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Bracketology 2023: Plenty of Contenders—Both Familiar and Not So—for the Top Line

Selection Sunday is now just six weeks away. Before I turn my attention to the bubble next Friday, I wanted to look at the crowded race for the four No. 1 seeds in the 2023 bracket.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Graphics by Chris Dobbertean using logos from either, Wikimedia Commons, or the institutions’ websites. All selection sheet data is courtesy

All times referenced are Eastern.

The 2022-23 men’s college basketball season has been defined by the lack of dominant teams. While that may be true nationally, there are a few conferences where a frontrunner or lead pack has emerged, with implications for the top seed race for the March bracket. On the flip side, one conference’s top-to-bottom strength gives it a plethora of contenders and showcase games that should sort them out.

Let’s start with four teams who, while they may not be not miles ahead of their conference rivals in the standings, are ahead of them in terms of NCAA Tournament profile and part of this race as a result.

All Alone In Their Leagues

Purdue Boilermakers (Big Ten)

20-1 (9-1 Big Ten)
NET: 4
KenPom: 5
Q1: 8-1 (4-0 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-0
Wins against peers*: Gonzaga (N), Marquette (H)
9 games remaining: 6 H, 3 A

*peers = the teams covered in this post

Sure, I might write that there hasn’t been a dominant team nationally, the one-loss Boilermakers may well be the exception. While every other national title favorite has dropped a game or more after being anointed as the next big thing, Matt Painter’s squad has remained steady. The Boilermakers are in fact a single point from being 21-0, as their lone loss came at the hands of Rutgers, 65-64, at Mackey surprisingly. Considering that Purdue has nine games left, all of which will come against NCAA contenders, with six of them in West Lafayette, it has plenty of runway left. In other words, Purdue looks to be the surest bet to be a No. 1 seed out there.

Houston Cougars (American)

19-2 (7-1 American)
NET: 1
KenPom: 1
Q1: 4-1 (2-1 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 5-0
Wins against peers: Virginia (A)
Losses against peers: Alabama (H)
Quad 3 losses: Temple (H)

The Cougars looked like Purdue’s main rival for pole position in the bracket up until Sunday, when they also recorded a surprising one-point home loss. However, Houston’s came at the hands of a Temple squad that lost to Maryland-Eastern Shore at home earlier in the season—a Quad 3 loss that will be more of a dent on the profile than one to a Rutgers squad that’s still in the race for a protected seed. Still, Kelvin Sampson’s squad leads pretty much every predictive metric out there, which means UH won’t drop too far off the radar. Unfortunately for Houston, of its 10 games remaining none will come against the peer teams discussed here. Having defeated UCF twice already, only the Cougars’ two home games against an NCAA contender will come against Memphis—on February 19 at the Fertitta Center and on the road on March 5 to end the regular season .

Virginia Cavaliers (ACC)

15-3 (7-2 ACC)
NET: 15
KenPom: 12
Q1: 4-3 (1-2 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-0
Wins against peers: Baylor (N)
Losses against peers: Houston (H)

With the ACC being down this season, I feel like people are forgetting about the Cavaliers, who defeated both Baylor and Illinois to win the Main Event in Las Vegas before Thanksgiving. However, a home loss to Houston on December 17 and a pair of ACC road losses (by five total points) might have just led many to ignore Tony Bennett’s outfit, who has won five in a row since dropping a three-point decision in Pittsburgh on January 3. However, with rivals like Duke and North Carolina falling out of the race for a position in the bracket’s Top 16, the remaining schedule doesn’t over much punch. In fact, with two games against Boston College, a home game with Notre Dame, and trip to Louisville, Virginia’s path to the top of the bracket is littered with potential banana peels. In fact, of the Cavaliers’ 11 remaining games (6 H, 5 A) none will come against peer teams and just six (3 H, 3 A) will feature potential NCAA contenders (and I’m being generous with that count).

Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC)

16-4 (6-1 WCC)
NET: 12
KenPom: 18
Q1: 3-3 (2-3 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 5-0
Wins against peers: Alabama (N), Xavier (N)
Losses against peers: Purdue (N), Texas (A), Baylor (N)
Quad 3 losses: Loyola Marymount (H)

Then there are the Bulldogs, another squad written out of the race after a pair of lopsided losses to peer squads—Texas in Austin and Purdue in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Legacy in Portland. Then, Gonzaga dropped a third game, to Baylor in Sioux Falls by a single point on December 1. In the meantime, Mark Few’s team did manage to defeat Alabama by 10 in Birmingham and a four-point Phil Knight third-place win over Xavier started to look better and better. So, a 2-3 mark against peer teams puts the Zags back in the race. Unfortunately, their fourth loss, a 68-67 home decision to Loyola Marymount, dropped the Bulldogs down the seed list. That result also resulted in Saint Mary’s temporarily taking control of the WCC race. While the Gaels rank 6th in the NET and 7th in KenPom, a 1-2 mark in Quad 1 games keeps them out of this analysis. However, that could change, as two of Gonzaga’s 10 remaining games (6 H, 4 A) come against the Gaels—on Saturday, February 4 in Moraga and on Saturday, February 25 at the Kennel. In between, there’s the final regular-season WCC meeting between the Bulldogs and BYU in Spokane.

