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Despite the way it looked when Duke scored 118 points on Kentucky in the first game of the year, there was no dominant team in men’s college basketball this year.
Preseason No. 1 Kansas appears headed for a No. 4 seed. Duke, as it turns out, wasn’t a complete juggernaut. Gonzaga has 30 wins, including one over Duke, but lost in the West Coast Conference tournament.
North Carolina and Virginia have had great seasons but wouldn’t necessarily be favored over Duke or Kentucky if they met in the NCAA tournament.
You wouldn’t call it a crowded race for the No. 1 seeds, either, but among a handful of worthy candidates, these are the most deserving four as Selection Sunday approaches.
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It’s been a long time since Duke walloped Kentucky at the beginning of the year. It took the Wildcats a couple of months to find themselves, but once they did it became clear they had all the pieces to make a Final Four run.
This isn’t a quintessential John Calipari team—the quintessential Calipari team belongs to Mike Krzyzewski this year—but it might be one of his better squads.
Since losing to Alabama in the SEC opener, the Wildcats are 17-2, with wins over Auburn, Mississippi State, Kansas and Tennessee. Considering the two losses were to Tennessee and LSU, you can say Kentucky hasn’t had a bad game in two months.
The Wildcats are balanced too. They have four players averaging between 11 and 15 points, with a nice blend of veterans—like senior big man Reid Travis and sophomore PJ Washington—and talented freshmen in Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro.
Kentucky is an outstanding offensive team from inside the three-point arc. Despite finishing last in the SEC in three-pointers made, Kentucky was second to Tennessee in field-goal percentage and rebounds, and the Wildcats averaged 76.7 points per game.
This isn’t a collection of one-and-dones. It’s something even better: a talented team with experience and the resume of a No. 1 seed.
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If the Cavaliers are haunted from last March, when they became the first men’s No. 1 seed to ever lose in the first round, they didn’t show it on the floor this year.
The formula for Tony Bennett’s group was the same as ever in running up a 29-3 record: great defense, great offensive execution, and plenty of good backcourt play and outside shooting from guys who have been around the block a time or two. Virginia’s top for scorers all shoot at least 39 percent from three, making the Cavaliers one of the most difficult teams in the tournament.
Virginia has eight wins against teams in the Top 25, and the Cavaliers have only lost to Duke (two close games) and FSU.
There is an argument to be made about Virginia’s style being less effective in an NCAA tournament setting. The Cavaliers have won at least 29 games in five of the last six years but have made it past the Sweet 16 just once (2016).
But you have to judge teams by what they did during this season only.
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The Blue Devils probably stole a No. 1 seed from rival North Carolina on Friday night. The Tar Heels had swept Duke during the regular season, but that happened with Zion Williamson out with college basketball’s most notorious injury.
With Williamson on the floor Friday night, either team could have won that game, which means either team could be a No. 1 seed.
As it worked out, though, Williamson had 31 points, 11 rebounds and the game’s deciding basket by bullying his way into the lane, rebounding his own miss and putting it back in. It was a play few non-Williamson players could have made, and it revealed the stark difference between a great team and a great team that also has a talent unlike any the sport has previously seen.
Williamson changes everything. With him in the lineup, Duke deserves a No. 1 seed…barely.
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The loss in the West Coast Conference tournament introduces some doubt as to whether the Bulldogs deserve a No. 1 seed. But heading into Friday, Gonzaga’s 30 wins were more than any team in contention for a No. 1 seed had, and the Bulldogs did enough damage in the nonconference season to show that glossy record wasn’t built entirely on a weak conference schedule.
The Zags were the first team to beat Duke this year. They also have wins over Texas A&M, Illinois, Arizona, Creighton and Washington, with losses to Tennessee and North Carolina. The resume doesn’t blow you away, but it isn’t nothing.
As usual, Gonzaga owned its league. Even though the WCC is not exactly the ACC, going undefeated in any league is a major accomplishment, and Gonzaga’s tournament history indicates that dominating the WCC is a good indicator of a team capable of making a deep run.
Thirty-three games into the season, Gonzaga has one bad loss. There’s no reason to punish that.