ANN ARBOR, Mich. - When someone says the regular season doesn't matter in college basketball, don't believe them.
One of the best parts of the sport is the dozens of different races going on from top to bottom among the 353 teams. There are conference title races, battles for seeding and teams fighting to get on the right side of the bubble.
Conference titles are extremely important in college basketball, as for many teams it's their only ticket into the NCAA Tournament. For the major conferences, the regular season is an opportunity to hang a banner before postseason play even begins.
From 2014 to 2016, Michigan was stuck in the bubble race, missing the tournament in 2014-15, slipping in as a No. 11 seed in 2015-16 and rising to a No. 7 seed in 2016-17.
Last year, Michigan and Michigan State were both part of the Big Ten regular season title race, though this year's shaping up to be an even better battle.
In 2019, the state of Michigan is second to none in college basketball, as both Michigan and Michigan State are in the mix for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
That's a big deal because the pool of potential No. 1 seeds is shallow with less than six weeks left in the regular season. Here's a look at the argument for all six teams.
NET ranking: 3
Kenpom ranking: 2
Quadrant 1 record: 6-1
Duke would have the strongest resume in the country if it had played more true road games.
The Blue Devils were the last team in the country to play on the road and have since gone on the road four times, twice against Quadrant 1 opponents in Florida State and Pittsburgh.
A neutral site loss to Gonzaga doesn't do much damage to Duke's resume, but a home loss to Syracuse is a minor blemish. It helps that Duke bounced back with a win over the No. 1 team in both the NET and Kenpom rankings.
In every legitimate metric, Duke is one of the top five teams in the country. It has the No. 3 offense and the No. 6 defense in the country, one of only three teams nationally to rank in the top 10 in both, according to Kenpom's adjusted efficiency numbers.
As of right now, Duke feels like a lock to get a No. 1 seed, even if it loses in the ACC Tournament. The star power of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish gives the Blue Devils credibility, and the resume is already extremely strong.
Duke still has five difficult road games on its schedule -- Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and North Carolina -- so it might finish the season with four or five losses. Even so, that might be good enough to put the Blue Devils on the top line for the first time since 2015, when they won the national title.
NET ranking: 2
Kenpom ranking: 4
Quadrant 1 record: 3-2
Of the six teams in the mix for No. 1 seeds, Gonzaga's case will be the most interesting to watch.
While the other five teams will have several more chances to boost their resumes in February and March, Gonzaga will only have opportunities to suffer terrible losses.
Gonzaga only has one more Quadrant 1 game on its schedule, and that will come against a Saint Mary's team that already has nine losses this season. The Bulldogs have played three surefire NCAA Tournament teams -- Duke, Tennessee and North Carolina -- and went 1-2 in those contests.
Mark Few's team will probably finish the season with the best overall record, as anything other than 29-2 going into the West Coast Conference Tournament would be a surprise.
Will that in-conference dominance and the fact that Gonzaga clearly made an effort to challenge itself in the nonconference be enough to earn a No. 1 seed? It depends on what the other five contenders do from now until March.
NET ranking: 4
Kenpom ranking: 5
Quadrant 1 record: 5-1
Michigan's resume isn't as flashy as some of the other No. 1 seed contenders because it hasn't played any of the other five elite teams. But it's a solid all-around resume, and if the season ended today, Michigan would likely get one of the top seeds.
The Wolverines are one of only two teams in the country, along with Houston, with 20 wins after stomping Ohio State at home Tuesday night.
Michigan has knocked off two of the top eight teams according to Kenpom and two of the top 11 teams in the NET rankings: North Carolina and Purdue. It has also done strong work away from home, winning at Villanova, Indiana and Northwestern -- all Quadrant 1 victories.
The loss at Wisconsin robbed Michigan of a chance to be the No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll, but it didn't make much of a dent in the overall resume. Michigan has five wins in Quadrant 1 and six in Quadrant 2.
The offense has been a bit of a struggle for Michigan in January, falling to No. 27 in the nation, but John Beilein's team owns the No. 1 defense after holding Ohio State to just 49 points. Only Virginia's defense is in the same ballpark among these six teams.
The final 10 games of the regular season will make or break Michigan's bid for a No. 1 seed. Six of those games will come on the road and eight will come against likely NCAA Tournament teams.
Michigan State (18-3)
NET ranking: 6
Kenpom ranking: 3
Quadrant 1 record: 8-3
Michigan State is the only team with three losses on this list, and that's because more than half of its games have come in Quadrant 1.
All three of Michigan State's losses came against teams in the top 20 of both the NET and Kenpom rankings, and none of them were at home. On the flip side, Michigan State has already racked up eight Quadrant 1 victories.
Like, Duke, Michigan State is elite on both ends of the court, checking in with the No. 7 offense and No. 7 defense in the country.
It feels like only one of Michigan and Michigan State can get a No. 1 seed, and the two head-to-head matchups in the final weeks of the regular season will be the main determining factors. The Spartans are the favorite to win the Big Ten, though, as the most difficult part of its schedule is in the rearview mirror.
MSU has already rolled through some of the most difficult venues in the Big Ten, winning at Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State and losing to Purdue.
NET ranking: 5
Kenpom ranking: 6
Quadrant 1 record: 4-1
Tennessee rose to No. 1 in the AP poll last week when the rest of the top candidates lost tough games, but it doesn't have the strongest resume of this group.