Two Contenders: The SEC and Pac-12

Alabama Crimson Tide

18-2 (8-0 SEC)
NET: 3
KenPom: 3
Q1: 6-2 (2-2 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 5-0
Wins against peers: Houston (A)
Losses against peers: UConn (N), Gonzaga (N)

Tennessee Volunteers

17-3 (7-1 SEC)
NET: 2
KenPom: 2
Q1: 3-1 (1-1 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 4-2
Wins against peers: Kansas (N)
Losses against peers: Arizona (A)
Quad 2 losses: Kentucky (H), Colorado (N)

Thanks to the struggles of teams like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Auburn, the Crimson Tide and Volunteers have emerged as the top two national contenders in the SEC. (Texas A&M, one loss behind Alabama in the SEC standings, doesn’t fit in this category because of its non-conference struggles.) Both Bama and UT sit next to each other in the NET and KenPom, and that deadlock might not be broken until the pair meet in Knoxville on Wednesday, February 15. After Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchups, each will have 5 home and 5 road games remaining, but the final interconference event throws up different challenges. While Rick Barnes’ club gets to entertain fellow No. 1 seed contender Texas (6 p.m., ESPN), Nate Oats’ outfit has to hit the road—to visit an Oklahoma squad (2 p.m., ESPN) that could desperately use the win to boost its at-large hopes.

Arizona Wildcats

18-3 (7-3 Pac-12)
NET: 11
KenPom: 15
Q1: 7-2 (5-0 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-1
Wins against peers: Tennessee (H), UCLA (H)
Quad 2 losses: Washington State (H)

UCLA Bruins

17-4 (8-2 Pac-12)
NET: 5
KenPom: 4
Q1: 4-4 (1-2 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 6-0
Wins against peers: None
Losses against peers: Baylor (N), Arizona (A)

While the Bruins lead the Pac-12 by a game, with the Wildcats joining Utah and USC in a three-way tie for second, it’s starting to feel like Arizona has a better chance at ending up on the top line on Selection Sunday evening. UCLA’s 14-game win streak ended with a thud in Tucson on Saturday and became a two-game skid on Thursday night after a 77-64 defeat at the Galen Center. Even though Tommy Lloyd’s ‘Cats have a Quad 3 loss on their profile, they also have a pair of wins over fellow top seed contenders. Compare that to the Bruins, whose best win came against, uh, Maryland? The remaining schedule also seems to favor Arizona, who will host Arizona State and both the Mountain and Oregon schools, while they visit the dreadful Bay Area pair. As for Mick Cronin’s Bruins, they have to travel to both Oregon and Colorado/Utah while they host the Washington and Bay Area schools before welcoming the two Arizona teams to Pauley to close the regular season, with the rematch against Arizona set for Saturday, March 4.

A Trio Of Possibilities: The Big East

Xavier Musketeers

17-4 (9-1 Big East)
NET: 23
KenPom: 19
Q1: 6-3 (2-1 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 4-0
Wins against peers: UConn (H and A), Marquette (H)
Losses against peers: Gonzaga (N)

10 games remaining: 5 H, 5 A

Marquette Golden Eagles

16-5 (8-2 Big East)
NET: 16
KenPom: 8
Q1: 4-3 (2-3 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 4-2
Wins against peers: UConn (H), Baylor (H)
Losses against peers: Purdue (A), Xavier (A)
Quad 2 losses: Mississippi State (N), Wisconsin (H)

10 games remaining: 5 H, 5 A

UConn Huskies

16-6 (5-6 Big East)
NET: 7
KenPom: 6
Q1: 4-5 (2-3 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 3-0
Wins against peers: Alabama (N), Iowa State (N)
Losses against peers: Marquette (A), Xavier (A and H)
Quad 3 losses: St. John’s (N)

Since opening the season with 14 consecutive wins and a Phil Knight Invitational championship, the Huskies have won just two of their last eight, dropping to sixth in the Big East—five games behind current leader Xavier. Thanks to strong computer numbers, Dan Hurley’s team cannot be eliminated from the race yet—though that will change if the struggles continue.

But UConn’s issues, Creighton’s inability to live up to preseason expectations, and Villanova’s disappearance from the national radar don’t mean the Big East is out of the race for a No. 1 seed. Xavier has risen to prominence, thanks to a pair of wins over UConn and a home win over Marquette, who also has to be considered a contender, thanks to home wins over the Huskies and Baylor. The Golden Eagles might need some outside help; however, thanks to early season losses to Mississippi State (in the Fort Myers Tip-Off) and Wisconsin (at home) that suddenly don’t look so great.

