The clock is ticking. Just days to Selection Sunday, that day when the bracket gets filled for another wild and crazy NCAA basketball tournament.
When the field is announced, the focus and analysis always concentrate on the top (the No. 1 seeds) and the bottom (whose bubble burst and whose didn’t). Since most of the tough decisions are made with the final teams getting in, the selection committee likes arriving in Indianapolis on Wednesday with a pretty good idea of the No. 1 seeds.
So they must have enjoyed the past few days, as some clarity seems to have come at the top line. Duke, Indiana and Gonzaga — the last thanks to a 65-51 win over Saint Mary's on Monday in the WCC title game — appear to be solid No. 1 seeds at this moment. The other spot? Well, it looks up for grabs. And, in our opinion, Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami are the contenders.
Duke would be in the East (Washington, DC), Indiana in the Midwest (Indianapolis) and Gonzaga in the West (Los Angeles), with the South (North Texas) still up for grabs.
Here’s a breakdown of the scenarios for our Magnificent Seven:
Barring a disaster at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, NC, it would seem the Blue Devils are in line for the No. 1 seed overall. Think about that. Less than two weeks ago, Duke was coming off that 73-68 loss at Virginia, the Blue Devils had lost two of their last four games, and Duke haters everywhere were expressing their right to free speech. Others were still warning that Duke would be a different team if Ryan Kelly could return from his injury. Kelly returned to score 36 in a 79-76 win over Miami on March 2.
The NCAA selection committee will duly note that Duke is undefeated with Kelly in the lineup and the Blue Devils at full speed. With the No. 1 strength of schedule in the nation and a 10-2 record against teams in the RPI top 50, Duke is a lock for a No. 1 seed. The fact the Blue Devils didn’t win the ACC regular season may never be mentioned in the committee room. And as long as they advance to the ACC tournament final, I think they hold the No. 1 overall spot.
That come-from-behind victory at Michigan on Sunday gave the Hoosiers the outright championship in the Big Ten and likely locked up a No. 1 seed. Losing two of three before the game at Michigan threw that into doubt, but the Hoosiers showed what they are made of in the final minute against the Wolverines. It’s not just a matter of winning the toughest conference in the nation; it’s also a result of going 8-3 against the RPI top 25. The Hoosiers swept Michigan and Michigan State. And in nonconference play back in November, the Hoosiers defeated Georgetown and North Carolina. Indiana played the 10th-toughest schedule in the nation.
The last time Gonzaga lost was Jan. 19 and many observers consider that last-second setback to Butler a fluke. Monday night's victory over Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game sends the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament on a 14-game winning streak and all but assures the nation's No. 1-ranked team a top seed. Gonzaga’s strength of schedule (104) is damaged by the conference the Bulldogs play in, but they still managed an RPI ranking of No. 11. Gonzaga is 12-2 against teams in the RPI 100, with those losses to Illinois and Butler.
The Cardinals are the forgotten contender. Louisville rose to No. 1 in the polls in January, then lost three straight and got lost in the shuffle. Rick Pitino’s team didn’t win the Big East regular-season championship, but the Cardinals have the experience to win the conference tournament in New York this week. They also know what it is like to get on a run and advance to the Final Four. A win over Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game and there’s no way to deny Louisville a No. 1 seed. Just advancing to the title game might be enough with the No. 7 SOS and 12 wins against the RPI 100.
The Jayhawks might have blown their shot at a No. 1 seed with that lopsided loss at Baylor on Saturday. It is rare to see one of Bill Self’s teams play without energy or emotion from start to finish, but that’s what KU did in Waco. Maybe after so many battles this season, Kansas found it difficult getting motivated knowing it already had a share of a ninth consecutive regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks could re-enter the No. 1 discussion by winning the tournament in Kansas City, Mo., especially if they beat Kansas State for a third time. The path won’t be easy, however, with Iowa State due up next after Thursday's opening games -- KU beat Texas Tech 91-63.
Otto Porter Jr. and the Hoyas are trending, in large part because of those two victories over Syracuse at the end of the season. The Hoyas squeezed the Orange twice, winning 57-46 at the Carrier Dome and then again Saturday 61-39 in Washington, DC. The Hoyas also have wins over UCLA, at Notre Dame, Louisville, Marquette, at Cincinnati and at UConn. That gives Georgetown an RPI of 9 and a SOS of 23. A run at Madison Square Garden would put the Hoyas in the No. 1 seed, but Georgetown would likely need wins over Syracuse and then Louisville, to grab that reward. They started their run Thursday with a 62-43 win over Cincinnati.
The Hurricanes have scripted the best story of the season, but to land a No. 1 seed Miami would need to beat Duke in the ACC tournament championship game — and get some help in the other conference tourneys. It could happen. Miami and Duke split their regular-season matchups and the Hurricanes weren’t awful at Cameron when Kelly made his emotional return. If someone other than Louisville or Georgetown wins the Big East and Kansas gets upset early in the Big 12, the door would be open for Miami.