A Dec. 9 win over Gonzaga boosted Tennessee into the top group, and it also has an impressive win over Louisville. There's no shame in a neutral court loss to Kansas, though the Jayhawks have fallen from the top tier thanks to a tough schedule and a slow start in Big 12 play.
Tennessee is led by one of the most talented duos in college basketball: Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. The pair combines to average 37.4 points, 14.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game while shooting well over 50 percent from the floor.
The Volunteers avoided a couple of bad losses last week, surviving a three-point home scare against Alabama and needing overtime to take care of Vanderbilt on the road.
So far, Tennessee has played a very favorable SEC schedule, and that will continue until the middle of February. Starting Feb. 16, Tennessee will finish the season with a seven-game stretch that includes road trips to Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn and home games against Kentucky and Mississippi State.
If Tennessee only loses a couple more games and wins the SEC, it will almost certainly get a No. 1 seed.
NET ranking: 1
Kenpom ranking: 1
Quadrant 1 record: 5-1
With the No. 4 offense and No. 2 defense in the nation, Virginia is the top Kenpom team by a wide margin and also sits atop the NET rankings.
Virginia's only loss came by two points at Duke, and it matches that with Quadrant 1 wins over Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina State and Clemson.
The Cavaliers haven't played many great teams, but they took care of Virginia Tech by 22 points before taking Duke to the wire in Cameron, passing the eye test with flying colors.
Wisconsin, Maryland and N.C. State all stayed within a few possessions of Virginia and had a chance to win, but so far, Tony Bennett's team has avoided anything even remotely resembling a bad loss.
Only one of Duke and Virginia can win the ACC title, and that team will likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The other still has a great chance to snatch a top seed in one of the other regions.
In the mix
There are a handful of other teams that could get into the No. 1 seed conversation if they keep winning, though right now they're not on the same level as the six teams listed above.
Houston: With 20 wins and a No. 7 NET ranking, Houston deserves some consideration. Unfortunately, the Cougars have only played three Quadrant 1 games and will only get three more chances: at UCF and twice against Cincinnati. If it finishes with a 30-1 regular-season record, wins the American Conference Tournament and has six or seven Quadrant 1 wins, it would be in the discussion, especially if there are only a couple of major conference teams with fewer than four or five losses.
Kansas: Somebody has to win the Big 12. Seriously, that's a rule. Usually, that team ends up being Kansas. The Jayhawks are off to a rough start in conference play, losing to Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas -- all teams outside the top three in the Big 12. Kansas will have to get hot soon to have a chance, but it got a No. 1 seed with seven losses last season, so it's still possible.
Kentucky: Since getting shredded by 34 points against Duke in the opener, Kentucky has lost a pair of games to NCAA Tournament bubble teams in Seton Hall and Alabama. Wins over North Carolina, Louisville, Auburn and Kansas have boosted the Wildcats back into the mix with top 10 NET and Kenpom rankings.
Marquette: The only Big East representative on this list, Marquette has solid wins over Wisconsin, Louisville and Buffalo to offset its three losses, which all came in Quadrant 1. The AP voters like Marquette much more than the metrics that matter, as the Golden Eagles check in at No. 19 in the NET rankings and No. 35 in Kenpom. Still, if Marquette runs the table from here, which would include two wins over Butler and Villanova, it would be in the mix.
North Carolina: This is a longshot because North Carolina has already been blown out by Michigan and Louisville and wasn't particularly competitive against Kentucky. The Tarheels have solid wins over Gonzaga, N.C. State and Virginia Tech and are in the top 10 of both the NET and Kenpom rankings, so they can't be counted out, yet. A sweep of Duke and a home win over Virginia would probably put UNC in the conversation for the top overall seed.
Virginia Tech: A loss at Penn State was the only nonconference blemish, but Virginia Tech has been blown out in its two biggest ACC games. It's still No. 10 in the NET rankings and No. 11 in Kenpom, so a winning streak would put the Hokies right in the mix. Remaining home games against Louisville, Virginia and Duke will be tremendous opportunities.
Nevada: Though the Wolf Pack is ranked higher than Houston in Kenpom and No. 8 in the AP poll, there doesn't appear to be a realistic road to a No. 1 seed. Nevada hasn't played a single Quadrant 1 game and will only finish the season with one or two: a road game at Utah State and a possible rematch in the conference tournament. A 27-point Quadrant 3 loss to New Mexico will likely overshadow anything positive Nevada adds to its resume.
Purdue: The No. 8 team in Kenpom and No. 11 in the NET rankings, Purdue has a strong resume but is unlikely to get to the top line with six losses already on its record. It also lost at home against a bad Notre Dame team and missed every single opportunity for a signature nonconference win.
Texas Tech: Amazingly, Texas Tech is the only team in the Big 12 with fewer than five losses, so maybe it should be the conference's best chance at a No. 1 seed? Unfortunately for the Red Raiders, their only good nonconference win -- at home against Nebraska -- is looking less impressive by the day, and three straight losses to Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas State fall somewhere between missed opportunities and downright bad blemishes.
Villanova: The defending national champs have righted the ship in Big East play, starting 7-0, but their resume lacks great wins. Villanova is outside the top 20 of both the NET and Kenpom rankings, and the only games that will really move the needle looking ahead will be the matchups with Marquette. That's probably not enough to lift the Wildcats to the top line.
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