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5 toughest decisions facing the NCAA men's tournament selection committee

Shortly before midnight on Saturday night, NCAA media coordinator for March Madness David Worlock sent out a telling tweet.

He said that 12 members of the men's basketball selection committee were still hard at work assessing which teams belong in the field of 68.

For the past five days, committee members have been holed up in a hotel in Carmel, Indiana, watching games and analyzing resumes. Here’s a look at the biggest decisions they must make before 6 p.m. ET on Sunday when CBS unveils the finished bracket:

1. Who should get the final No. 1 seed?

It has been a near certainty for weeks that UConn, Purdue and Houston would claim three of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds.

The far more intriguing race has been for the final No. 1 seed.

Tennessee appeared to be in the pole position before a face-plant against Mississippi State in the SEC quarterfinals sent the Vols tumbling back to the pack. North Carolina appeared poised to take advantage before its ACC title-game loss to 10th-seeded NC State left the door cracked open for someone else. That someone could be Iowa State, which vaulted from the fringes of the conversation to the forefront with a stunning 69-41 demolition of Houston to claim the Big 12 tournament title.

It's a close call for the final No. 1 seed
It's a close call for the final No. 1 seed

Glance at the side-by-side comparison above, and it might appear that it's a two-team race between North Carolina and Iowa State. The Tar Heels have the best winning percentage in Quadrant 1 games. The Cyclones have the most Quadrant 1 victories. And they both have one fewer loss than Tennessee.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s possible to make a case for Tennessee as well. The Vols have more top top-tier wins over teams in the top 25 of the NET than either North Carolina or Iowa State. They also have yet to lose to a non-NCAA tournament-bound team assuming Texas A&M hears its name called Sunday.

If the committee is torn, the tiebreaker could be North Carolina’s emphatic 100-92 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 29 in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels never trailed and led by as many as 24 points early in the second half.

The benefit of the final No. 1 seed is not seeing UConn, Houston or Purdue until at least the Final Four. North Carolina, Iowa State or Tennessee would be the No. 1 in the West Region with Arizona as its No. 2.

2. Who is the No. 1 overall seed?

UConn coach Dan Hurley made his case for the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed on Saturday night after the Huskies claimed the Big East tournament title.

Hurley bluntly told reporters that he feels UConn has “been the best team in college basketball” since the season began four-plus months ago.

“Obviously March Madness next week, who knows what goes on there,” Hurley said, “but we've clearly been the best program in the country this year.”

At its best, UConn has undeniably been the nation’s most dominant team. Now the Huskies also may boast the strongest resume.

About the same time that UConn put away Marquette on Saturday evening, fellow No. 1 overall seed contender Houston suffered a stunning 69-41 Big 12 title game beatdown at the hands of Iowa State. Hours earlier, Purdue crashed out of the Big Ten tournament in the semifinals with an overtime loss to Wisconsin.

While UConn's conference tournament title may turn out to be the tiebreaker, the margin between the Huskies (31-3) and Houston and Purdue remains razor-thin. Houston (30-4) won the nation’s strongest conference outright and has the nation’s most Quadrant 1 wins. Purdue (29-4) still has the strongest collection of top-tier victories, 11 wins over NET Top 25 opponents.

The good news for all three contenders is that it hardly matters who actually gets the No. 1 overall seed this year. The big advantage is typically the opportunity to pick your path to the Final Four, but the most geographically favorable routes for UConn, Purdue and Houston don’t seem to overlap.

UConn’s preferred path in pursuit of a repeat national title figures to be first- and second-round games in Brooklyn before traveling to the East Regional in Boston. Purdue’s preferred path would likely be Indianapolis to the Midwest Regional in Detroit. And Houston’s preferred path seemingly would be Memphis to the South Regional in Dallas.

UConn head coach Dan Hurley believes his team is the best in the country. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
UConn head coach Dan Hurley believes his team is the best in the country. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

3. What will the committee value when evaluating the bubble?

The committee faces a tougher challenge than usual this year when trying to choose among the NCAA tournament’s final at-large contenders.

There’s a surplus of deserving bubble teams after a handful of at-large hopefuls made valiant last-gasp charges and bid thieves shrunk the number of available spots.

