Who will win the race for the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament?

By | March 10, 2024

It has been all but certain for weeks that Houston, UConn and Purdue will claim three of the four No. 1 titles in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The much more intriguing race is for the final spot on the top seed.

Is Tennessee still the leader despite a home loss to Kentucky Saturday afternoon? Did North Carolina outdo the Vols by completing a season-long sweep of Duke just hours later? Does Arizona still have hope even after a tough loss at USC? Can anyone else come from behind with a deep conference tournament?

The pole position still appears to be Tennessee’s, even after the Vols missed an opportunity to extend their lead by beating Kentucky. No other contender for the final No. 1 seed can match Tennessee’s six wins over teams ranked in the NET’s Top 25. Additionally, only one of the Vols’ seven losses falls outside of Quadrant 1, a four-point home loss to NCAA tournament-bound South Carolina.

Tennessee volunteers

24-7, 14-4 SEC | NET: 5 | KenPom: 5 | SOR: 5 | Question 1: 7-6 | Question 2: 6-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Auburn, at Kentucky, Alabama (2), Illinois, at South Carolina, Wisconsin

Biggest loss: At Texas A&M

It would be tough for anyone to catch Tennessee if it reaches the SEC Tournament title game, but North Carolina is the biggest threat. The Tar Heels have a similar resume to the Vols, albeit with fewer wins at the top level and one additional loss outside of Quadrant 1. Additionally, North Carolina has the ultimate tiebreaker on its side: an emphatic head-to-head win over Tennessee on November 1. 29 in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina won its season series against rival Duke.  Will it have a No. 1 seed when NCAA Tournament time comes?  (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

North Carolina won its season series against rival Duke. Will it have a No. 1 seed when NCAA Tournament time comes? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

North Carolina Tar Heels

25-6, 17-3 ACC | NET: 7 | KenPom: 8 | SOR: 4 | Question 1: 7-4 | Question 2: 6-2 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Tennessee, Duke (2), Clemson (2), at Pittsburgh, at Virginia

Biggest losses: at Georgia Tech, at Syracuse

The SEC and ACC tournaments both present opportunities for Tennessee and North Carolina to strengthen their cases.

Tennessee could potentially draw NCAA tournament-bound Mississippi State in the SEC quarterfinals and draw Auburn or South Carolina in the semifinals, but the selection committee typically has not factored Sunday’s title game into seeding decisions. North Carolina, on the other hand, won’t face a surefire NCAA tournament team until the ACC title game, but a potential third game against Duke on the eve of Selection Sunday would certainly have the nation’s — and the selection committee’s — full attention.

It was just over three weeks ago that Arizona, not Tennessee or North Carolina, was the selection committee’s choice as the final No. 1 seed in the in-season unveiling. Judging from what committee chairman Charles McClelland said when he joined the CBS studio show, it wasn’t that close either. When former Villanova coach Jay Wright asked if Arizona was skipping other teams, McClelland responded that the Wildcats were “resolutely” the fourth No. 1 seed and were “not sneaking in at all.”

Since then, Arizona has dropped a pair of games, a late February home loss to Washington State and Saturday night’s stunner against USC. The Wildcats have also done little to improve their resume, as their remaining Pac-12 schedule offered no opportunities for big wins.

Arizona has one more Quadrant 1 win than Tennessee or North Carolina, but fewer top-tier wins than the Vols and more questionable losses than both. The Wildcats also have little chance of gaining ground on their rivals, as they won’t be able to compete against an expected NCAA tournament team until the Pac-12 title game.

Wild cats from Arizona

24-7, 15-5 Pac-12 | NET: 4 | KenPom: 6 | SOR: 12 | Question 1: 8-3 | Question 2: 6-3 | Q3, Q4 losses: 1

Marquee wins: at Duke, Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Colorado (2)

Biggest losses: At Oregon State, at Stanford, at USC

Could Arizona regain the last No. 1 seed if it beats Washington State or Colorado to claim the Pac-12 tournament title on Saturday night? It’s a gamble, and it would almost certainly require Tennessee and North Carolina to lose early in their respective conference tournaments.

The possibilities are even slimmer for fringe No. 1 seed candidates Iowa State and Marquette. Both should win a conference tournament full of quality teams and hope Tennessee and North Carolina don’t add to their resumes.

Shaka Smart and the Marquette Golden Eagles have stumbled this season due to serious injuries.  (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)Shaka Smart and the Marquette Golden Eagles have stumbled this season due to serious injuries.  (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Shaka Smart and the Marquette Golden Eagles have stumbled this season due to serious injuries. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Cyclones in the state of Iowa

24-7, 13-5 Big 12 | NET: 9 | KenPom: 12 | SOR: 6 | Question 1: 8-6 | Question 2: 5-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Houston, Kansas, BYU, Texas Tech, at Texas, at TCU

Biggest losses: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, at Kansas State

Marquette Golden Eagles

23-8, 14-6 Big 12 | NET: 13 | KenPom: 13 | SOR: 7 | Question 1: 8-7 | Question 2: 5-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Creighton, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, Villanova (2)

Biggest loss: Butler

History shows that teams that secure a No. 1 seed have a significant advantage over teams that settle for No. 2. Twenty-four of college basketball’s 38 national champions have been seeded No. 1 since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985 .Only five No. 2 seeds have hoisted the championship trophy in that span.

Eleven No. 2 seeds have lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. No. 1 seeds were undefeated against No. 16 before Virginia lost to UMBC in 2018 and Purdue fell to Fairleigh Dickinson last March.

The other incentive for teams chasing the final No. 1 seed is who they are fortunate enough to avoid if they secure it. The fourth No. 1 seed is guaranteed not to see UConn, Houston or Purdue until the Final Four, remarkable considering those three teams have separated themselves from the rest of the field in recent months.

The final sprint for the No. 1 overall seed will get a lot of attention this week, but the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever order the committee chooses for Houston, UConn and Purdue, they will almost certainly get their favored, geographically favorable path to the Final Four.

UConn will likely play first- and second-round games in Brooklyn before traveling to the East Regional in Boston. Purdue will likely go from Indianapolis to the Midwest Regional in Detroit. And Houston would likely go from Memphis to the South Regional in Dallas.

The race for the fourth No. 1 seed, on the other hand, has some real stakes.

Expect Tennessee, North Carolina and the rest of the contenders to play like this.

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