It’s that time of year again. The big dance is only two weeks away. Teams are trying their best to polish their resumes for the NCAA tournament selection committee and grown men suddenly have an insatiable fascination with bubbles.
Wisconsin fans thankfully don’t have to sweat it out until selection Sunday to find out if they need their dancing shoes, but something much bigger is at stake for the Badgers next week. For the first time since the NCAA started seeding the tournament in 1979, Wisconsin can be a No. 1 seed. And they should be.
But first, why does it matter if Wisconsin is a No. 1 seed? Aren’t we just splitting hairs between a one and two seed? Well, No. 1 seeds historically fair much better in the tournament than two seeds. Six of the last seven national champions have been a one seed and only three times since 1979 has there been a Final Four without a No. 1 seed. No. 2 seeds have won the National Championship just five times in the last 35 NCAA tournaments. And in the past 10 years, 15 No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four while 10 No. 2 seeds have made it to that third weekend. So, it is clear Wisconsin’s Final Four chances would significantly increase with a nod by the committee.
Three of the four No. 1 slots are considered to be locked down by Florida, Wichita State and Arizona. The fourth and final spot is still wide open with three to five teams posing serious cases to fill it. Kansas, Villanova, Virginia, Duke and Wisconsin are seen as the major contenders to nab the last No. 1 seed.
Kansas and Duke may have played their way out of the discussion over the weekend as the Jayhawks have lost two of their last three games and the Blue Devils fell to Wake Forest a week ago.
Virginia was starting to put some separation between it and the other potential No. 1 seeds, winning 13 games in a row, beating then-No. 4 Syracuse and taking the ACC regular season title. But the Cavaliers hurt their case Sunday, losing at Maryland in overtime.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has put itself square in the conversation for the final No.1 seed after a record-breaking start, grueling nonconference schedule an eight-game winning streak at the end of the season. The stretch where the Badgers lost five of six games in January including losses to Northwestern and Indiana hurts some, but that was more than a month ago and have gone on to beat three ranked teams — including Big Ten champion Michigan on the road — since that slump.
Villanova has become Wisconsin’s biggest competitor now for the final No. 1 spot as the Wildcats have lost just three games all year and ended their regular season on a six-game winning streak.
But, the Villanova plays in the new-look Big East Conference where quality opponents are few and far between compared to conferences like the Big Ten and Big 12.
The Wildcats breezed through their conference schedule going 14-2, but both losses came to only other ranked team in the conference, Creighton. In fact, Villanova hasn’t beaten a top-25 team since Nov. 30 when it beat No. 23 Iowa in overtime at home. Since then it has played just two ranked opponents and lost both times.
Villanova is ranked 4th in the RPI — an index used by the selection committee to evaluate teams — and has a strength of schedule that comes in at 45th.
Wisconsin is 5th in the RPI rankings and owns an impressive strength of schedule (4th). But perhaps most telling is the Badgers success against ranked opponents versus the Wildcats’.
Against RPI top-25 teams, Wisconsin is 5-1 while Villanova is 1-3. This can be looked at in two ways. First, all three of the Wildcats’ losses came against pretty good teams, which helps their case a little. But, in the four games against top-25 teams, Villanova has struggled while Wisconsin has exceled.
Wisconsin’s resume speaks for itself. The Badgers have beaten the ACC regular season champion (Virginia) on the road, the SEC regular season champion and No. 1 team (Florida), the Big Ten regular season champion (Michigan) on the road and the Horizon league champion (Green Bay) on the road. To go with all of that, Wisconsin has beaten 11 teams that have a strong chance to be in the field of 68 in late March.
Villanova’s resume comes nowhere close to the accolades Wisconsin boasts. It beat Kansas and Iowa — both games played in November. Those two teams are a combined 11-9 in their last 10 games. Not so impressive any more.
Whether Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Tournament or not, it is clear the Badgers are a legit threat for the No. 1 seed. So, maybe less time should be spent looking at bubbles and more time looking at one of the most impressive resumes in the country.