Poll Positions: Projecting The #1 Seeds

January 25th, 2007

It’s almost February, never too early to start speculating as to which teams have the best chance to land a coveted #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and make predictions as to which teams will do so.

There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, and this list could certainly change, but these are the teams that have the best shot at a top seed as of right now. Keeping in mind of course that after writing some time ago that Wichita State had a crack at a #1 seed, they proceeded to lose eight of their next eleven games.

In any case, determining these teams mostly took into account record, ranking, RPI, and remaining schedule. The latter is probably the biggest factor, keeping in mind NCAA Selection Committee Chairman Craig Littlepage’s comments last year that “we put a great deal of weight in the team's last 10 games of the season, the second half of the season.”

RPI is also an important factor, considering the top four teams in last season’s final RPI ranking ended up being the four # 1 seeds.

As of right now, each of the six power conferences has at least one school that has a shot at a # 1 seed. Memphis and Butler, the only non-BCS teams in the mix, simply do not have a high enough RPI, and enough remaining quality opponents to qualify.

Finally, this entire column is predicated on the assumption that each of the following teams at least makes the semifinal game of their conference tournament. I believe they will, but if not, all bets are off.

Let’s begin.

UCLA Bruins

Record: 17-1

Ranking: (# 3 AP / # 2 Coaches)

RPI: #1

Solid Wins: Texas A&M, Washington State, Arizona, Kentucky, Georgia Tech

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: at Cal, at Stanford, Oregon, at Washington State, at Arizona

Conclusion: Considering UCLA is one Aaron Brooks jumper from being undefeated, the overall #1 seed is UCLA’s to lose. Win two out of their four biggest remaining games (at home against Oregon and USC, on the road against Arizona and Washington State) and they will still be all but assured of a #1 seed. Win three or four of them and they will be playing the winner of the play-in game in Dayton.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Record: 18-2

Ranking: (# 4 AP / Coaches)

RPI: #2

Solid Wins: Tennessee, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: at Arizona, Duke (twice), Virginia Tech, at Boston College, at Maryland, at Georgia Tech

Conclusion: Counting the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels will in all likelihood have to play three games against Duke, a throw-out-the-records rivalry if there ever was one. It is hard to imagine them winning all three games. So that means UNC probably can only afford one or two additional losses, even against a remaining schedule as difficult as theirs. Still, North Carolina controls its own destiny. They win, they are lock for a #1 seed.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Record: 18-3

Ranking: (# 9 AP / Coaches)

RPI: #4

Solid Wins: Georgetown, Syracuse, Florida State

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: at Villanova, at Georgetown, at Marquette (Note: two upcoming opponents, Providence and West Virginia, should be in the RPI Top 50 by season’s end).

Conclusion: Despite losing to Marquette at home recently, the Panthers still have a decent shot at a #1 seed, albeit with very little margin for error. They will end the season with a good strength of schedule rating (currently #5), despite only playing one nationally ranked team the rest of the way, and should they finish strong they will almost be guaranteed an RPI in the Top 5. Winning the Big East Tournament would make the lives of the NCAA Selection Committee even more difficult for a day. Should they be awarded a top seed, it will be at another worthy school’s expense, which should make for an interesting controversy.

Florida Gators

Record: 18-2

Ranking: (# 1 AP / Coaches)

RPI: #28

Solid Wins: Ohio State, Arkansas, Georgia

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: Tennessee (twice), at Georgia, Kentucky (twice), Alabama, at LSU

Conclusion: The Gators return the starting five from a national championship run a year ago and are the current # 1 team in the country. But because of their weak strength of schedule rating (currently at # 111), they will probably end up settling for a # 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Blame the scheduling of the likes of Liberty (RPI #304), Stetson (RPI #267), Florida A&M (RPI #219), Chattanooga (RPI #254), Jacksonville (RPI #202), Southern (RPI #306), Prairie View (RPI #334), and North Florida (RPI #332) if that happens. That’s no less than eight games against teams that haven’t cracked the RPI 200 yet, and two teams (North Florida and Prairie View A&M) that are a combined 0-34 against Division I opponents as of this writing.

Yes Florida beat Ohio State and lost a close game to Kansas that was on a neutral court in name only. But the NCAA Selection Committee will in all likelihood want to send a message at the Gators’ expense: If you want to be considered for a top seed, play better non-conference teams.

Wisconsin Badgers

Record: 20-1

Ranking: (# 2 AP / # 3 Coaches)

RPI: #5

Solid Wins: Missouri State, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Georgia, Ohio State

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: at Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State (twice), at Ohio State

Conclusion: Their strength of schedule rating (#41) is holding the Badgers back, however that is mostly due to their schedule including three horrible teams (Mercer, Gardner-Webb and the aforementioned Southern), rather than a series of sub-par opponents like Florida. After 20 games, playing three very weak opponents, as opposed to seven that are currently in the RPI Top 50, should not drag down a SoS rating as much as it has the Badgers – a flaw in the formula that needs to be fixed.

Considering their win over Pittsburgh this season, it would give the good fans of Madison a fit if the Panthers are awarded a #1 seed over them. Not too worry, though. Should Wisconsin take care of business – particularly in Columbus - they should be fine.

Texas A&M Aggies

Record: 16-3 [Ed: Aggies lost to Texas Tech shortly after this article was submitted.]

Ranking: (# 6 AP / Coaches)

RPI: #21

Solid Wins: Oklahoma State

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: Texas Tech (twice), at Kansas, Texas (twice), at Oklahoma State

Conclusion: Outside of their recent victory over Oklahoma State, the Aggies have yet to beat a RPI Top 50 team so far this season. They will get their chance soon, with it a chance to greatly improve on their lowly strength of schedule rating (#83). However, to be in the mix for a #1 seed, they will more than likely have to win all of their home games and at least two out of four very difficult road games (against Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State), not to mention a match-up in Lincoln with a rising Nebraska program.

Oregon Ducks

Record: 18-1

Ranking: (# 7 AP / Coaches)

RPI: #12

Solid Wins: UCLA, Georgetown, Arizona, Stanford, California

Remaining Games against Current RPI Top 50: at UCLA, Washington State (twice), at USC (currently #55, although not in top 50, will be soon), Arizona, at Cal, at Stanford

Conclusion: A brutal end of season schedule should erase any doubts about Oregon’s schedule. The Ducks play no less than three straight Top 25 teams on the road, then a home game against Arizona, followed by another road swing against RPI Top 50 teams Cal and Stanford. They are playing smart, confident basketball as of late, winning several close games by playing with poise down the stretch. None of the “we’re just glad to be here” mentality that you would expect from a team that hasn’t been to a Final Four since the Great Depression.

Just as the Big East was the nation’s best conference and contributed two of the four #1 seeds last season, it is entirely possible the best conference will pull off the same feat this year.

Four #1 seed predictions (for now): UCLA, Oregon, North Carolina, Wisconsin