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NCAA tournament bracketology: Two No. 1 seeds could go to teams outside power conferences

Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser have Houston on track for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

There’s already one team outside the power conferences in good shape to claim a No. 1 seed in next month’s (yes, NEXT month’s) NCAA tournament. Why not a second?

The first team is, of course, 17-0 Gonzaga. But a No. 1 seed isn’t a new thing for the Bulldogs, who have claimed three of them since 2013 and would have had a fourth a year ago.

The second possibility is Kelvin Sampson’s stingy Houston Cougars, who are 15-1 and plowing their way through the American Athletic Conference. Houston’s only loss was a 65-64 setback at Tulsa on Dec. 29. All of its victories have come by at least seven points, with all but two by double-digit margins.

Undefeated Gonzaga is staring down history, but its final exam won’t arrive until March

Unlike Gonzaga, a perch on the top line would be new territory for Houston — at least in the past 35 years. The Cougars were among the best teams in the country in the Phi Slama Jama era — a No. 1 seed in 1983, a No. 2 seed in 1984 and a loss in either the Final Four or national title game to the eventual champion in 1982, 1983 and 1984 — but managed just four NCAA berths between 1985 and 2017.

Yet this isn’t an out-of-nowhere season. Houston was a No. 6 seed in 2018 and a No. 3 seed in 2019, and it was in line for another postseason trip a year ago. While it doesn’t have a national player of the year as Dayton did last season with Obi Toppin, Houston has a well-known star in former Kansas wing Quentin Grimes (16.8 points per game, 6.7 rebounds) and an efficient perimeter presence in Marcus Sasser (15.6 points).

And, as they have for the past four seasons, the Cougars defend at a high level. Houston entered the week ranked first in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Houston is on track for a high seed, but will it have enough for a No. 1 seed? The Cougars picked off Boise State and Texas Tech in a truncated nonconference schedule, victories likely to retain value until the end of the season.

But there isn’t great strength elsewhere in the American Athletic. Trips to Wichita State (Feb. 25) and Memphis (March 7) could provide Quadrant 1 opportunities, but neither is a great NCAA at-large candidate at this point.

Then again, the Dayton example could be apt. The Flyers were a serious candidate for the top line last year, even in a league with only one serious at-large contender entering the season’s final week. Dayton’s formula was to keep clobbering everyone in its way, and eventually the sheer quantity of victories became hard to ignore. Perhaps the same could be the case for the Cougars if they keep rolling though Selection Sunday.

Field notes

Last four included: Stanford, Utah State, Colorado State, Richmond

First four on the outside: Loyola Chicago, Maryland, Seton Hall, Syracuse

Next four on the outside: Virginia Commonwealth, Providence, Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky

Conference call: Big Ten (9), Big 12 (7), Atlantic Coast (6), Southeastern (6), Pac-12 (5), Big East (4), Mountain West (4), Atlantic 10 (3), West Coast (2)

Moving in: Abilene Christian, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Furman, Long Island, North Carolina A&T, Richmond, Utah State, Vermont

Moving out: Bryant, Coppin State, Maryland, Michigan State, Sam Houston State, Seton Hall, Texas State, UMBC, Wofford

Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes will rest on a strong second half and those three road wins

Bracket projection

West vs. Midwest, South vs. East

West Region

(1) WEST COAST/Gonzaga vs. (16) NORTHEAST/Long Island-SOUTHWESTERN/Prairie View

(8) Rutgers vs. (9) Connecticut

(5) Florida State vs. (12) Colorado State/Stanford

(4) Texas Tech vs. (13) OHIO VALLEY/Belmont

(3) Iowa vs. (14) PATRIOT/Colgate

(6) Kansas vs. (11) San Diego State

(7) Xavier vs. (10) Saint Louis

(2) SOUTHEASTERN/Alabama vs. (15) BIG WEST/UC Irvine

Rutgers followed a five-game slide with a three-game winning streak to solidify its place in the bracket again. The Scarlet Knights still have some work in front of them to secure their first NCAA berth since 1991, but things are trending in the right direction. … Colorado State has a sneaky good profile. The Rams have series splits with fellow Mountain West contenders Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State. There is a downside: None of their remaining nine regular season games provides much of a chance to help their résumé. …

Kansas has underwhelmed mightily in the past few weeks, but its victories over Creighton, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia still count. … Saint Louis came off a month-plus pause and promptly lost at home to Dayton. The Billikens are an only-in-a-pandemic wild card at this point.