While the Big East’s No. 1 seed hopes are likely to be unresolved until the conference tournament wraps up on Selection Eve, a pair of remaining games might just go a long way to determining whether this trio has life heading into New York. Marquette travels to UConn on Tuesday, February 7 before hosting Xavier eight nights later.

The Great Big 12 Sorting: A Half-Dozen Contenders!

Kansas State Wildcats

17-3 (6-2 Big 12)
NET: 18
KenPom: 25
Q1: 5-2 (3-2 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-1
Wins against peers: Texas (A), Kansas (H), Baylor (A)
Losses against peers: Iowa State (A), TCU (A)
Quad 2 losses: Butler (A)

Kansas Jayhawks

16-4 (5-3 Big 12)
NET: 10
KenPom: 10
Q1: 7-4 (2-4 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 4-0
Wins against peers: Iowa State (H)
Losses against peers: Tennessee (N), TCU (H), Baylor (A), Kansas State (A)

Texas Longhorns

17-3 (6-2 Big 12)
NET: 8
KenPom: 9
Q1: 6-3 (3-1 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-0
Wins against peers: Gonzaga (H), TCU (H)
Losses against peers: Iowa State (A), Kansas State (H)

Baylor Bears

15-5 (5-3 Big 12)
NET: 14
KenPom: 16
Q1: 6-5 (4-4 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 2-0
Wins against peers: UCLA (N), Kansas (H), Gonzaga (N)
Losses against peers: Iowa State (A), TCU (H), Virginia (N), Marquette (A)

TCU Horned Frogs

16-4 (5-3 Big 12)
NET: 13
KenPom: 13
Q1: 5-3 (2-3 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 3-0
Wins against peers: Kansas (A), Baylor (A)
Losses against peers: Texas (A), Iowa State (H)
Quad 4 losses: Northwestern State (H)

Iowa State Cyclones

15-4 (6-2 Big 12)
NET: 9
KenPom: 13
Q1: 6-4 (3-2 vs. Q1A)
Q2: 1-0
Wins against peers: Texas (H), TCU (A), Baylor (H), Kansas State (H)
Losses against peers: UConn (N), Kansas (A)

With all 10 teams in the NET Top 75 and KenPom’s Top 70, Quad 1 and 2 win opportunities are plentiful in the Big 12, meaning the conference’s clear top six teams all have realistic chances at earning a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. No fewer than 17 remaining games will pair one of these squads against each other, which should result in some sorting by the time the Big 12 Tournament begins in Kansas City on Wednesday, March 8.

Monday, January 30: Baylor at Texas
Tuesday, January 31: Kansas State at Kansas
Saturday, February 4: Texas at Kansas State; Kansas at Iowa State
Monday, February 6: Texas at Kansas
Tuesday, February 7: TCU at Kansas State
Saturday, February 11: Baylor at TCU
Wednesday, February 15: TCU at Iowa State
Saturday, February 18: Iowa State at Kansas State; Baylor at Kansas
Monday, February 20: Kansas at TCU
Tuesday, February 21: Baylor at Kansas State; Iowa State at Texas
Saturday, February 25: Texas at Baylor
Wednesday, March 1: Texas at TCU
Saturday, March 4: Kansas at Texas; Iowa State at Baylor

It certainly looks like Kansas State, which had a front-loaded schedule in terms of road games, will be in the strongest position, as four of its remaining five games against contenders are set for Bramlage Coliseum. Kansas and TCU both see their remaining high-quality games split 3-3, while Texas (3-4), Baylor (2-4), and Iowa State (2-3) all play more contenders on the road than at home.

Of course, this Saturday’s final SEC/Big 12 series brings its own challenges.

  • Iowa State travels to Missouri (2 p.m., ESPN2). The Tigers have only lost to Kansas and Alabama at home, so if the Cyclones can win in Columbia, they’ll be in great company. However, ISU is only 2-3 in true road games this season.
  • Baylor hosts Arkansas (4 p.m., ESPN) with the Razorbacks coming off a pair of easy home wins that snapped a four-game skid. Still, this is a game the Bears should handle in Waco.
  • TCU visits Mississippi State (4 p.m., ESPN2), a potential trap game, as the Bulldogs have fallen out of most projections as they’ve won just once in their last nine games.
  • Texas travels to Tennessee (6 p.m., ESPN) in the lone matchup of potential No. 1 seed contenders in the event.
  • Kansas State welcomes Keyontae Johnson’s former squad, Florida, to Manhattan (6 p.m., ESPN2)—a game the Gators need, particularly with a difficult Tennessee-at Kentucky-at Alabama swing to come.
  • Kansas has never lost four consecutive games under Bill Self, but that run could very much end on Saturday night, as the Jayhawks head to Rupp Arena to take on a resurgent Kentucky (8 p.m., ESPN).

On Tuesday, I’ll be back with a full bracket projection, and next Friday—the first of February—I’ll start looking at the status of the lock and bubble picture.