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NET News: The Path to the Top Line

Duke’s chances at a No. 1 seed may rely on what happens out West

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke
Duke Blue Devils center Mark Williams(15) smiles as he talks to forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) during the second half against the Syracuse Orange at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The common fan’s interest in NCAA Tournament seeding has skyrocketed since the advent of “Bracketology” and the proliferation of these prognosticators across the Internet. Arguably, this phenomenon has led to over analysis of teams’ partial resume at checkpoints in the season, when all that matters is the outcome on Selection Sunday. And while many might argue that the team playing the best in March is most likely to win the tournament regardless of its seed, fretting over who earns No. 1 seeds is well justified: 12 of the last 16 National Champions have come from the top line.

So the question one should ask when analyzing the abundance of projected brackets, alongside the multitude of predictive metrics across the internet, is less where a team stands now than where they’re likely to stand come March. So as January comes to a close, where does Duke’s quest for a No. 1 seed stand?

First, one should ask how many No. 1 seeds are “available”. In years past, if Gonzaga made it through their non-conference schedule unscathed, they were a near-lock for a top seed by the winter. While it’s more likely than not that the NET No. 2 Bulldogs will earn another No. 1 seed this year, it’s not as much of a “done deal” this season for two main reasons. First, Gonzaga faltered twice in its non-conference gauntlet, against Duke and also Alabama, meaning there are blemishes on their resume that haven’t been there in recent years. Second, an up year in the WCC means there are still challenging games on the Bulldogs’ schedule, particularly road matchups against potential tournament teams in BYU, Saint Mary’s, and San Francisco. Given the top-heavy nature of the WCC (Gonzaga will likely only have a handful of Q2/Q3 games but more than a dozen in Q4), a 3 or 4 loss Bulldog team could conceivably drop off the top line.

Further developments out West bear watching. The Pac 12 has rebounded from a prolonged down period thanks to current NET No. 1 Arizona, No. 16 UCLA and No. 24 USC. Despite low NET rankings for a potential top-seed, both UCLA and USC have only two losses, and UCLA was a projected contender for a top seed entering the year. Meanwhile, Arizona has a single loss, but has yet to be tested heavily within the conference: none of the Wildcats’ current conference wins are Q1, and only two fall into Q2. The Pac 12 is closer to the ACC than the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC in terms of overall quality this year, so these teams likely have very little wiggle room for a top seed. However, if Arizona is not a mirage, it’s very possible they could enter March with only 3-4 losses and claim one of those spots.

Meanwhile, things are a little more settled down south. The Big 12 is arguably the top conference in the country, with Baylor and Kansas separating themselves from the pack with only two losses a piece. Standing at No. 4 and No. 7 in the NET, respectively, and both having more than 5 Q1 wins, it seems likely that at least one of these squads will find itself with a No. 1 seed. A best case scenario for Duke fans would be if one sweeps the other in their pair of head-to-head matchups.

The SEC is having a better year according to the NET than in the polls, with four teams in the NET top 11. But Auburn has separated itself from the pack with a lone loss and 5 quadrant one wins. They also have a favorable schedule going forward as they avoid playing two of those three top SEC teams (Kentucky and LSU) on the road. Barring a collapse, Auburn is on track for one of those top seeds as well.

Up north, the Big Ten and Big East appear likely to beat themselves up enough to prevent a true No. 1 seed contender from emerging. Villanova’s bad home loss to Marquette leaves them with five on the year and very little margin for error down the stretch despite their lofty (NET No. 6) ranking. Meanwhile, Purdue has separated itself from the pack in the Big 10 but has suffered three losses, including two of their five Q1 games. While they have six Q1 opportunities remaining, three of them are on the road against NET Top 40 teams, and the Big Ten’s depth has bitten many a favorite this season in Q2/Q3 matchups. So like Villanova, the Boilermakers likely have little remaining margin for error.

What does all this mean for Duke? I’d argue there’s a very high likelihood that two No. 1 seeds will be distributed between Auburn, Kansas, and Baylor come Selection Sunday. With Villanova sputtering and the Big Ten looking more likely to yield multiple No. 2 and 3 seeds rather than a No. 1, Duke may find themselves comparing their resume to teams out West in the hopes of claiming one of the remaining top seeds. With victories over Gonzaga and Kentucky that none of the Pac 12 teams can match atop their resume, the Blue Devils would have a strong argument against any of those squads if they finish with similar records; and if Gonzaga falters in conference, Duke could point to their head-to-head victory to potentially be seeded ahead of the Bulldogs.

It’s a long way until March, but it certainly seems like Duke’s path to a No. 1 seed could, surprisingly, rely heavily on what happens out West.