Midwest Region

(1) BIG TEN/Michigan vs. (16) METRO ATLANTIC/Siena

(8) MOUNTAIN WEST/Boise State vs. (9) Clemson

(5) PAC-12/UCLA vs. (12) MID-AMERICAN/Toledo

(4) Missouri vs. (13) SOUTHLAND/Abilene Christian

(3) Oklahoma vs. (14) ATLANTIC SUN/Liberty

(6) Virginia Tech vs. (11) Indiana

(7) Oklahoma State vs. (10) Minnesota

(2) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Houston vs. (15) HORIZON/Cleveland State

Clemson is sort of Kansas Lite. The Tigers have looked bad for the past few weeks (and even their victory in that span was a rock fight), but they still have defeated Alabama, Florida State, Louisville and Purdue. … Abilene Christian is an overlooked one-bid league gem, going 35-10 in the Southland over the past three seasons. The Wildcats pounded conference heavyweight Stephen F. Austin by 20 last week.

Missouri is tied for the lead in Quadrant 1 victories in the NET. Joining the Tigers with five Quad 1 wins: Alabama, Baylor, Gonzaga, Illinois and Ohio State. … Minnesota hasn’t won in two weeks, but it hasn’t slipped much because it has only lost twice. Since thumping Michigan on Jan. 16, the Golden Gophers had an ugly home loss to Maryland on Jan. 23 and got drilled by 19 at Purdue on Saturday.

South Region

(1) BIG 12/Baylor vs. (16) BIG SKY/Montana State-MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC/North Carolina A&T

(8) Louisville vs. (9) BYU

(5) Creighton vs. (12) Richmond/Utah State

(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) CONFERENCE USA/UAB

(3) Tennessee vs. (14) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

(6) West Virginia vs. (11) North Carolina

(7) Colorado vs. (10) LSU

(2) Ohio State vs. (15) AMERICA EAST/Vermont

North Carolina A&T looks like it is finally rolling, sweeping a solid Florida A&M bunch to run its winning streak to five. The Big South-bound Aggies are 4-0 in their final season in the MEAC. … It was almost a disastrous week for BYU, which lost by three at Pepperdine and then needed two overtimes to outlast Pacific at home. The Cougars have some wiggle room, but they would still be wise to limit their non-Gonzaga losses the rest of the way. …

Every time Colorado does something it probably shouldn’t — and losing at home to a competitive-but-not-elite Utah team Saturday counts — the easier it is to ignore the Buffaloes’ strong metrics and instead focus on a profile that otherwise suggests a mid-bracket team. … Everybody in the America East (which Vermont leads) has lost at least three league games, and all but two teams in the 10-school league have won at least four games. There might not be a bigger toss-up among one-bid conferences.

East Region

(1) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (16) COLONIAL/Northeastern

(8) Oregon vs. (9) MISSOURI VALLEY/Drake

(5) Florida vs. (12) BIG SOUTH/Winthrop

(4) Illinois vs. (13) SOUTHERN/Furman

(3) ATLANTIC COAST/Virginia vs. (14) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

(6) Southern California vs. (11) ATLANTIC 10/St. Bonaventure

(7) Purdue vs. (10) Arkansas

(2) Texas vs. (15) SUN BELT/Coastal Carolina

Winthrop’s dream of a perfect season ended with a 57-55 loss to UNC Asheville on Friday, and with it probably any faint hope of an at-large berth in case of a Big South tournament loss. The Eagles wouldn’t have had a great résumé argument as an at-large, but it would have been fun to see an undefeated low-major in the field of 68 if Winthrop had won out. … Illinois collected a valuable victory Friday when it held off Iowa in a classic. The Illini have a big week ahead, facing Indiana and Wisconsin. …

South Dakota State and South Dakota are undefeated in Summit League play, and South Dakota State is in this projection by virtue of its superior NET ranking. However, the in-state rivals meet twice this week to try to sort out the top of the Summit standings. … Texas remains on the No. 2 line despite a home loss to Oklahoma. The Longhorns had a weekend date with Kentucky wiped out and now get Baylor in Austin on Tuesday.

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