There is no one dominant college basketball team like last year, when Kentucky rolled into the NCAA Tournament undefeated. But the teams that were well regarded early are playing some of the best basketball now, including the Wildcats.
This season broke differently than last year, when Kentucky roared through the schedule undefeated and the rest of the top 10 teams lost games on average about once every six weeks.
The four top seeds had a combined nine losses. This year, that number could be as many as 20, suggesting a flatter-at-the-top, deeper pool of championship caliber teams.
But conference tournament results indicate something else. The early favorites are back at the seasons’ end. Teams like Michigan State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas are rolling.
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They won’t all be No. 1 seeds when the NCAA Tournament selection show starts at 4:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS, but as your bracket begins to take shape starting Sunday night, you could do worse than advancing this group deep into the bracket.
All went through rough patches at various stages this season, which spikes loss totals. But these four are not only NCAA Tournament regulars but also have known Final Four success with their current coaches. These programs know how to win and what it takes to succeed in March.
Make the Jayhawks the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. They don’t have the look of the dominant Wildcats of last season, but they’re riding a 14-game winning streak, with eight of those victories notched against teams in the top 25 and five recorded away from Lawrence.
“Kansas is the best team in the country,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose Mountaineers fell to KU in the Big 12 Tournament title game on Saturday.
Kansas had its No. 1 seed all but locked up before the Big 12 Tournament, and reaching the semifinals might have assured the overall No. 1.
Winning the event guarantees it and should send the Jayhawks to Des Moines, Iowa, to open NCAA play. The state capital will be playing host to its first NCAA Tournament, and the Jayhawks haven’t played there since 1950.
West Virginia and Oklahoma should also stay close to home for the first weekend, with the Sooners hoping to land 20 miles from home in Oklahoma City.
Ever since Texas Tech’s late-season charge, the Big 12 has appeared to be in good shape for seven teams in the field. It would mark the third straight year the league sent seven to the tournament, but the Big 12 hasn’t cashed in, compiling losing record in each of the last two years.
The Jayhawks, who haven’t advanced past the first weekend since 2013, have been a big part of the league’s recent disappointing showing. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby would get no argument from coaches when he said earlier in the week that the time had come for the conference to make some bracket moves.
“As much as we have been rated the top conference most of the season, I don’t think you can claim you’re the best league unless you also win in the postseason,” Bowlsby said.
As for the other No. 1 seeds, there’s some uncertainty heading into Selection Sunday. Four candidates are leaders for three spots: Villanova, North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan State.
Villanova entered Saturday looking like a top seed, but a loss to Seton Hall in the Big East title game might have opened the door for both ACC finalists to grab No. 1s.
Michigan State might have locked up a top line by reaching the Big Ten final on Sunday.
The Pac-12 finalists, Oregon and Utah, could both become No. 2 seeds, and so should West Virginia, the second-place team in the Big 12. Had the Mountaineers pulled off the upset Saturday they might have had a case for a top seed.
The final at-large spots should provide the usual major conference/midmajor debate. Programs such as Monmouth and Valparaiso will sweat out the announcement. So will Syracuse and Michigan.
Then there’s Wichita State, the midmajor that’s acted like a major over the last few seasons. The Shockers sit on the bubble and are all over the place in the mock brackets, including in a play-in game at Dayton, Ohio.
Not a preferable situation, but one the Shockers could live with if the alternative is the NIT.
NCAA Tournament projection
▪ 1 Kansas vs. 16 Holy Cross/Florida Gulf Coast
▪ 8 Pittsburgh vs. 9 Butler
▪ 5 Arizona vs. 12 UNC Wilmington
▪ 4 Indiana vs. 13 Buffalo
▪ 6 Notre Dame vs. 11 Gonzaga
▪ 3 Xavier vs. 14 Middle Tennessee
▪ 7 Texas vs. 10 Connecticut
▪ 2 Utah vs. 15 Green Bay
▪ 1 Villanova vs. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
▪ 8 Oregon State vs. 9 St. Bonaventure
▪ 5 Maryland vs. 12 Stony Brook
▪ 4 Texas A&M vs. 13 Yale
▪ 6 Seton Hall vs. 11 Wichita State/Syracuse
▪ 3 Oklahoma vs. 14 Iona
▪ 7 Iowa vs. 10 Temple
▪ 2 Virginia vs. 15 UNC Asheville
▪ 1 North Carolina vs. 16 Southern/Austin Peay
▪ 8 Texas Tech vs. 9 St. Joseph’s
▪ 5 California vs. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock
▪ 4 Purdue vs. 13 Northern Iowa
▪ 6 Dayton vs. 11 Michigan/Monmouth
▪ 3 Kentucky vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin
▪ 7 Providence vs. 10 Southern California
▪ 2 West Virginia vs. 15 Cal State Bakersfield
▪ 1 Michigan State vs. 16 Hampton
▪ 8 Colorado vs. 9 VCU
▪ 5 Iowa State vs. 12 South Dakota State
▪ 4 Duke vs. 13 Chattanooga
▪ 6 Baylor vs. 11 Fresno State
▪ 3 Miami, Fla. vs. 14 Hawaii
▪ 7 Wisconsin vs. 10 Cincinnati
▪ 2 Oregon vs. 15 Weber State