NCAA tournament: Battle for No. 1 seeds goes through Big Ten tournament

Jason Owens
·4 min read

The Big Ten provided more than its share of basketball drama as the NCAA's regular season wound down.

Expect that to carry over at this week's Big Ten tournament, where the fate of the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seeds will play out — the ones that are up for grabs, at least.

Forget the top two lines. Gonzaga and Baylor are stone-cold locks. The 26-0 Bulldogs (No. 1 NET ranking, No. 1 KenPom) and 21-1 Bears (No. 2 Net ranking, No. 2 KenPom) will enter NCAA tournament play as favorites to cut down the nets at the Final Four and no-brainer choices as No. 1 seeds — regardless of what happens in their conference tournaments.

Drama starts after Gonzaga, Baylor

The third and fourth No. 1 seeds aren't quite as secure.

Michigan (19-3, No. 3 Net ranking, No. 3 KenPom) has dibs on the third No. 1 seed and will retain that spot barring disaster at the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois (20-6, No. 4 NET ranking, No. 5 KenPom) likewise is in control of the fourth No. 1 seed thanks to a scorching finish in Big Ten play. But its grasp on the tournament's top line is more tenuous than that of its Big Ten rivals.

An early exit in Indianapolis this week by either or both could open the door for fellow Big Ten powers Ohio State and Iowa to target the top line (in case you missed it, the Big Ten is really good this season). Alabama or Houston could stake a claim as well under long-shot circumstances.

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) battle for position in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan and Illinois are in control of the NCAA tournament seeding. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Could Michigan fall off the top line?

Until last week, Michigan was as secure as Gonzaga and Baylor. The Wolverines started 18-1 start as Juwan Howard had transformed his alma mater into a national title favorite in just his second season as head coach.

But they opened the door — if ever so slightly — to falling off the top line by stumbling down the stretch. They posted an ugly 76-53 loss to Illinois on March 2 that was their second of the season. Illinois secured the 23-point win while its top scorer and Wooden Award candidate Ayo Dosunmu sat with a broken nose.

The Wolverines then lost again on Sunday to a Michigan State team fighting for its NCAA tournament life.

Michigan earned a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament as the No. 1 seed and will open play Friday against either Michigan State or Maryland. A win there and a trip to the tournament semifinals should lock up a No. 1 seed. A loss may give the selection committee pause about a team that lost three out of four games heading into NCAA tournament play.

Will potential Illinois-Iowa showdown determine No. 1 seed?

Illinois started the season a pedestrian 9-5 before catching fire and rolling through the nation's toughest conference. After a Jan. 16 loss to Ohio State, Illinois finished with an 11-1 run that included six wins against ranked opponents.

It closed the season with consecutive wins over No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 2 Michigan and No. 7 Ohio State. Dosunmu returned for the season finale and is healthy for the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois opens Big Ten tournament play on Friday against either Indiana or Rutgers. A win would set up a potential semifinal showdown with Iowa that could end up having significant implications for the NCAA tournament's top line. If Illinois advances to the Big Ten final, its No. 1 seed is likely secure. But if it loses the potential Iowa matchup or doesn't even get that far, consider the race for the last No. 1 seed officially on.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 25: Luka Garza #55 of the Iowa Hawkeyes looks on during the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Arena on February 25, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Can Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes rally for a No. 1 seed? (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Iowa boasts a strong resume (20-7, No. 6 Net ranking, no. 4 KenPom) and the Big Ten Player of the Year in Luka Garza. If they make a run to the tournament championship, the Hawkeyes could make a case for a No. 1 seed. Especially if they beat Illinois and Michigan to claim the title.

What about the long shots?

Ohio State (18-8, No. 9 NET ranking, No. 7 KenPom) doesn't have as strong a resume and finished in fifth place in its own conference. Would a Big Ten tournament championship run with potential wins over Michigan and Illinois or Iowa force sway the selection committee?

Outside of the Big Ten, the shots for a No. 1 seed get even longer. Alabama (21-6, No. 7 Net ranking, No. 8 KenPom) would need to win the SEC tournament and hope for an unlikely Big Ten tournament outcome where Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State all stumble. Houston (20-3, No. 5 Net ranking, No. 6 KenPom) needs a similar scenario — and even that likely wouldn't be enough.

More than likely the final No. 1 seeds will be determined in Indianapolis this week.

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