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February 26, 2020
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College basketball picks — Can anyone touch projected No. 1 seeds?

College basketball picks -- Can anyone touch projected No. 1 seeds?
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Our Valentine’s Day edition of the college basketball picks roundtable starts with a discussion of No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament. Are any of the projected No. 1s particularly vulnerable over the next month? ESPN.com’s panel of college hoops experts also talked about the selection committee’s initial top 16 and the best freshmen in the country whom no one is talking about.

Jump to score predictions for the weekend’s top games

In a season that’s been largely billed as being devoid of great teams, it’s worth noting that Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State have enjoyed an extended run in the past couple of weeks as your presumed No. 1 seeds. Which of these teams are you most worried about not making the top line on Selection Sunday, and why?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: It has to be San Diego State. I think the men’s basketball selection committee sent a message to Brian Dutcher’s squad on Saturday when it unveiled the top four seeds in each region. Gonzaga claimed the top spot in the West Region, and if it maintains that slot, the Bulldogs will play in Los Angeles for a shot at the Final Four. The Aztecs? The undefeated program was “rewarded” with the top spot in the East Region, where, in the current bracket, it would potentially have to go through Duke, the No. 2 seed, at Madison Square Garden — often called “Cameron Indoor North” — to reach the Final Four.

Dutcher’s squad boasts a 4-0 record against Quadrant 1 opponents. Still, selection committee chair Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke, said the committee thought Gonzaga (5-1 against Quad 1 opponents) was the better team and deserving of the top spot closer to home. With San Diego State finishing as the fourth No. 1 seed and failing to convince the committee that its undefeated record warranted the top spot in the West, I think one loss in Mountain West play (all four of its upcoming opponents are ranked 86th or worse in the NET rankings) could cost the Aztecs a spot on the top line.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I actually think all four teams could find themselves on the top line in a month, but I guess I’ll go with Gonzaga. I think an undefeated San Diego State finds itself on the top line regardless, and I don’t think this Aztecs team is losing a game until the NCAA tournament. Kansas has a fairly bulletproof résumé with all its Quad 1 wins and superior metrics, and Baylor is the best team in the country.

So Gonzaga it is, even though the Zags have a better résumé than San Diego State at the moment. I just think they’re more likely to lose one game the rest of the way, since they have to go on the road to BYU, play Saint Mary’s in Spokane, Washington, and then likely play one of them again in the West Coast Conference title game. San Diego State should be heavily favored in every remaining game, including in the Mountain West tournament.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: These four teams are all looking pretty solid for the top line considering it’s only mid-February. But if I must find some clouds in all this sunshine, I’ll go with Gonzaga as the most likely to fall from a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs are yet to play at BYU, where Mark Few’s team will find the most accurate shooting offense the WCC has seen in years, rabid fans and 4,551 feet of altitude.

Even a loss in Provo, Utah, probably wouldn’t be enough by itself to drop the Zags off the top line, but that plus a defeat in the WCC tournament might do the trick. Gonzaga won an incredible six automatic bids in a row before finally losing 60-47 to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game last season. Looking toward the 2020 conference tournament, the Gaels are just as good as they were a year ago, while the Cougars are vastly improved. (Plus Todd Golden’s always coming up with clever coaching tricks at San Francisco.) It won’t be an easy road for the Bulldogs.

Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I don’t foresee a scenario where San Diego State and Baylor aren’t 1s. Gonzaga is right there, too. Kansas, however, might be a different story. It’s not that I don’t like the Jayhawks, because quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot to take issue with. The Big 12 has proved to be a gauntlet all season, but what makes things potentially dicey is its lack of scoring. No conference in college basketball has a lower scoring average (64.3 points per game per team through Wednesday’s games) in league play, according to KenPom.

Bill Self has a tremendous defensive team — tops in the land, to be exact — but we’ve seen KU struggle when Devon Dotson isn’t on the floor. The Cousy and Wooden Award candidate is the engine for everything in Lawrence. With a league this rugged and deep, ancillary offense is a concern moving forward. Keep in mind that Kansas has now failed to register 70 points in three consecutive games, including in victories over lowly Texas and TCU.

The NCAA revealed its top 16 seeds last Saturday, and there were not a ton of surprises. Give us one team in the top 16 you don’t expect to be on the top four lines when all is said and done on Selection Sunday, and give us one team not mentioned in the top 16 reveal that will end up in that select group.

Borzello: A sneaky team that could potentially drop is West Virginia. The Mountaineers are struggling right now, losing two in a row, to Oklahoma and Kansas, and going just 4-4 in their past eight games. They’re finding life really difficult on the offensive end, scoring less than 0.85 points per possession in both losses and now heading to Baylor this weekend. What could add to the chance of a potential drop is their lack of truly marquee wins. They’ve beaten Texas Tech in Morgantown and have solid neutral-court wins over Ohio State, Northern Iowa and Wichita State. None of those really moves the needle, though. If West Virginia loses both remaining games against Baylor, suffers a road loss to a bottom-half Big 12 team and then gets bounced in the conference tournament, it wouldn’t shock me to see it outside the top four lines.

I’m not sure what more Penn State could have done to be included in the top 16. The Nittany Lions have a top-20 NET, seven Quadrant 1 wins and a 12-5 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. They have zero Quad 3 or 4 losses. Sure, the nonconference schedule was atrocious, but the positives outweigh that number in my opinion. They’re second in the Big Ten, one game behind Maryland. What cements them as a top-four seed a month from now is the remaining schedule. Four of the final seven are at home, and the road games are at Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern. A 6-1 finish is possible; combine that with the rest of the profile and it’s surefire top-four.

Gasaway: I’ll second my esteemed colleague, Mr. Borzello, on the first half of the question: West Virginia seems to be leaking oil, relatively speaking. The Mountaineers haven’t defeated a team that will (we think) be in the NCAA tournament since Bob Huggins’ men bested Texas Tech in Morgantown five weeks ago. This team’s shooting has been substandard over the past five games, and WVU has clocked in at well under a point per possession during that span. None of which will matter, naturally, if West Virginia wins at Baylor. Short of pulling off the upset in Waco, Texas, however, the trends are not encouraging for the Mountaineers.

If a spot does open up in the top 16, Creighton might be in the best position to seize that opportunity. Fresh off their win at Seton Hall, the Bluejays are looking like a group that can outscore all comers. Put it this way: If Greg McDermott’s guys can put up 87 points in 76 possessions against the Pirates in Newark, New Jersey, I like their odds against most if not all defenses not named “Kansas.” Creighton plays four of its final six at home, with the road games coming at Marquette and St. John’s.

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