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How close is Michigan basketball to already locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

Wolverines improve to 16-1 with win at No. 4 Ohio State

Michigan's Chaundee Brown, left, and Franz Wagner celebrates their win over Ohio State after an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.  (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Michigan's Chaundee Brown, left, and Franz Wagner celebrates their win over Ohio State after an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The NCAA Tournament is still three weeks away, but Michigan basketball might be closer to locking up a No. 1 seed than many realize.

Michigan hasn’t received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since 1993 -- Juwan Howard’s sophomore season. Before that, the Wolverines were a No. 1 seed in the 1985 tournament.

It’s one of the few peaks the program never reached under John Beilein. He led them to two national championship games, two Big Ten titles, two Big Ten Tournament titles, five Sweet 16 appearances and eight NCAA Tournaments in nine years.

Michigan was a top four seed five times during Beilein’s tenure, won at least 30 games three times and even reached No. 1 in the AP poll after a 20-1 start in 2012-13.

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But the only time Michigan earned a No. 1 seed was in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament. There’s a chance that could change this year.

Win at Ohio State

Heading into the weekend, Michigan was ranked No. 3 in the nation and has won 15 of its first 16 games. But there was still a shadow of a doubt about the team because it hadn’t played any of the Big Ten’s other three elite teams: Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa.

READ: Michigan takes Ohio State’s best punch for best win of college basketball season

On Sunday, Michigan went on the road for a massive test against No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes had won seven games in a row and were named a No. 1 seed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee during their early top 16 reveal.

That means that if the tournament had started any time during the last 10 days, Ohio State would have been a No. 1 seed.

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Franz Wagner #21 of the Michigan Wolverines and Justice Sueing #14 of the Ohio State Buckeyes battle for a loose ball on the floor in the first half at Value City Arena on February 21, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio.
Franz Wagner #21 of the Michigan Wolverines and Justice Sueing #14 of the Ohio State Buckeyes battle for a loose ball on the floor in the first half at Value City Arena on February 21, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (2021 Getty Images)

So, obviously, this was one of the toughest tests any college basketball team has faced this season, outside of playing Gonzaga or Baylor.

Michigan took body blow after body blow, as Ohio State shot 53.3% from the floor and 50% from beyond the arc. But still, the Wolverines managed to come away with a win, cementing themselves as one of the top teams in the country.

Only two No. 1 seeds up for grabs

Let’s get one thing straight: Gonzaga and Baylor are getting No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. There are only two No. 1 seeds available for the rest of the country.

If you want to argue that Gonzaga could lose a WCC game or Baylor could drop three or four games down the stretch, that’s fine. You obviously haven’t watched either of those teams play this season.

So that means Michigan is among a large group of teams duking it out for one of the other two top seeds. Why does it matter? Well, this year in particular, it’s critical to get a No. 1 seed because that’s the only way to guarantee staying out of the Gonzaga and Baylor regions.

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For example, say Michigan loses several games down the stretch and falls to No. 5 overall behind Illinois and Ohio State. Even though Michigan would be the top No. 2 seed, it would likely get put in a region with Gonzaga and Baylor because the committee wouldn’t want two Big Ten teams as the top seeds in the same region.

That’s exactly what happened to Illinois during the committee’s early top 16 reveal. Even though the Illini were No. 5 overall, they got put in a region with No. 2 Baylor to avoid the Michigan and Ohio State regions.

Michigan’s overall resume

Before we start to compare Michigan to other teams, let’s make sure we have a good handle on the Wolverines’ resume.

Michigan is ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, but more importantly, it is also No. 3 in the NET, Kenpom, Torvik and Massey rankings. The selection committee does consider these metrics when making their decisions.

In terms of quadrant one wins, Michigan is currently at six, which ranks only behind Ohio State (eight), Illinois (seven), Alabama (seven) and Gonzaga (seven). West Virginia, Missouri and Baylor are tied with Michigan at six Q1 wins.

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Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket against Ron Harper Jr. #24 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Crisler Arena on February 18, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket against Ron Harper Jr. #24 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Crisler Arena on February 18, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

The Wolverines have also put together a strong cache of road victories, most notably at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue. Add in a win at Maryland, and Michigan has as many as four road victories against NCAA Tournament teams. The win at Nebraska doesn’t mean quite as much.

Michigan has additional home wins against Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland and Rutgers, giving it up to eight wins against at-large NCAA Tournament teams. The win over Toledo also looks solid, as the Rockets have risen to the top of the MAC and rank top 70 in both NET and Kenpom.

Michigan’s only loss wasn’t aesthetically pleasing due to the 18-point margin, and it’s only gotten worse as Minnesota is 2-6 since.

But keep in mind, Michigan only has to be in the top two of this group to get a No. 1 seed.

