Sam Mellinger

Why Kansas deserves to be the NCAA Tournament’s top seed, regardless of what happens now

Blair Kerkhoff, Jesse Newell recap Big 12 Tournament semifinals

Kansas City Star sports reporters Blair Kerkhoff and Jesse Newell recap Oklahoma's Buddy Hield's shot that didn't count and KU's continued use of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.
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Kansas City Star sports reporters Blair Kerkhoff and Jesse Newell recap Oklahoma's Buddy Hield's shot that didn't count and KU's continued use of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.

The answer came with emphasis and did not leave room for debate. You saw it in the way Frank Mason and Landen Lucas left Baylor struggling to put up terrible shots, and you saw it in the way Devonte Graham found Perry Ellis for alley-oops, and you especially saw it in a dunk by Wayne Selden that will be on the Allen Fieldhouse pregame hype video for years.

Kansas is the best team in a weird year for college basketball, and there are people inside the sport who will tell you rankings mean particularly little this season.

But if any doubt remained before No. 1 KU’s 70-66 win over No. 22 Baylor in a Big 12 tournament semifinal on Friday, it has been forgotten and tossed aside like mail addressed to “Current Resident” — Kansas will be the top overall seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced on Sunday.

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That will be true no matter what happens in the tournament championship game on Saturday. If KU loses and No. 2 Michigan State wins the Big Ten tournament, the question will be raised on various studio shows with time to fill, but either way the Jayhawks will have an undeniable case.

“I feel a little bit different about this whole (conference) tournament than I have in years past,” KU coach Bill Self says. “I don’t feel like there’s stress involved of this tournament setting up next week. I could be wrong, but I think where we’re at is probably going to be the same regardless of the outcome.”

Asked a follow-up, Self said he was referring to a No. 1 seed, not necessarily the No. 1 overall seed, but a look at RPI numbers, advanced metrics, polls, history and conversations with some who make their living on such things all point to Kansas being the bracket’s top team.

Kansas has earned it, too, most obviously by winning the country’s best conference by two games, but also with a deep resume that, depending on a few things this weekend, could include a 19-3 record against the tournament field.

No team has more wins against the RPI top 25 than Kansas, and no team is even close in wins over the top 50. That’s enough for the top overall seed.

“We’ll take it,” KU center Landen Lucas says. “I’m sure the statistics show it’s probably a good sign.”

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Well, about that … it depends on how you look at it.

Of the 12 teams to have the No. 1 overall seed since the selection committee began publicly designating one, eight made the Final Four, including each of the last four. Four of the 12 won the championship. Over the same span, five No. 1 seeds who weren’t the top overall seed won the championship, including Kansas in 2008.

So, that’s not bad. A Final Four is a success, almost without exception, and the top overall seed does that more than half the time.

Then again, many Kansas fans reading this far have already remembered that the 2010 team — Sherron Collins’ senior year — lost to Northern Iowa in the second round. That is the only top overall seed in 12 years to not make it out of the tournament’s first weekend.

This is all more trivia than meaningful projection, of course.

Players and coaches generally view the top overall seed like acing a midterm exam — it’s nice, and probably means you won’t fail the course, but doesn’t guarantee anything.

KU’s success next week and beyond still depends heavily on matchups, for instance avoiding standout perimeter players who can neutralize KU’s guards. At times, Kansas’ general focus has been inconsistent, and it doesn’t have a supremely talented scorer. But some of this is nitpicking, and every top contender has flaws.

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That’s particularly true in a year when the consensus is that no team has fully separated from the field, but the NCAA Tournament might be major sports’ biggest game of chance, meaning that no team has fully separated from the field until that first Monday night in April.

Last year, how many stories were written about where undefeated Kentucky would rank among the greatest teams of all-time? Oops.

KU’s strengths remain formidable, too. Its defense, in particular, is improving and remains underrated. Selden and Perry Ellis aren’t nearly as good defensively as the other three starters, but they are good team defenders, and especially now are playing with the kind of buy-in you expect from upperclassmen.

They score well from every position but center, and have ways to get buckets at all three levels — in the paint, midrange and with three-pointers. They are almost always unselfish, and during a 13-game winning streak that has now stretched 47 days, they have found a nice collective rhythm.

All of that is why they will be a clear choice as the top overall seed on Sunday, no matter what happens on Saturday.

They are good enough, even in this unpredictable year, that anything less than a Final Four would be a disappointment.

Buddy Hield and his Oklahoma teammates celebrated at the Sprint Center following what they thought was a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Hield on Friday night. But then it was West Virginia's turn after Hield's three-pointer was ruled no good. The

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