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February 13, 2012

Mizzou's road to a top seed


Missouri continues to dodge questions about a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the possibility of playing in St. Louis in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. That is understandable. There are six games to go in the regular season, plus conference tournaments across the country that can change things.

But for fans and media, it's a fair time to start looking at post-season possibilities.

What we know is that the Tigers are going to play in the NCAA Tournament. Even if it were to lose every game the rest of the way, Mizzou would enter Selection Sunday at 23-9 with seven wins over current top 50 RPI teams. That's good enough to be in. So a bid isn't in question.

But most Mizzou fans are now wondering if the Tigers are worthy of a No. 1 seed. While there are plenty of games to be played and nothing in major college basketball is a gimmie-though Mizzou's schedule does feature a couple of games that should be nearly automatic-this seemed a good time to take a look at what the Tigers would have to do to lock up a top seed.

Kentucky and Syracuse seem near-locks for a top seed. Both could probably lose at least once more and still be on the tournament's top line. The Orange are destined for the Boston regional, as there is no other team in that area of the country in serious consideration.

The Wildcats would fit in either St. Louis or Atlanta. Lexington is 336 miles from St. Louis and 382 from Atlanta. Neither spot gives the Cats a huge geographic advantage over the other.

The major issue facing anyone in contention for a No. 1 seed is that someone has to play third and fourth round games as a top seed in Phoenix. There isn't a team west of Lawrence, Kansas that has any chance to land a No. 1.

The competition for the spots in Atlanta and St. Louis come down to the following teams:

Mizzou, Kansas, Ohio State, Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina. That's it. Six teams for two spots, with one of them being sent out West as a consolation prize. The fourth No. 1 is likely Arizona bound.

Here is a quick rundown of every team's resume as it stands today (RPI ranking and records, as well as strength of schedule are from statsheet.com). Bad losses are defined as those to teams below 100 in the RPI:

Potential Top Seeds
MISSOURI TIGERS 23-2 (10-2) 8
SOS: 76
Record vs top 25: 3-0
Record vs top 50: 9-0
Bad losses: 1
Road/Neutral Record: 9-2
vs Oklahoma State, at Texas A&M, vs Kansas State, at Kansas, vs Iowa State, at Texas Tech, Big 12 tournamentIf the Tigers win out, they're in line to be the No. 1 seed in St. Louis. Ohio State's loss to Michigan State put the Buckeyes likely behind Missouri in the pecking order. Mizzou probably controls its own destiny, but if Carolina or Duke catches fire, the committee could send one of those teams to Atlanta, Kentucky to St. Louis and Missouri out West. The interesting sceneario would be a loss at Kansas. In that case, the bid for a No. 1 seed from the Big 12 could come down to the Tigers and Jayhawks in the Big 12 tournament.
KANSAS JAYHAWKS 20-5 (10-2) 5
SOS: 5
Record vs top 25: 4-3
Record vs top 50: 7-4
Bad losses: 0
Road/Neutral Record: 7-5
at Kansas State, vs Texas Tech, at Texas A&M, vs Missouri, at Oklahoma State, vs Texas, Big 12 TournamentLike Missouri, Kansas may control its own destiny. But even with a win over Mizzou and the Big 12 regular season title, Kansas could need to outlast the Tigers in the league tournament. Missouri has a better record against top 50 teams, but the Jayhawks have better losses overall (even the loss to Davidson is viewed as better than one to Oklahoma State). If Kansas were to lose another game, a No. 1 seed is likely off the table.
SOS: 31
Record vs top 25: 5-3
Record vs top 50: 6-4
Bad losses: 0
Road/Neutral Record: 5-3
at Minnesota, at Michigan, vs Illinois, vs Wisconsin, at Northwestern, at Michigan State, Big Ten tournamentOhio State really can't lose again. The Buckeyes will get a chance to add a marquee win over Michigan State, plus good wins at Michigan and home against Wisconsin, but they already have the lowest RPI among our pool of potential contenders. They also played only one neutral court game this season, which hurts their road/neutral record in comparison to other teams on the list. The committee could cut OSU a break based on losing to Kansas without Jared Sullinger, but the numbers don't support the Buckeyes as a No. 1 right now, even if many national media pundits have had them there most of the year.
SOS: 3
Record vs top 25: 5-3
Record vs top 50: 6-5
Bad losses: 0
Road/Neutral Record: 5-5
vs Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Indiana, vs Ohio State, Big Ten TournamentIf the margin for error is thin for Ohio State, it may be non-existent for the Spartans. Michigan State has to win out and may have to win the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans are helped by having what many project will end up as the nation's toughest schedule. But they've won just five games away from home and are barely over .500 against the nation's top 50 RPI teams. MSU has a shot, but they'll have to be nearly perfect to get a No. 1 seed. MSU also has head to head losses to Duke and Carolina.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS 21-4 (8-2) 2
SOS: 2
Record vs top 25: 5-2
Record vs top 50: 6-4
Bad losses: 0
Road/Neutral Record: 10-2
vs NC State, at Boston College, at Florida State, vs Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs UNC, ACC TournamentIf Duke wins out, they're tough to deny a No. 1 seed. The Devils would have at least two wins over North Carolina, 13 road/neutral victories prior to the ACC Tournament and a top five strength of schedule. The question wouldn't be if Duke was a top seed, but which regional in which it would be placed. Even with a loss to the Tar Heels, Duke perhaps has the inside track at one of the two remaining number ones based on the rest of the numbers. The Devils also have wins over three other teams on this list already.
SOS: 10
Record vs top 25: 3-4
Record vs top 50: 7-4
Bad losses: 0
Road/Neutral Record: 6-3
at Miami, vs Clemson, at NC State, at Virginia, vs Maryland, at Duke, ACC TournamentThe Heels may have the most to gain. They have three opportunities to get road wins against potential NCAA Tournament teams, though the home schedule that remains is unimpressive. Carolina has losses to Kentucky and Duke, but has also beaten Michigan State. A win over Duke (or two including the tournament) would strengthen the profile. But without one or both of the Big 12 teams stumbling, the Heels best bet could be the top seed in the West.

As we said above, a lot can change. This season has proven that you can't start writing down wins just yet. The six teams on our list all have at least one (and quite possibly two) game against each other remaining. The outcome of those games will have a major impact on which two teams get the top seeds. And none of them can really afford a stumble in a game they are supposed to win.

For Missouri, the Tigers have an edge on everybody else as far as high quality wins, but their schedule will be ranked by far as the weakest among teams in consideration. Mizzou can probably least afford to drop a game to the likes of Texas A&M or Kansas State and still hope for a one seed. But Mizzou's 9-0 record against top 50 RPI teams (they have at least two such games still to go and Kansas State is currently at #51) stands out among the list.

If the seeding were done today, Missouri would likely be the top seed in St. Louis. Even with a loss at Kansas, the Tigers would make a solid case to get a one seed, either in St. Louis or Arizona.

The road to a No. 1 seed for Mizzou is relatively simple: Win at least five of the last six games, and hope Michigan State splits with Ohio State and Carolina splits with Duke. If those things happen, the Tigers should be a No. 1. The only question then would be where the committee would send them.

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