UK Men's Basketball

Handicapping the race for the No. 1 seeds

John Clay
John Clay

Being the first team to finish the regular season undefeated since UNLV in 1991 doesn't really matter.

Being first in the polls doesn't really matter.

Being first when it comes to the four seeds atop the NCAA Tournament regions come March 14? Now that matters.

"We're playing for a No. 1 seed," Kentucky Coach John Calipari has repeated.

History suggests that it is a worthy goal. In the past three years, 67 percent of the four No. 1 seeds ended up in the Final — two No. 1s in 2009, all four No. 1s in 2008 and two more No. 1s in 2007. Only twice since the NCAA started seeding teams in 1979 did the Final Four include no No. 1 seeds. One was in 1980; the other was 2006, when Billy Donovan and No. 3 seed Florida brought home the trophy.

A No. 1 seed has won the tournament four of the past five years — Florida's '06 title being the exception — and each of the last three.

With Kentucky 22-1 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, and with No. 2 Villanova losing at Georgetown on Saturday, the fourth-ranked Cats will surely inch back up the ladder when the polls are released on Monday.

But while Calipari's club appears in decent shape to grab one of those four regional top spots, UK is just sixth in the RPI, and there is plenty of competition out there. At least (emphasis on at least) seven other teams appear to be in conceivable striking distance of a No. 1 seed.

Kansas: The Jayhawks will hold on to No. 1 after holding off pesky Nebraska on Saturday. Monday night's Kansas-Texas matchup in Austin was expected to be a national showdown, but the Longhorns have faded badly, losing four of their last six. Kansas State could be a possibility for a No. 1, but I can't see the Big 12 receiving two top-line slots. And there don't appear to be many rocks in Rock Chalk Jayhawks' road, meaning Self's team could easily be 30-1 heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

Syracuse: The Orange improved to 23-1 overall and 10-1 in the Big East with a convincing 71-54 win at Cincinnati on Sunday. Syracuse was already No. 2 in the RPI going into the game. But it has plenty of competition in the Big East, a league that could get a pair of No. 1 seeds.

West Virginia: Bob Huggins' team is 18-3 overall and No. 4 in the RPI. The Mountaineers play host to Villanova on Saturday. If it can keep the students from throwing things on the floor and beat back the wounded Wildcats, WVU could easily position itself for a No. 1.

Villanova: Saturday's defeat was just the second of the year for Jay Wright's club. Losing at Georgetown is not a bad loss but does raise the possibility that the top of the Big East is so good that the teams will continue to battle back and forth until there is just one team considered worthy of being put on that top line.

Georgetown: Huge win for the Hoyas over Villanova. With a 7-4 Big East record, Georgetown really needs to beat visiting Syracuse on Feb. 18 and win at West Virginia on March 1 to have a shot at a No. 1.

Michigan State: Tom Izzo's club has opened the door in the Big 10 with back-to-back losses at Wisconsin and Illinois. Wisconsin is now No. 9 in the RPI, but State leads the conference. At 11th in the RPI, Purdue is also a possibility here. Michigan State, 12th in the RPI, and Purdue have two meetings, Wednesday in East Lansing and Feb. 27 in West Lafayette.

Duke: Coach K's team is 7-2 in a mediocre ACC. A tough non-conference schedule is paying dividends. Duke is third in the RPI, thanks in part to a schedule judged as the fourth-toughest in the nation. Don't count out the Dookies.