Other No. 1 seed contenders

Here’s a look at the rest of the candidates for a No. 1 seed, ranked in order of how the NCAA Tournament committee seeded them in their top 16 reveal on Feb. 13.

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4. Ohio State:

Ohio State was named a No. 1 seed by the committee on Feb. 13. Since then, the Buckeyes have beaten Indiana, won at Penn State and lost to No. 3 Michigan. They’re either still on the No. 1 line or just outside of it.

But the separation between Ohio State and Michigan despite being No. 4 and No. 3, respectively, still seems pretty wide. Yes, Ohio State has two more Q1 wins, but it also has five losses to Michigan’s one, and now a head-to-head loss in Columbus.

Michigan has five games remaining in the regular season. What if the Wolverines finished the year with three losses in their final five games? They would have an 18-4 record with zero bad losses and a head-to-head win. Ohio State lost at Minnesota by 17 points, so Michigan’s earlier loss at the Barn isn’t much of a talking point in this comparison.

Ohio State also lost to Northwestern, a non-NCAA Tournament team. That’s only a Q2 loss, so it’s not much of a blemish for the Buckeyes, but it’s another point in favor of Michigan.

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5. Illinois:

Illinois has a really, really good chance to be a No. 1 seed, especially if it can knock off Michigan in Ann Arbor next week.

Really, the only blemish for Illinois is a home loss to Maryland, which ranks 30th in NET and could become a Q2 loss by the end of the season.

The resume is boosted by road wins over Duke, Indiana and the same Minnesota team that beat Michigan. But Illinois also has losses to Rutgers, Maryland and Ohio State -- three teams against which Michigan has compiled a 4-0 record.

Illinois is No. 4 in the NET rankings and No. 5 in Kenpom. If anyone can surpass Michigan on the seed line, it’s this team.

6. Villanova:

No. 6 overall as of the Feb. 13 release, Villanova’s resume is highlighted by a win at Texas. But it doesn’t have any other wins against sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams.

If Seton Hall and Connecticut make the tournament, that will give Villanova an additional three victories over teams in the field, but those teams are currently expected to be double-digit seeds.

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The Big East simply isn’t strong enough to yield as many great wins as Michigan has amassed. On top of that, Michigan’s schedule doesn’t offer a chance at a loss as bad as Villanova’s Feb. 3 loss at St. John’s, a team that won’t make the tournament.

Michigan could lose four more games and finish with more losses than Villanova, and there would still be a fair argument in favor of the Wolverines because of their strong wins.

7. Alabama:

Alabama has a great chance to earn a No. 1 seed because it has completely run away with the SEC championship. Even though the league isn’t very good this year, winning the SEC will still hold some water with the committee, especially since it’s going to be by a three- or four-game margin.

But even with a conference championship, it’s going to be hard for Alabama to overtake Michigan from a resume standpoint.

Western Kentucky might make the NCAA Tournament by winning the Conference USA title, but losing to the Hilltoppers at home won’t do Alabama any favors. Neutral court losses to Stanford and Clemson aren’t crippling, but they’re both worse than a road loss to Minnesota.

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Alabama has seven Q1 wins, but none of them are as strong as Michigan’s win at Ohio State. In fact, Tennessee is Alabama’s only top 20 NET win, as it stands.

8. Houston:

This might sound harsh, but Michigan could lose the rest of its games and still deserve a better seed than Houston.

While the Cougars rank in the top 10 in both NET and Kenpom, they’ve only played three Q1 games. Texas Tech and Boise State are the only top 50 NET victories for Houston, and neither came on the road.

Most importantly a Q2 loss to Tulsa (NET No. 114) was bad enough, but add in a Q3 loss to East Carolina (NET No. 147) and there’s really no good argument for Houston over the top three Big Ten teams.

9. Virginia:

It was a tough week for Virginia’s No. 1 seed hopes, as it went 0-2 with a 21-point loss at Florida State and a loss at Duke, a bubble team.

Virginia already has a Q3 neutral site loss to San Francisco and a 3-4 record in Q1 games weighing it down. The schedule doesn’t offer much opportunity for improvement until the ACC Tournament, either.

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When a team’s only Q1 wins are against Clemson, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame -- a projected middling seed and two non-NCAA Tournament teams -- any conversation about a No. 1 seed seems kind of silly.

10. West Virginia:

If Florida drops below No. 30 in the NET rankings (currently No. 29), West Virginia will earn a Q2 loss that would probably drop it out of this discussion, barring a Big 12 Tournament title.

Even if the Mountaineers win out, the problem with comparing them to Michigan is just the sheer number of losses. If Michigan loses the rest of its games, West Virginia would have to win out -- including a win at Baylor -- to tie in the loss column.

