. So, now only Stanford represents the conference on this list. And the Cardinal’s hopes are more fanciful than anything, thanks to a lack of Quad 1 non-conference wins. Sure, Jerod Haase’s team could pick up a few more in conference play, but Stanford would likely need to finish with zero-to-two Pac-12 losses to be considered a legitimate threat. And with the conference much improved when compared to the last two seasons, that’s highly unlikely.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama
Auburn’s defeat at Alabama damaged the Tigers’ — and SEC’s — hopes of securing a No. 1 seed.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn Tigers (15-1, 3-1 SEC)

NET ranking: 11
SOS rankings: 22 (overall)/13 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 1-1 vs. Quad 1/4-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 43 NC State (home), No. 51 Saint Louis (neutral)
Loss: No. 46 Alabama (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 7 (1 home, 6 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 5 (4 home, 1 away)
Most important remaining games: at Florida (Saturday), Iowa State (January 25th), Kentucky (February 1st), at Arkansas (February 4th), LSU (February 8th), at Kentucky (February 29th)

On Wednesday night, Auburn’s dreams of a perfect season ended in Tuscaloosa. However, even if the Tigers had remained undefeated, they still would have had to put in serious work in SEC play to earn real consideration for a No. 1 seed. The issue for Bruce Pearl’s squad? A schedule that’s been average to this point. While Auburn has played just four games against teams from outside of the NET top 150, it has yet to encounter a team ranked in the metric’s top 40. That will change as conference play unfolds, so the Tigers still have their fate in their own hands.

LSU Tigers (12-4, 4-0 SEC)

NET ranking: 27
SOS rankings: 9 (overall)/20 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-1 vs. Quad 1/3-3 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 23 Arkansas (home), No. 24 Liberty (home)
Losses: No. 50 VCU (away), No. 52 USC (neutral), No. 56 ETSU (home), No. 81 Utah State (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 5 (0 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 8 (5 home, 3 away)
Most important remaining games: Florida (January 21st), at Texas (January 25th), at Auburn (February 8th), Kentucky (February 18th), at Florida (February 26th), at Arkansas (March 4th)

I wasn’t sure about including a second SEC team in this article, until I encountered this bit of information on Thursday morning.

So, LSU appears here alongside the other three power-league unbeatens, despite four losses and a NET ranking that’s closer to 30 than 20. Will Wade’s Tigers do have one thing working for them, particularly when compared to their conference rivals from the Plains: a pair of top-25 wins. However, the Bayou Bengals will have to avoid slip-ups in SEC play to become a more serious contender. And that won’t be easy considering the quality win opportunities left — particularly away from Baton Rouge.

Like the Big 12 contenders above, both sets of SEC Tigers are probably wishing they had stronger opposition waiting for them on January 25th.

NCAA Basketball: Santa Clara at Gonzaga
What would a rundown of No. 1 seed contenders be without Gonzaga (particularly after the Bulldogs recorded a 50-point win on Thursday)?
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-1, 5-0 WCC)

NET ranking: 4
SOS rankings: 264 (overall)/289 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-1 vs. Quad 1/1-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 15 Arizona (away), No. 21 Oregon (neutral)
Loss: No. 28 Michigan (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 2 (0 home, 2 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 4 (2 home, 2 away)
Most important remaining games: BYU (Saturday), at Santa Clara (January 30th), at Saint Mary’s (February 8th), at BYU (February 22nd), Saint Mary’s (February 29th)

Gonzaga picked an unlucky season to host North Carolina. Normally, a home game against Roy Williams’ club would be a top-30 one, meaning it would fall under Quad 1 for the entire season. But the Tar Heels are currently ranked 120th, and with the quadrants more heavily weighted toward road contests, the Zags’ December 18th win falls under Quad 3. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t list any UNC game as an “important” one for the three ACC teams on this list, that’s why.) But considering the Bulldogs have a pair of Quad 1 wins in hand and the possibility of picking up anywhere between two and four more depending on how they, BYU and Saint Mary’s navigate the best West Coast Conference in many years, Mark Few’s team is in position to follow a formula that’s earned it No. 1 seeds in two of the past three NCAA Tournaments. However, with Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule ranking so lowly, the margin for error in the Bulldogs’ remaining games might be a little tighter than in 2017 and 2019.

San Diego State Aztecs (17-0, 7-0 Mountain West)

NET ranking: 3
SOS rankings: 191 (overall)/132 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 3-0 vs. Quad 1/3-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 29 Iowa (neutral), No. 30 Creighton (neutral), No. 33 BYU (away)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 0
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 3 (0 home, 3 away)
Most important remaining games: at New Mexico (January 29th), Utah State (February 1st), at Boise State (February 16th), Colorado State (February 25th), at Nevada (February 29th)

Gonzaga has some competition in the “best non-power-league team on the West Coast” category this season — the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten. To earn a No. 1 seed, San Diego State will more than likely need to keep winning all the way through the Mountain West Tournament. That’s because the Aztecs did most of their heavy lifting in non-conference play — as their win at BYU and the two power victories recorded at the Las Vegas Invitational will be far better than anything they’ll record in conference play. While Gonzaga is navigating the strongest WCC in years, just one top-100 team currently appears on the remaining schedule for Brian Dutcher’s squad (though New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado State are all close). That gives the Bulldogs a slight advantage in the race to claim the West Region’s No. 1 seed.

Dayton Flyers (15-2, 4-0 Atlantic 10)

NET ranking: 6
SOS rankings: 48 (overall)/15 (non-conference)
Quad 1 and 2 records: 2-2 vs. Quad 1/2-0 vs. Quad 2
Best wins: No. 34 Virginia Tech (neutral), No. 42 Saint Mary’s (neutral)
Losses: No. 2 Kansas (neutral), No. 19 Colorado (neutral)

Potential Quad 1 games remaining: 5 (0 home, 5 away)
Potential Quad 2 games remaining: 4 (3 home, 1 away)
Most important remaining games: at Saint Louis (January 17th), at Richmond (January 25th), at Duquesne (January 29th), Saint Louis (February 8th), at VCU (February 18th), at Rhode Island (March 4th)

Obi Toppin and Dayton are in danger of being best remembered for a pair of losses — the OT classic against Kansas in the Maui final and the buzzer-beating heartbreak suffered against Colorado in Chicago. And with no top-30 wins on the Flyers’ profile and no prospect of picking one up in an improved, but still not great Atlantic 10 (with five teams ranked between 50th and 62nd in the NET), they really needed to reverse one of those defeats to have a serious chance at a No. 1 seed. But if Anthony Grant’s squad can run the table in the Atlantic 10, it will have hope.

My next full bracket projection will arrive on Tuesday.