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March Madness tournament logo. Image by Greg Johnson for the NCAA.

March Madness Preview: Potential One Seeds Ahead of Selection Sunday

As Selection Sunday approaches, a considerable amount of ambiguity surrounds how the bracket will unfold this year. Various factors contribute to the instability, unpredictability, and the often-dreaded notion of “parity” (typically invoked by coaches to justify defeats). Yet, there has not been a season in a while where outcomes and performances were so difficult to assess. Winning on the road has been a singular test this season, and it knows no conference boundaries. 

The inconsistency of the most highly touted teams is giving us every reason to brace ourselves for an NCAA tournament full of drama. Consider Kansas. How can one reconcile the Jayhawks’ scorching 69% shooting, with only 14 missed shots in 40 minutes against a historically strong defensive team like Houston, and then their 15 missed shots in the first half and 40 overall against Kansas State just two days later? The same squad that triumphed over Kentucky, UConn, and Tennessee suffered losses to UCF, West Virginia, and — all unranked. The Jayhawks are not an isolated case: a greater number of Top 10 and Top 25 teams than ever before are encountering difficulties securing victories on the road.

Even with all of the disequilibrium in the game, a few teams have shown high-level consistency on offense, defense, and conversion. UConn and Purdue have separated, yet they are not at all unbeatable. The NCAA ranks teams using the NET rankings—an algorithm that ranks every team in college basketball by splitting wins and losses into four quadrants—to help the selection committee build the 68-team bracket in March. These ensuing rankings are not only their results and performance metrics against the field but also their ability to elevate toward the end of the season. Sure some of this may be the “Eye Test”, but basic metrics only measure a team has done in the past, and cannot necessarily predict future capabilities. 

One-game results or a given week that could include a loss or an uncharacteristic outing do not impact these rankings. What follows is simply an outlook on the top seeds (as of now), potential winners, and teams to watch based on how they have played, and what they are capable of achieving. January represents the dog days of the season, as the midst of conference play in the Power 5 Conferences begins, and the marquee matchups begin. February brings separation, as the conference begins to wrap up and we get a better sense of where teams in each conference will pan out to finish the regular season. March brings new life, as each team enters its conference tournament and beyond with a record of 0-0. As the excitement builds and anticipation mounts, the focus shifts towards identifying the teams poised to earn the coveted one-seed this NCAA tournament season. Here are the teams you can expect to earn the coveted one-seed this NCAA tournament season:

One Seeds 

*( ): Seed in Region

No. 1 Overall: UConn Huskies: Consider last season: The Huskies started 14-0 and were considered the best team in the country, then lost four of its next six games and was dismissed as the top team on the national scene. Still, the Huskies not only elevated their level of play down the stretch, but they left no doubt throughout the NCAA tournament that they were the best team in the country by effortlessly winning it all. They also were undefeated in non-conference play throughout the entire season, beating every team outside of the Big East by an average of 24.2 points. 

This season, the Huskies have different personnel but are exhibiting the same traits of a national champion. UConn is one of the top-rated teams and has the ceiling to improve down the stretch, has an elite offense, and has been an elite offensive team from the opening game, despite injuries to key players freshman Stephon Castle and sophomore Donovan Clingan. The Huskies have been tougher, more together, and more physical of late, and can still get better. After having their defense rated outside the nation’s Top 30 early in the…., the Huskies have the second-rated defense in the Big East and are among the Top 15 defenses in the nation, a significant upward trend. 

No. 2 Overall: Houston Cougars: Houston leads the nation in playing hard and wins based on defense, rebounding, second-shot opportunities and simply being relentless. Relentlessness is hard to beat. With that said Houston is not a great free-throw shooting team nor a great finishing team inside the arc. Houston shoots only 48% from 2-point territory and just 68% from the foul line, both in the bottom third of Division I basketball nationally. When you watch Houston, watch senior Jamal Shead, perhaps the best defensive point guard in the country. Nobody puts better pressure on the ball and disrupts more than Shead. Their offense likely will hold them back from winning a national title, but considering their historic defense, the Cougars have better odds than most. 

No. 3 Overall: Purdue Boilermakers: Despite the considerable praise often directed towards Purdue, an easy retort to temper the applause lies in their track record of three consecutive seasons of losses to double-digit seeds in the NCAA tournament, casting a shadow of doubt over their consistency and tournament performance. The Boilermakers’ only losses come on the road in the Big Ten and are in storm-the-court games, illustrating that Purdue’s losses only come in upset fashion. Purdue’s defense is solid and among the Top 15 defenses in the nation but, unlike Connecticut, perhaps at its ceiling. Head coach Matt Painter’s offense, however, is considered to be among the best and most efficient in the country.

Purdue shoots over 40% from deep as a team, with freshmen Myles Colvin, Senior Mason Gillis, and sophomores Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer all shooting over 42% from behind the line. Gillis has hit 30 3s on 48% shooting after 23 games. While some other teams have similar or better shooters, nobody else has a player like senior Zach Edey, who is among the best and most efficient players in the country. Purdue won’t achieve their title hopes unless they find a way to take plenty of the emphasis off Zach Edey in March. Purdue this season has been reminiscent of the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers, who won the National Championship the year after losing to No. 16 Seed UMBC. The full story of the Boilermakers remains undecided until we see how they perform this March. 

No. 4 Overall: Arizona Wildcats: The Wildcats are better than their record suggests. Losses to Oregon State, Washington State, and Stanford on the road, and Florida Atlantic in overtime on a neutral court, were all games Arizona could have and should have won, as they’re the higher-ranked team with a more highly touted roster. The Wildcats showed significant growth through their big back-to-back road wins over Utah and Colorado in the toughest road trip in the Pac-12.

With a great balance between offense and defense, Arizona is rated in the Top 11 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a good predictor of postseason capability. Senior Caleb Love is having his best and most efficient season, and when he attacks the lane to complement his perimeter shooting, he is truly at his best. Arizona keeps getting better, and this team can improve down the stretch. A big question mark is the foul shooting of senior Omar Ballo, the highly productive scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker. Ballo is the most-fouled Wildcat, but he shoots only 48% from the line. That puts head coach Tommy Lloyd in a bind late in games ….

The anticipation for this year’s bracket unveiling is met with a cloud of uncertainty, symbolic of a season rife with unprecedented twists and turns. From the enigmatic performance of perennial powerhouses to the rise of underdog contenders, the road to victory knows no conference boundaries, rendering traditional metrics inadequate for predicting outcomes. Despite the chaos, a select few, like UConn and Purdue, have emerged as beacons of consistency, offering a glimpse of what lies ahead in the impending NCAA tournament. As March Madness approaches, it’s not just about assessing past accomplishments but deciphering each team’s potential to rewrite the narrative and etch their names in the annals of basketball history.

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