March Madness: Breaking down the race for the No. 1 seeds

There are no longer just four real contenders for first place in the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

UCLA has taken 10 consecutive wins to enter the debate with less than a week until Qualifying Sunday.

UCLA, fueled by a choking defense that shut down passes and gave nothing easy on the ring, fought its way through a mediocre Pac-12 that arguably only has two other NCAA tournament teams. The Bruins (27-4) captured the Pac-12 overall title in late February and then confirmed it Saturday with a convincing win over Arizona.

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UCLA’s collection of big wins isn’t quite as impressive as some of the other top contenders, but the Bruins beat Kentucky on neutral court to give Maryland their only home loss of the season by at least 27 points. Mick Cronin’s senior team was also undefeated in the Pauley Pavilion all season and unbeaten outside of Quadrant 1.

There are a couple of first-place contenders that UCLA probably won’t be able to catch.

Houston has a 27-2 overall record and ranks first in every major metric. The Cougars could probably lose in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference and still retain the #1 seed.

The same goes for Kansas, who enter conference tournament play with an impressive 15 Quadrant 1 wins, four more than any other team in the country. The reigning national champion Jayhawks could lose to Oklahoma or Oklahoma State in the Big 12 quarterfinals and still count on being the top seed.

Houston Cougars

29-2, 17-1 American | NET: 1 | KenPom: 1 | Q1: 4-1 | Q2: 8-0 | Losses Q3, Q4: 1

Tent wins: Virginia, St. Mary, Memphis (2), Oregon.

Losses: Alabama, Temple

Kansas Jayhawks

25-6, 13-5 Big 12 | NET:7 | KenPom:9 | Q1: 15-6 | Q2: 5-0 | Losses Q3, Q4: 0

Major Wins: Texas, Baylor, Kansas State, Indiana, TCU, Duke, Kentucky.

Losses: Texas, Baylor, Kansas, Iowa, Tennessee, TCU.

This leaves Alabama, Purdue and UCLA competing for the two remaining #1 seedings. These three have similar enough resumes that it can all come down to how each of them performs during this week’s conference tournaments.

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oates speaks to his team during a timeout on March 4.  (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oates speaks to his team during a timeout on March 4. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama crimson tide

26-5, 16-2 SEC | NET: 2 | KenPom:3 | Q1: 9-5 | Q2: 7-0 | Losses Q3, Q4: 0

Tent wins: Houston, Kentucky, Michigan, Auburn (2), Arkansas (2), Mizzow.

Losses: UConn, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Oklahoma.

Purdue Boilermakers

26-5, 16-5 Big Ten | NET:5 | KenPom:6 | Q1: 9-4 | Q2: 7-1 | Losses Q3, Q4: 0

Major wins: Marquette, Gonzaga, Duke, MSU (2), Illinois, West Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin.

Losses: Indiana (2), Maryland, Northwestern, Rutgers.

University of California at Los Angeles

27-4, 18-2 Pak-12 | NET:4 | KenPom: 2 | Q1: 8-4 | Q2: 8-0 | Losses Q3, Q4: 0

Major wins: Arizona, Maryland, Kentucky, USC, Arizona (2), Oregon (2)

Losses: Arizona, Baylor, Illinois, USC.

Alabama was the No. 1 seed overall in the selection committee when it unveiled the grid preview just over two weeks ago, but the weight of the Brandon Miller scandal seems to be weighing in. Crimson Tide narrowly passed South Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn before losing the SEC Finals against Texas A&M last Saturday.

Is Alabama in a slightly stronger position than Purdue and UCLA at the moment? Probably. This victory in Houston, in particular, is significant. But can Alabama lose the SEC quarterfinals to Florida or Mississippi State and retain its top spot if Purdue and UCLA win their respective conference tournaments? This seems extremely unlikely.

The difference between Purdue and UCLA seems even smaller by the weekend. Over the past month, the gap has narrowed, with the Bruins winning and the Boilermakers losing four out of eight. Purdue has more wins over likely NCAA tournament teams. A home victory in mid-November over the then-unknown Marquette was especially liked. The Boilermakers also have another loss – and another loss outside of Quadrant 1.

How the committee chooses between Purdue and UCLA may ultimately depend on which team does better in their conference tournament. University of California at Los Angeles has an easier path to his title game with Arizona and USC on the other side of the grid but Purdue is more likely to win a quality early round. The Boilermakers will face either Michigan or Rutgers in the quarterfinals and possibly Iowa or Michigan State in the semifinals.

Another factor in the committee’s decision may be potentially serious injury UCLA’s Jaylen Clark was hurt during Saturday’s victory over Arizona. Clark, UCLA’s second leading scorer and one of the country’s elite perimeter defensemen, returned to the Bruins bench with crutches and a boot on his right foot.

As of Monday morning, UCLA had not released a diagnosis or timeline for Clark’s return. There is a precedent for a selection committee to change the seeding of a team due to an injury at the end of the season, although this has happened very rarely.

Even if Alabama, Purdue and UCLA are fighting for their conference titles, it’s hard to imagine anyone else jumping over their #1 seed line. Baylor (22-9) already has nine Big 12 losses. Arizona (25-6) has three losses outside Quadrant 1. Marquette (25-6) doesn’t have big enough wins. Texas (23-8) will have a chance of winning if they win the Big 12, but that’s the only realistic scenario.

Otherwise, it is a battle of three teams for two places. Two from Alabama, Purdue, and UCLA will land on Line 1. The other will have to settle for Line 2.


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