There has been one storyline, repeated ad nauseum by talking heads across television, that has dominated this college basketball season: there may not be any truly “great” teams in the NCAA this year. This relative parity is best illustrated by what could be, simultaneously, one of the weakest yet crowded group of bubble teams in recent memory.
And yet, as the bubble picture becomes more and more murky, the top of the bracket come Selection Sunday is coming into greater focus. This was helped significantly by another round of surprising upsets this past Saturday, which included three ranked Big East teams losing at home to unranked squads, and Big Ten favorites Michigan State losing to a depleted Wisconsin team on the road. Those results continue a pattern of these conferences cannibalizing themselves, making a top seed from those two conferences, arguably the best in terms of overall depth this season, a relatively unlikely scenario.
Who’s left? Barring something unusual, I’d argue there are nine teams with a reasonable path to the top line, with Duke very much in that mix. With football season now officially behind us and the eyes of the sports world on the hardcourt, it’s worth breaking down each of these team’s resumes, and how they may influence Duke’s quest for a second-straight No. 1 seed in March Madness.
The Bulldogs find themselves in a familiar position: continue to hold serve in the West Coast Conference, and they should find themselves atop a bracket come March. A stellar non-conference schedule only strengthens the argument of this year’s squad, with Q1 non-conference wins at Arizona and Washington, and on a neutral floor over Oregon, bolstering their resume. That said, the WCC is stronger than usual this year, with both BYU and Saint Mary’s currently amongst the Top 35 teams in the NET. With road matchups against both teams still on the docket, and the Bulldogs looking mortal in some recent closer than usual wins, don’t expect Gonzaga to coast into March.
The path to a No. 1 seed: If Gonzaga wins out, they’ll claim a No. 1 seed. But unlike recent years, they may be able to overcome a stumble, especially if it comes at BYU or Saint Mary’s, given their overall resume strength.
The Duke angle: Recent history shows Mark Few’s squads take care of business in the WCC. It would be a significant surprise if Gonzaga falls off the top line.
San Diego State
The easiest comparison for the Aztecs are the 2014 Wichita State Shockers, a team that went undefeated in a below-average conference without a great non-conference resume. Wichita State earned a No. 1 seed that year, giving the committee precedent to use if San Diego State runs the table. It’s worth noting that the computers are reasonably high on the Aztecs, as they are in the Top 10 of four of the five computer ranking systems listed on the team sheets. And their non-conference wins over Creighton, Iowa, and BYU are looking more impressive by the day as those teams continue to surprise. Still, there isn’t another Q1 game on San Diego State’s schedule.
The path to a No. 1 seed: Unlike Gonzaga, San Diego State likely has no room for error. If they win out, the committee will have no choice but to give them a top seed, and perhaps place them over the Bulldogs as the No. 1 seed in the West. But any mishap will likely mean the Aztecs settle for the No. 2 seed in West region.
The Duke angle: It would be a tough pill to swallow if two mid-majors claim No. 1 seeds, but every Aztec win makes that scenario more likely. But if that happens, it’s highly possible that San Diego State is the overall No. 4 seed, gets the worst location preference, and is sent to the East Region, where Duke could be the No. 2 seed. That may be the best “plan B” scenario for the Blue Devils come Selection Sunday.
The Flyers have been impressive all season, and are led by a likely lottery pick in Obi Toppin. Still, despite standing at No. 5 in the NET rankings, Dayton lost both their opportunities for a true resume-defining win, falling closely to Kansas and Colorado. The Flyers aren’t out of the running given a strong season for the Atlantic 10 that could yield as many as five Q1 regular season victories.
The path to a No. 1 seed: Dayton is certainly on the outside looking in, and would need a lot of help to get a No. 1 seed. Still, if the Flyers win the A-10 as even a three loss team, that would give them an argument if another mid-major falters or the power conferences continue to cannibalize themselves.
The Duke angle: Dayton clearly is below Duke in the pecking order for seeding at this point.
The Big 12
Were the season to end today, the Bears would likely be the consensus No. 1 overall seed. Ranked No. 16 in the pre-season AP poll, Baylor has surprised and racked up a stellar 7-0 Q1 record, including impressive non-conference victories against Arizona, Butler, Villanova, and Florida. The Bears also have arguably the most impressive single win of the season on their resume, a 12 point beatdown of Kansas in Lawrence. Their lone blemish is a neutral site loss to Washington, which falls in Q2.
The path to a No. 1 seed: Baylor clearly controls its own destiny given its stellar non-conference resume and playing in a solid Big 12 conference. There are plenty of possibilities for the Bears to lose, including three more games against the top-tier Big 12 teams. But with only one loss to this point, Baylor has earned some breathing room.
The Duke angle: Duke is one of the few teams whose best victories can stand when compared to Baylor’s, but the Big 12 offers more opportunities for Q1 victories this year. It might take Duke winning out, combined with multiple Baylor losses, for Duke to leapfrog the Bears.
