March Madness: Breaking down the race for the No. 1 seeds

No longer are there only four realistic contenders to claim No. 1 seeds in the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Streaking UCLA has reeled off 11 straight victories to surge into the discussion as Selection Sunday approaches.

Fueled by a smothering defense that chokes off passing lanes and surrenders nothing easy at the rim, UCLA bulldozed its way through a mediocre Pac-12 that may only have two other NCAA tournament teams. The Bruins (28-4) clinched the outright Pac-12 title in late February, then validated that on Saturday with a convincing victory over rival Arizona.

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UCLA’s collection of marquee wins isn’t as impressive as some other No. 1 seed hopefuls, but the Bruins did take down Kentucky on a neutral court and hand Maryland its lone home loss of the season, by 27 points no less. Mick Cronin’s senior-laden team also hasn’t lost at Pauley Pavilion all season, nor has it suffered a loss outside Quadrant 1.

There are a pair of No. 1 seed contenders that UCLA probably can’t catch.

Houston is 27-2 overall and ranked No. 1 in every major metric. The Cougars can probably lose to East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals on Friday and still retain a No. 1 seed.

It’s a similar story for Kansas, which picked up its 16th Quadrant 1 victory on Thursday against West Virginia, five more than any team in the nation. The reigning national champion Jayhawks could take a loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals and still land on the top seed line.

Houston Cougars

29-2, 17-1 American | NET: 1 | KenPom: 1 | Q1: 4-1 | Q2: 8-0 | Q3, Q4 losses: 1

Marquee wins: at Virginia, Saint Mary’s, Memphis (2), at Oregon

Losses: Alabama, Temple

Kansas Jayhawks

25-6, 13-5 Big 12 | NET: 8 | KenPom: 9 | Q1: 16-6 | Q2: 5-0 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Texas, Baylor, Kansas State, Indiana, TCU, Duke, at Kentucky

Losses: at Texas, at Baylor, at Kansas State, at Iowa State, Tennessee, TCU

That leaves Alabama, Purdue and UCLA competing for the two remaining No. 1 seeds. Those three have similar enough resumes that it could come down to how each performs during their conference tournaments this week.

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats talks to his team during a timeout on March 4. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats talks to his team during a timeout on March 4. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama Crimson Tide

26-5, 16-2 SEC | NET: 2 | KenPom: 3 | Q1: 9-5 | Q2: 7-0 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: at Houston, Kentucky, Michigan State, Auburn (2), Arkansas (2), at Mizzou

Losses: UConn, Gonzaga, at Tennessee, at Texas A&M, at Oklahoma

Purdue Boilermakers

26-5, 16-5 Big Ten | NET: 5 | KenPom: 6 | Q1: 9-4 | Q2: 7-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Marquette, Gonzaga, Duke, MSU (2), Illinois, West Virginia, at Michigan, at Wisconsin

Losses: Indiana (2), at Maryland, at Northwestern, Rutgers

UCLA Bruins

28-4, 18-2 Pac-12 | NET: 4 | KenPom: 2 | Q1: 8-4 | Q2: 9-0 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Arizona, at Maryland, Kentucky, USC, Arizona State (2), Oregon (2)

Losses: at Arizona, Baylor, Illinois, at USC

Alabama was the selection committee’s No. 1 overall seed when it unveiled its bracket preview just over two weeks ago, but the weight of the Brandon Miller scandal seems to be taking a toll. The Crimson Tide barely scraped by South Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn before dropping their SEC finale against Texas A&M this past Saturday.

Is Alabama in a slightly stronger position than Purdue and UCLA as of now? Probably. That win at Houston, in particular, carries a lot of weight. But could Alabama lose an SEC quarterfinal to Mississippi State and keep its No. 1 seed if Purdue and UCLA won their respective conference tournaments? That seems highly unlikely.

The margin between Purdue and UCLA seems even thinner entering the weekend. The gap has closed over the past month as the Bruins have piled up wins while the Boilermakers have lost four of eight. Purdue has more victories over likely NCAA tournament teams. A mid-November home win over then-unheralded Marquette has aged particularly well. The Boilermakers also have one more loss — and one more loss outside of Quadrant 1.

How the committee chooses between Purdue and UCLA may ultimately come down to which team accomplishes more in its conference tournament. UCLA has the easier path to its title game with Arizona and USC on the other side of the bracket, but Purdue has more chances to bag early round quality wins. The Boilermakers will face Rutgers in the quarterfinals and potentially Ohio State or Michigan State in the semis.

Another factor in the committee’s decision could be the potentially serious injury suffered by UCLA’s Jaylen Clark during Saturday’s victory over Arizona. Clark, UCLA’s second-leading scorer and one of the nation’s elite perimeter defenders, returned to the Bruins bench with crutches and a boot on his right foot.

While UCLA has not revealed a diagnosis or a timetable for Clark's return, Stadium's Jeff Goodman reported that Clark is out for the season with an Achilles injury. There is a precedent for the selection committee altering a team’s seeding based on a season-ending injury, though it has happened very rarely.

Even if Alabama, Purdue and UCLA all struggle in their conference tournaments, it’s difficult to imagine someone else leapfrogging them onto the No. 1 seed line. Arizona (25-6) has three losses outside Quadrant 1. Marquette (26-6) doesn’t have enough big wins. Texas (23-8) would have an outside shot if it wins the Big 12 tournament, but that’s the only realistic scenario.

Otherwise it’s a three-team battle for two spots. Two of Alabama, Purdue and UCLA will land on the No. 1 line. The other will have to settle for a No. 2.