The elite wins are there. West Virginia has knocked off Texas Tech twice, Kansas at home and Texas on the road. It’s absolutely in the conversation for the No. 4 overall spot right now, but there’s some distance between West Virginia and Michigan.

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11. Tennessee:

Tennessee is not getting a No. 1 seed.

Since being named the No. 11 overall seed on Feb. 13, Tennessee has lost at LSU and at home against a Kentucky team that was 7-13.

Tennessee won at Missouri and against Kansas and Arkansas, but that’s not exactly a long list of great wins. Toss in the Kentucky and Ole Miss losses and there’s no chance for the Vols to catch Michigan this season.

12. Oklahoma:

Do not count out Oklahoma in the No. 1 seed conversation.

While a 22-point loss at Xavier won’t help the Musketeers are just good enough to make it forgivable, especially considering Oklahoma’s wins.

The Sooners beat West Virginia, Kansas and Alabama at home while picking up road wins over Texas and West Virginia.

Five is a high number of losses when compared to Michigan, but they’re all in Q1, and Oklahoma has five Q1 wins. A Big 12 Tournament title combined with two wins over Oklahoma State to end the season would be a huge boost.

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13. Iowa:

The only other Big Ten team with a glimmer of hope for a No. 1 seed is Iowa, and with six losses, the Hawkeyes would have to win out while Michigan loses five times to finish with comparable records.

Iowa doesn’t have any bad losses, but the resume lacks a great win. It has road wins over Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but lost to Indiana twice.

If Iowa can win at Michigan and at Ohio State this week, it will cement itself back in the No. 1 seed conversation, but it still might be hard to overtake Michigan on the overall seed line, unless the Wolverines collapse down the stretch.

14. Texas Tech:

The team that knocked Michigan out of the most recent NCAA Tournament probably can’t overtake the Wolverines on this year’s seed line after suffering a seventh loss over the weekend.

Texas Tech is an excellent team with elite talent, but even three wins combined against Oklahoma and Texas won’t erase that loss total.

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The Red Raiders will be an extremely dangerous team seeded between two and four.

15. Texas:

At one point, Texas was 10-1 with perhaps the best resume in the nation outside of Gonzaga and Baylor. But since, the Longhorns have gone 3-5, and their chance at a No. 1 seed is on life support.

Finishing the season with wins over Kansas and Texas Tech would but Texas in a position to possibly re-enter the conversation with a Big 12 Tournament run, but it’s going to be hard to catch Michigan with six losses, three Q1 wins and current NET and Kenpom rankings outside the top 20.

16. Missouri:

Since Feb. 10, Missouri has lost to Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia. The Tigers are No. 39 in the NET rankings and No. 44 in Kenpom.

Translation: No chance at a No. 1 seed.

Florida State:

Florida State wasn’t included in the early top 16 release, but this could be the best team in the ACC.

There isn’t enough on the resume to catch Michigan, though.

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Florida State only has three losses, but two of them came to non-NCAA Tournament teams in UCF and Georgia Tech. It doesn’t help that Michigan pounded that same UCF team, which is now just 8-11 on the season (and a Q3 loss).

The Seminoles have decent wins over Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Louisville and Clemson, but only one true standout win over Virginia.

It’s entirely possible that an ACC champion Florida State gets the fourth No. 1 seed, but it’s probably not going to surpass Michigan’s resume, barring a total collapse.

Creighton:

A win over Villanova put Creighton on the map this week, but four of the team’s five losses are in Q3.

Creighton is also No. 25 in the NET rankings and No. 15 in Kenpom. It’s a dangerous team, but not a No. 1 seed.

USC:

The only team from the Pac-12 with a glimmer of hope for a No. 1 seed was USC, and that is no longer the case after a home loss to Arizona.

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There are four NCAA Tournament teams in the Pac-12: USC, Colorado, UCLA and Oregon. Stanford could be a fifth, but in a conference this weak, it’s important to make a splash in those upper-tier games.

USC only has one win against the group so far, and while it gets three chances in the final four games -- vs. Oregon, at Colorado and at UCLA -- none of those teams are strong enough to boost the Trojans to No. 1 seed territory.

Overview

If Michigan wins three of its final six games (counting the first game of the Big Ten Tournament), it will pretty much lock up a No. 1 seed. The Wolverines would finish with four losses, and the only other teams on this list that currently have fewer than five losses are Villanova, Florida State, USC and Houston.

USC and Houston can’t catch Michigan, so it would take both Villanova and Florida State winning out for Michigan to fall off the top line in that scenario.

The most likely teams to pass Michigan are Illinois, Alabama, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Florida State. That puts the Wolverines in a six-way race for two spots, and they have a nice head start.

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Michigan’s work isn’t done. Circle the games against Iowa and Illinois, as they will give Michigan two opportunities for statement wins at the top of the league.


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