The Jayhawks had plenty of opportunities to impress in the non-conference, but faltered in arguably their two most high-profile games, losing to Duke and Villanova. Since then, only the surprising home loss to Baylor has blemished the Jayhawks’ resume. Perhaps most importantly, Kansas emerged from the aftermath of the Phracas at the Phog relatively unscathed, winning both games they played without key piece David McCormack. Not only does Kansas have 9 Q1 wins, but all three of their losses are of the Q1 variety.
The path to a No. 1 seed: In a year where parity has reigned, I personally find it unlikely that two Big 12 teams will earn No. 1 seeds unless something unusual happens to the remaining contenders. This means, at minimum, Kansas will need to beat Baylor in their rematch, and very possibly again in the Big 12 tournament, to get to the top line, even though most prognostications have them as a No. 1 seed currently. I posit that is based more off of a combination of name recognition and recency bias than resume.
The Duke angle: The best scenario for Duke fans may be if the Jayhawks and Blue Devils are competing for the final top-seed, in which case Duke’s head-to-head victory over Kansas would likely come into play.
Like Dayton, West Virginia is amongst the fringe contenders for a No. 1 seed, but a path remains. Wins over Ohio State and Wichita State remain impressive and boost an otherwise underwhelming non-conference resume. But most importantly, the Mountaineers have two games remaining against Baylor, as well as a matchup against Kansas at home.
The path to a No. 1 seed: It would likely take a sweep of the three remaining high-profile games I just mentioned to get West Virginia in a legitimate place to compete for the top-line. Unlikely? Yes. But impossible? Not this year.
The Duke angle: Duke fans will probably be rooting for West Virginia in those three remaining high-profile games, as the Blue Devils’ non-conference resume is far superior to the Mountaineers’. As it stands, Duke remains significantly above West Virginia in the race for a top seed.
The Cardinals probably had to beat Duke to have a legitimate shot at a top-seed, and they did. A win in Cameron is a stellar hallmark on Louisville’s resume, especially considering the Cardinals lost their only two Q1 non-conference games (although there’s a possibility a home win over Michigan creeps back into the top quadrant). Another possibility for a signature win remains on the road against Florida State.
The path to a No. 1 seed: While Louisville is in the driver’s seat in the ACC, they aren’t when it comes to tournament seeding: their non-conference resume compares poorly to the likes of Gonzaga, Baylor, Kansas, and Duke. Given that, there isn’t a lot of leeway for the Cardinals, although it’d be hard to deny a team that wins both the ACC regular season and tournament titles a No. 1 seed.
The Duke angle: The Blue Devils will be rooting hard against the Cardinals for positioning in the ACC, but another loss or two would also allow Duke fans to breathe a little easier come Selection Sunday: that head-to-head loss could pose problems if the Cardinals and Blue Devils have similar resumes and, say, split the regular season and tournament conference titles.
Perennially overlooked, the Seminoles only have three losses this year. But that number is boosted by a poor non-conference schedule which included only one Q1 win (on a neutral site over Purdue), and only one Q2 win. Beating Louisville on the road is a fantastic trademark win, but like West Virginia the Seminoles’ resume needs help.
The path to a No. 1 seed: Is Florida State out of the running? No, especially with two more marquee games against Duke and Louisville remaining. But they likely need to win both those games, and get help from the Big 12 teams, to have an argument for a top seed.
The Duke angle: This is an easy one: if Duke can take care of business, at home, against the Seminoles, they’ll put them clearly in the rear-view mirror when it comes to tournament seeding.
Now, how do the Blue Devils compare? Perhaps only Baylor can boast a pair of top-line wins like Duke’s victories over Kansas on a neutral court and at Michigan State, and Duke has the chance to further bolster that aspect of their resume in the upcoming matchup against Florida State. Road contests against Virginia and NC State offer additional chances for Q1 victories. One could argue Duke’s losses are of a lower caliber than these other eight teams, but the Clemson loss has inched its way into Q2, and the loss to Stephen F. Austin is squarely in Q3 with the Lumberjacks climbing to a NET ranking of 82. So, while hurtful, those losses aren’t quite the black marks that many feared. It’s also worth remembering that Wendell Moore missed the loss to Clemson and the loss to Louisville: how the committee adjusts for injuries is never consistent, but is something that could play a factor in how Duke’s final resume is viewed.
The path to a No. 1 seed: The next week could end up dictating whether Duke controls its destiny for a top seed. Survive against Boston College and UNC on the road, and earn another top-tier win against Florida State at home, and Duke would likely find themselves back on the top line of most prognosticators when/if Kansas next loses. Even in the unlikely scenario both the Jayhawks and Blue Devils win out, I doubt the committee would like the optics of having two No. 1 seeds from the same conference in a year when “parity” has been the buzzword (especially with Duke having beaten Kansas).
If the Blue Devils falter, however, particularly if they lose the matchup against the Seminoles (I’d argue that, for tournament seeding, losing that chance for a marquee victory might be more damaging than a conference road loss), they’d find themselves rooting for a lot of upsets during the last six weeks of the season.
Still, I’d posit the most likely scenario come season’s end is that two mid-majors, one Big 12, and one ACC team will claim No. 1 seeds. Were that to hold, Duke need only take care of business in conference, particularly in the ACC Tournament, to claim a coveted No. 1 seed.