Who’s a 1? Both Kansas and Wichita State can make a case as a top seed

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03/03/2014 3:14 PM

05/16/2014 11:58 AM

The first week of March brings the final regular-season games in some conferences, the beginning of tournaments in others.

It also ramps up speculation on NCAA Tournament seeding, and two of the more intriguing conversations when the selection committee meets starting next week could involve Kansas schools.

Where to place the Jayhawks and Shockers?

Kansas and Wichita State have top-seed credentials, but their resumes will cover different discussion points.

The Jayhawks fell to 22-7 after Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State. With two games remaining, Kansas has matched the most regular-season losses in the Bill Self era. His 2004 and 2006 teams also lost seven, and both of those teams were No. 4 seeds in the tournament.

Seven losses, a four seed, sounds about right. Last year’s No. 4 seeds, including Kansas State, averaged 7.25 losses. Two of those teams reached the Final Four, Syracuse and Michigan, and the teams combined for 15 losses headed into the tournament.

But Kansas, if the field was selected today, wouldn’t be on that line. The Jayhawks could be a No. 1, and no worse than a No. 2.

In selecting and seeding teams, the selection committee has made a point of recognizing scheduling risks. It serves as an influence this way: Play a tough schedule, and you’ll be rewarded.

Turns out, Kansas has played perhaps the toughest schedule in its history. The Jayhawks knew they were jumping into the fire against the likes of Florida, Duke, San Diego State and New Mexico, along with the Bahamas tournament that featured Villanova.

But many other Big 12 teams performed at a high level in November and December, enough to be make the Big 12 the highest-rated conference.

We’ll see what that means once the NCAA Tournament begins, but for Kansas, it’s meant playing 19 of 29 games so far against teams in the RPI top 50. KU is 12-7 in those games. The next closest in victories is Arizona, 10-2, and second on the list of games played is Texas with 15.

Wichita State is 3-0 against the RPI top 50. That’s the fewest number of games played against teams on that list among the nation’s top 35 teams.

But the Shockers, who wrapped up their regular-season at 31-0 with Saturday’s victory over Missouri State, can accomplish something that hasn’t happened since 1991.

If Wichita State can win the Missouri Valley tournament, which begins Thursday in St. Louis, the Shockers will become the first team to enter the NCAA undefeated since UNLV in 1991. It would have occurred for the 18th time in the tournament’s 76 years. The last team to accomplish the feat before Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin Rebels was Indiana State with Larry Bird in 1979.

Just as the committee makes a statement about scheduling, it also does with monumental achievement.

The best example came a decade ago. The 2004 St. Joseph’s team led by Jameer Nelson and Delonte West roared to a 27-0 regular-season finish with five victories against the RPI top 50.

St. Joe’s lost its Atlantic-10 tournament opener to a solid Xavier team, but the swirl around the committee that weekend involved the Hawks.

Fraud, they were called by critics, none more higher profile than CBS commentator Billy Packer, who claimed St. Joseph’s was undeserving of its top seed, prompting Hawks coach Phil Martelli to fire back.

The Shockers as a top seed has the support of those who project brackets on national websites, and perhaps those daily reminders have softened potential criticism of the possibility.

At this point, Florida and Arizona are solid top seeds, and on my projection the Shockers are right behind them. The fourth No. 1? Despite Saturday’s loss to Virginia, Syracuse would get a close call over Kansas. Wisconsin, Villanova and hard-charging Virginia also are in the mix.

But if the Jayhawks win out, the runaway winner of the nation’s top-ranked conference will go to the top, no matter what else happens. It might be there already.

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