What that means is that the margin between the teams under consideration for the final spots is even slimmer than ever. The determining factor could be what qualities this particular committee values most in a bubble team.

At least once every few years, the committee seems to slam the door on a bubble team that didn’t sufficiently challenge itself in non-league play. If that happens again Sunday, by far the most vulnerable bubble team is Pittsburgh, which assembled the NET’s 343rd-ranked non-conference strength of schedule.

Other committees have been adamant about rewarding bubble teams that have shown they can beat NCAA tournament-caliber competition. If that’s the No. 1 criteria for this year’s committee, then Texas A&M can expect to hear its name called. The Aggies have piled up more Quadrant 1 wins than any bubble team. They just also happen to have a ridiculous five Quadrant 3 losses.

Maybe this committee leans heavily on predictive metrics to differentiate among bubble teams. That would be welcome news for Michigan State, which is a Top 25 NET and KenPom team despite piling up 14 losses. And it would be disastrous for Seton Hall, which hovers in the 60s in both metrics despite more impressive wins and fewer losses than the Spartans.

Whatever this committee values, the choices will be hotly debated. Expect the final few at-large bids to come down to a pool of teams that includes Texas A&M, St. John’s, Virginia, Seton Hall, Indiana State, Pittsburgh and Providence.

4. Is 28-win Indiana State in or out?

The longest week of Indiana State coach Josh Schertz’s basketball life began last Sunday when the Sycamores lost to Drake in a riveting Missouri Valley Conference title game.

Since then, Indiana State has helplessly watched as other bubble teams have bolstered their resumes with late charges during conference tournament play.

At 28-6, Indiana State boasts the bubble’s gaudiest record and across-the-board solid rankings in the NCAA’s team-sheet metrics. The Sycamores are 30th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, 41st in strength of record and 45th at KenPom, all numbers that suggests this team belongs in the at-large conversation.

Indiana State’s .500 record against the top two quadrants is respectable for a bubble team. The Sycamores’ 15-5 record away from home is outstanding. It’s a strong resume, except for the fact that Indiana State has scarcely beaten any NCAA tournament-caliber teams.

The Sycamores are 1-4 in Quadrant 1 games this season. They lost two of the three games they played against Missouri Valley Conference runner-up Drake. In their only two games this season against power-conference opponents, they lost by 22 at Alabama and by 12 at Michigan State.

What should the committee do with Indiana State? The fairest option would be a trip to Dayton for a First Four matchup against a power-conference bubble team. That would give the Sycamores a chance to prove they belong.

What will the committee do with Indiana State? The Sycamores could be one of the last teams omitted from the field, a victim of a conference tournament bid thief or another bubble team’s last-gasp surge.

5. How does the committee seed injury-plagued Kansas?

Earlier this week, Kansas coach Bill Self offered an update on injured All-American candidates Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar.

McCullar, Self said, “probably could’ve” played in the Big 12 tournament with the bone bruise in his left knee if Kansas’ season was on the line. The lingering injury has bothered McCullar since January and got worse after the 6-foot-7 senior tweaked it earlier this month.

The prognosis for Dickinson’s dislocated right shoulder is similarly optimistic, according to Self. Doctors wanted Dickinson to pass some tests before clearing him to play, Self said, but the 7-footer “should be good to go by next week.”

Those are the kind of answers you’d expect Self to give days before Selection Sunday. Now it’s the committee’s job to decide what to make of those responses and whether the injuries should impact Kansas’ seeding.

At full strength, Kansas (22-10, 10-8) is devoid of depth but dangerous. This is a team that owns wins over both UConn and Houston and has also beaten the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Baylor. The starting five is among the best in the nation. The resume is worthy of no worse than a No. 4 seed despite the Jayhawks’ late-season swoon.

With either McCullar and Dickinson at less than full strength or out of the lineup, Kansas goes from thin to undermanned. The Jayhawks lost by 30 at Houston in their regular-season finale and then by 20 against Cincinnati in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. A quality No. 13 seed would be drooling at drawing this version of this team.

While top-ranked Cincinnati famously was demoted to a No. 2 seed in 2000 after national player of the year Kenyon Martin tore his ACL, subsequent selection committees have been extremely cautious penalizing teams with injured players. Expect the committee to take a similar approach this year with Kansas.