Following Baylor’s bounce-back win over West Virginia and considering the fact Illinois was going to be without Ayo Dosunmu heading into its game at Michigan, it looked like we would exit Tuesday night with a pretty good idea of the first three 1-seeds and a wide-open race for the fourth spot in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Illinois had different ideas.
The Fighting Illini had one of the more surprisingly impressive performances of the season, going into Ann Arbor and hammering Michigan by 23 points despite Dosunmu missing his third straight game with a facial injury. Andre Curbelo was terrific in Dosunmu’s place, while Trent Frazier led the way with 22 points. The Fighting Illini held Michigan to its fewest points in a half (22 in the first half) and limited the Wolverines to two 3-pointers and five offensive rebounds.
Illinois entered the night as the theoretical fourth 1-seed, so the Fighting Illini should feel like they’re solidly on the top line right now. Michigan was the second 1-seed before the loss, but it’s unlikely the Wolverines dropped enough to fall off the line completely. Baylor bounced back after its first loss of the season to beat West Virginia in overtime in Morgantown, solidifying its 1-seed and likely moving it back right behind No. 1 Gonzaga. And, of course, the undefeated Zags aren’t going anywhere.
So, with 12 days remaining until Selection Sunday, are the 1-seeds locked in? For now, yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t gate-crashers ready to pounce if things go awry.
Let’s play out some scenarios.
The most likely candidate is Ohio State, which entered the week atop the 2-line after three straight losses. The Buckeyes face Illinois in Columbus on Saturday, and they’ve already beaten the Fighting Illini once this season. If Ohio State wins on Saturday, earns a 4- or 5-seed in the Big Ten tournament and then knocks off top-seeded Michigan in the conference tournament semifinals, are the Buckeyes not playing for a 1-seed in the Big Ten title game next weekend?
Ohio State has seven Quadrant 1 wins and zero losses lower than Quadrant 2. The Buckeyes are ranked in the top eight in ESPN’s strength of record, BPI, KenPom and Sagarin — and they would own a sweep of Illinois and wins over Iowa (beat the Hawkeyes on Feb. 4) and Michigan if the above scenario played out.
Speaking of the Hawkeyes, can Iowa get to the top line? They’ve won five of their past six and finish the regular season with home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin. Wins there would secure the 3-seed in the Big Ten tournament, meaning they could get a shot at Illinois in the semifinals.
Their marquee wins aren’t as strong as Ohio State’s, but they do own a win over the Buckeyes and would also have a couple of big chances in the Big Ten tournament. Iowa also has top-five rankings in the BPI, KenPom and Sagarin. The metrics love the Hawkeyes.
Don’t count out Alabama, either. The Crimson Tide already clinched the SEC regular-season title, and we’ve seen the selection committee look fondly upon teams that win both the regular-season and conference tournament titles. Alabama is tied with Illinois for the most combined Quadrant 1 and 2 wins of any team in college basketball, and the Crimson Tide are fifth in ESPN’s strength of record, which measures resume.
The last potential option to get to the top line might be Houston. It’s a long shot, but the Cougars are No. 3 in BPI, No. 4 in KenPom and No. 6 in Sagarin. The Cougars don’t have the top-tier wins that the rest of the candidates have, but they are No. 4 in the NET and would have a gaudy record entering Selection Sunday.
If there’s chaos in the other conference tournaments — we’re talking Purdue vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, an early Baylor exit in the Big 12 tournament and Alabama getting bounced early in the SEC — Houston cruising to a conference tournament title win would make things interesting.
I agree that the four 1-seeds look pretty solid after Tuesday night’s action, but I don’t think we’re at a point to say it’s set in stone just yet. Baylor answered some questions with Tuesday’s win, but are the Bears officially back to their pre-pause selves? It wouldn’t be a shock to see them lose to Oklahoma State or Texas Tech this week.
And what about what we saw in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night. How do Michigan and Illinois move forward this weekend?
There are still questions to be answered over the final week and a half of the season — and teams are ready to jump to the top line if any openings emerge.