This article is part of our RotoWire Bracketology series.
February is upon us, and that means conference play is about halfway through with Selection Sunday just over six weeks away. At this point, we know who the true contenders are to win it all. Sure, there will always be a couple teams that come out of nowhere and compete in the Elite 8 or even Final 4, but more often than not, the title winners have been good all season.
For example, the last four national champions have rarely spent time outside of the AP top 10 or KenPom top 20 (thanks to Eli Boettger). Five teams fit the bill as of now with Duke, Gonzaga, Nevada, Tennessee and Virginia. If you extend that to the AP top 11, Michigan State also makes the group. To further that point, six of the past eight teams to play in title game were No. 1 seeds and the other two were a 2- and 3-seed.
Talking about the bubble is fun, but there's still too much time for teams to build up quality wins. It makes a little more sense to look at the teams with the best chances to get a 1-seed, and in turn, win the title.
As of Feb. 1, there are six teams competing for a top seed with Kentucky and Kansas looking in from the outside. The Jayhawks are a long shot unless they can close the season on a tear without Udoka Azubuike, and that doesn't seem likely at this point (though they were 16-4 last year and still managed a 1-seed). The Wildcats are in a better situation, mostly because they're playing their best basketball of the season and have a somewhat easier schedule. Outside of a home and home with Tennessee, nothing is too difficult for UK to overcome with trips to Florida, Mississippi State and Mississippi all being winnable spots. Yet, I'm waiting until the Florida and Miss. State games before putting Kentucky into the top category. Plus, there's almost no chance both Tennessee and Kentucky get a 1-seed, so it'll be between them.
Unfortunately for ACC haters, there's a decent chance both Duke and Virginia get a No. 1 seed. Duke could have a few more questions if it loses at Virginia and UNC, as well as the ACC tournament. Even then, that's only five losses. If Virginia beats Duke in the second meeting, it could probably lose three more games and still grab a top seed. If that's how the ACC plays out -- and that could easily be the situation with Virginia and Duke at 1 and 2 in KenPom -- everyone else will be playing for the other top seeds.
There's a likely chance one of those spots will go to Michigan or Michigan State as long as the winning continues. It could easily come down to their two meetings late in the season, though the Big Ten tournament could also have a role if they split. On the same level is Tennessee, who already has a neutral win over Gonzaga. The Vols have some difficult road trips remaining on the schedule, but even if they lose two or three, they'll still be in the conversation. The hope for Gonzaga is that all of these teams lose more games. The Zags could add some quality wins if they sweep both San Francisco and St. Mary's, but that still may not be enough to earn the top seed in the West. They have the win over Duke, but losses to Tennessee and UNC may cost them since WCC wins can only go so far.
At this point, the committee could still throw Gonzaga into the top spot in the West bracket because none of the other teams would benefit from that situation. Xavier and North Carolina were in the West last year, but that was because there wasn't a standout team on that side of the country like Gonzaga is now.
Those have been the top six teams in the country for at least a month, with others like Kansas and Nevada falling out in the process. Nevada would have had a chance for a 1-seed, but none of its Pac-12 matchups in non-conference play amounted to anything, and you can't escape a 27-point loss to New Mexico (or current KenPom 17 ranking). The closest comparison in major conferences would be if Duke or Virginia lost by 30 points to Wake Forest.
As for the rest of the top-16 teams (top four seeds), it's still somewhat of a mess. Teams like Villanova and LSU are on the outside of that top 16 at KenPom, but teams like Auburn, Buffalo and Virginia Tech could quickly drop out. An interesting team to monitor is Houston, a consensus 3-seed over at BracketMatrix. The Cougars didn't lose in non-conference, but they don't have an elite win and still have to travel to UCF and Cincinnati. If they drop both of those, there's no telling where they'll end up if they can't win their three toughest games in the AAC.
Looking ahead to March, two teams I'm intrigued by are Iowa State and LSU. The Cyclones have seemingly figured out how to correctly use Lindell Wigginton off the bench (46 points last two games), which could pay huge dividends. Their win at Ole Miss was a good sign and they're a team that can make a run to the Final 4, having already competed in both games against Kansas. With five guys that can score on the court at all times, they are the type of team to back in March Madness.
As for the Tigers, they've jumped from 51 to 22 in KenPom since the beginning of December. Similar to ISU, they have a balanced group of scorers led by Tremont Waters. who runs the show. They're on a nice run, but I'll only take them seriously if they can compete against the top SEC teams on the road.
Though there's plenty left to be settled, here's my latest bracket prediction: