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5 teams battling for NCAA tourney's 4 No. 1 seeds: Who gets left out?

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With conference tournaments underway and Selection Sunday on the horizon, the state of the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seeds remains unclear.

San Diego State’s upset loss to the Utah State in the Mountain West tournament and Baylor’s stumbles down the regular-season stretch have injected uncertainty as five teams remain in play for four spots on the tournament’s top line.

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Here’s a look at how the race is shaping up ahead of the heart of conference tournament week.

Kansas (28-3; NET rank: 1, KenPom rank: 1)

After trailing Baylor in the Big 12 and national polls for much of the season, Kansas has emerged as the surest of bets for a No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks check in at No. 1 in NET and KenPom rankings and are the unanimous top team in the latest AP poll.

With losses against Duke, Baylor and Villanova, there’s not a bad defeat in sight. Nothing that happens in this week’s Big 12 tournament should knock Kansas off the top line or away from the Midwest region, even an unlikely loss to Oklahoma State or Iowa State on Thursday.

Kansas enters the Big 12 tournament without a sweat. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
Kansas enters the Big 12 tournament without a sweat. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

The big question this week is whether Kansas will take a cue from the NBA when it comes to load management. With stakes at a minimum, head coach Bill Self could be tempted to play stars Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike sparingly ahead of NCAA play in order to minimize injury risk.

Baylor (26-4; NET rank: 5, KenPom rank: 3)

Baylor looked like a sure thing for a No. 1 seed late in the season with a five-week stretch as the nation’s No. 1 team. But it’s been a bumpy road for the Bears since Kansas knocked them off their perch with a 64-61 win in Waco on Feb. 22.

Since then, they suffered a bad loss to TCU and a not-so bad loss to West Virginia. It adds up to three losses in their final five games, putting extra pressure on this week’s Big 12 tournament.

Baylor will face either TCU or Kansas State to open tournament play on Thursday. A loss there would certainly put a top seed in peril, even with Baylor’s impressive 11-2 record against Quadrant 1 teams. Two wins and a trip to the Big 12 tournament final should clear a path to a No. 1 seed in the South region, which tips off the Sweet 16 in Houston.

Gonzaga (31-2; NET rank: 2, KenPom rank: 2)

Gonzaga survived a scare against San Francisco on Monday in the WCC tournament semifinal round, but the Bulldogs were convincing in running away with an easy title-game win over Saint Mary’s.

Gonzaga’s two losses came against Michigan and BYU, teams both destined for the tournament. Meanwhile, it handled power-conference foes Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Texas A&M and North Carolina while coasting through the WCC with the single loss to BYU.

Gonzaga’s 117th-ranked strength of schedule (per KenPom) could come into play. But its win on Tuesday should push it over the top as the No. 1 seed in the West region in Los Angeles, which means the Zags wouldn’t leave the Pacific time zone until the Final Four in Atlanta.

Obi Toppin could lift the Flyers to a No. 1 seed with a strong Atlantic 10 tournament. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)
Obi Toppin could lift the Flyers to a No. 1 seed with a strong Atlantic 10 tournament. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)

Dayton (29-2; NET rank: 3, KenPom rank: 4)

Dayton will start NCAA play with the best player in the tournament in high-flying NBA lottery prospect Obi Toppin. If the Flyers remain unbeaten in Atlantic 10 play with a sweep of the conference tournament this week, they’ll likely secure the No. 1 seed in the East region.

Dayton’s two losses are quality blemishes, an overtime decision to Kansas in November and a second overtime loss in December to Colorado, another projected tournament team.

They cruised to an 18-0 record in a subpar A-10. With the weakness of their conference, an upset this week would put their No. 1 seed hopes in peril. While the Flyers don’t have any bad losses, their only win over a likely tournament team came against St. Mary’s.

But they beat the teams in front of them handily and sport a 5-2 record against Quadrant 1 teams without the Quadrant 3 blemish their top competition San Diego State carries on its résumé.

San Diego State (30-2; NET rank: 4, KenPom rank: 6)

San Diego State may have played its way off the top line with a loss to Utah State in the MWC tournament final. The Aztecs remain in the No. 1 seed conversation, but will likely depend on another contender faltering during conference championship week to get there.

Following a 26-0 start, the Aztecs finished 30-2 with losses to Utah State and UNLV. Other than the timing, the loss to Utah St. — which was in contention for an at-large bid — wasn’t a bad one. The loss to UNLV most certainly was. SDSU finishes 4-1 against Quadrant 1 teams, but the Quadrant 3 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels looms large.

In the Aztecs’ favor are wins over Creighton, BYU and Iowa, all teams projected to land seeds in the top half of their respective NCAA brackets. The well-balanced Aztecs, who rank No. 11 on offense and No. 10 on defense in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, are left to hope that Dayton or Baylor falter in order to snag a No. 1 seed.

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