With less than a month to go before Selection Sunday, the race for the NCAA tournament's four No. 1 seeds is beginning to take shape.
Here's a side-by-side comparison of the leading contenders and a look at why Syracuse, Florida, Arizona and Wichita State would be my choices if the season ended today.
1. SYRACUSE (25-0, 12-0, RPI: 3, SOS: 73)
Five notable wins: Villanova, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, at Pittsburgh
Remaining schedule: Boston College, at Duke, at Maryland, at Virginia, Georgia Tech, at Florida State
Case for No. 1 seed: Not only do the Orange have an unassailable case for a No. 1 seed if they enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten, they're likely to get one even if they suffer a loss or two. They're one of two remaining unbeaten teams. They've beaten elite foes like Duke and Villanova. And their eight RPI top 50 wins are tied for second most in the nation behind Kansas' 10. That margin for error could be important for Syracuse given its back-loaded ACC schedule. Road games at Duke, Virginia, Maryland and Florida State each should be challenging. There's no other team in the nation with more riding on its quest for a No. 1 seed than Syracuse because of the favorable path to the Final Four that the Orange could secure. They could open in Buffalo for the first two rounds and head to home away from home Madison Square Garden for the regional semis and finals.
2. ARIZONA (23-2, 10-2, RPI: 2, SOS: 9)
Five notable wins: at San Diego State, Duke, Michigan, at UCLA, Arizona State
Losses: at Cal, at Arizona State
Remaining schedule: at Utah, at Colorado, Cal, Stanford, at Oregon State, at Oregon
Case for No. 1 seed: Arizona's gaudy record and four victories over RPI Top 20 foes give it a resumé worthy of a No. 1 seed, but the Wildcats are missing a player who was key to them winning their first 21 games. Brandon Ashley, Arizona's starting power forward and third-leading scorer, is lost for the season due to a foot injury suffered in the first two minutes of a loss to Cal two weeks ago. Without Ashley, the Wildcats have struggled on offense, suffering their only two losses of the season and narrowly escaping Oregon at home. What Arizona must do to secure the No. 1 seed is not only assemble one of the nation's four best resumés but also prove to the committee it's top seed material even without Ashley. In the past, the committee has dropped a team a seed or two because of a key injury, most notably Cincinnati when Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament.
3. FLORIDA (23-2, 12-0, RPI: 4, SOS: 33)
Five notable wins: Kansas, at Kentucky, Memphis, at Tennessee, Missouri
Losses: at Wisconsin, at UConn
Remaining schedule: Auburn, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, LSU, at South Carolina, Kentucky
Case for No. 1 seed: Were it not for a flurry of early-season injuries and suspensions, Florida could easily be unbeaten right now. They lost at Wisconsin by six on Nov. 12 despite playing without Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker. They lost at UConn on Dec. 2 on a Shabazz Napier buzzer beater despite playing without Walker and Kasey Hill and losing Wilbekin to an injury late in the game. Since then, Florida has reeled off 17 straight wins to seize control of the SEC and move into position to secure a No. 1 seed. A lack of quality teams in the SEC could hurt Florida's case if it were to drop a game or two, but the Gators deserve credit for dismantling many of their conference foes. Fueled by a stifling defense and a balanced offense, they've won their 12 SEC games by an average of 12.6 points per game.
4. WICHITA STATE (27-0, 14-0, RPI: 8, SOS: 114)
Five notable wins: at Saint Louis, BYU, Tennessee, Indiana State, at Indiana State
Remaining schedule: at Loyola (Ill.), Drake, at Bradley, Missouri State
Case for No. 1 seed: Quibble all you like with Wichita State's modest strength of schedule, but the Shockers would be a near-lock for a No. 1 seed if the season ended today. They're 16-0 against the RPI top 150. They have a road win over a Saint Louis team that just cracked the top 10 in the polls. And though it's not supposed to impact the decisions of the committee, they have the credibility boost of reaching last year's Final Four. The bigger question is if Wichita State would get a No. 1 seed if it enters the NCAA tournament with one loss, a debate that would hing on what the other No. 1 seed contenders do and how much the committee penalizes the Shockers for their non schedule. Gregg Marshall made it known he'd play anyone in a home-and-home series and start on the road. Is it his fault only Tennessee and Alabama accepted?
5. KANSAS (19-6, 10-2, RPI: 1, SOS: 1)
Five notable wins: Duke, at Iowa State, at Oklahoma, Iowa State, Kansas State
Losses: Villanova, at Colorado, at Florida, San Diego State, at Kansas State, at Texas
Remaining schedule: at Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, at West Virginia
Case for No. 1 seed: How to seed Kansas could be an interesting dilemma for the committee if the Jayhawks were to win the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles. On one hand, the Jayhawks would have survived college basketball's toughest schedule to sweep the titles in perhaps the nation's toughest conference and amass more RPI top 50 wins than any other team. On the other hand, Kansas already has six losses and no team has ever earned a No. 1 seed with more than seven. At this point, the Jayhawks are almost certainly a No. 2 seed, but four or five wins in their final six regular season games and a Big 12 tournament title certainly could change that. At the very least, Kansas would have to merit consideration, especially if one of the teams currently above them falters.
6. MICHIGAN STATE (21-5, 10-3, RPI: 19, SOS: 35)
Five notable wins: Kentucky, at Iowa, at Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State
Losses: North Carolina, Michigan, at Wisconsin, Georgetown, Nebraska
Remaining schedule: at Purdue, at Michigan, Illinois, Iowa at Ohio State
Case for No. 1 seed: Michigan State's resumé doesn't compare favorably to some of the other teams on this list at this point despite a handful of marquee wins, but there's still a path for the injury-plagued Spartans to earn a No. 1 seed. Let's say the Spartans still manage to earn at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, then blitz through the conference tournament once they regain their full complement of players. Wouldn't the committee have to consider awarding a No. 1 seed to a team that swept the regular season and tournament titles in the Big Ten and suffered most or all of its losses without Branden Dawson or Keith Appling or Adreian Payne? Again, the Spartans wouldn't be a No. 1 seed today, but don't rule out the possibility on Selection Sunday if they're able to show the committee what they can do at full strength.
Other long shot contenders:
Duke (20-5, 9-3, RPI: 9, SOS: 11): At this point, Duke has the resumé of a No. 2 seed, but a visit from Syracuse and two remaining games against North Carolina provide opportunities to improve that. If the Devils win a couple of those and capture the ACC tournament title, they'll have a real chance to capitalize if someone ahead of them were to falter.
Villanova (22-3, 10-2, RPI: 5, SOS: 22): Despite getting flattened twice by Creighton, Villanova has a stronger overall resumé at this point thanks to huge non-league wins over Kansas and Iowa and zero losses to anyone outside the top 10. If the Wildcats were to win the Big East regular season crown and avenge their losses to Creighton in the conference tournament, they could have a credible case for a No. 1 seed.
San Diego State (22-2, 11-1, RPI: 20, SOS: 130): The unusual lack of quality foes in the Mountain West has zapped the Aztecs' strength of schedule and given them little hope of a No. 1 seed despite victories over Kansas and Creighton. If San Diego State sweeps New Mexico in the regular season, wins the league tournament and enters the NCAA tournament with only two losses, the committee will at least have to consider awarding the Aztecs a No. 1 seed. Otherwise, a No. 2 seed is the ceiling and a No. 3 is more likely.