Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
While it’s clear the Ohio State men’s basketball team (24-0, 11-0 Big Ten) is a front-runner for the NCAA Tournament’s top seed, there’s still much debate about who will get the three remaining No. 1 spots.
The Big East, arguably the nation’s deepest and most competitive conference, has seven teams ranked No. 16 or better in The Associated Press‘ Top 25 poll.
According to CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, six of those teams are still in the running for a No. 1 seed in the big dance.
“You got three spots up for grabs and nine teams that could grab it still,” Palm told The Lantern. “Maybe more than nine, because you probably got half a dozen in the Big East alone.”
Fourth-ranked Pittsburgh (22-2), No. 8 Notre Dame (19-4), No. 9 Villanova (19-4), No. 10 Connecticut (18-4), No. 11 Georgetown (18-5) and No. 12 Syracuse (20-4) can all win their way to the top of a regional bracket, Palm said.
“You got half a dozen teams that are capable of playing at that level and making the kind of run that it would take,” Palm said. “In my bracket, I have six Big East teams in the top 13.”
Pittsburgh’s road to a No. 1 seed got a little harder after its leading scorer Ashton Gibbs injured his left knee in Saturday’s win against Cincinnati. The 6-foot-2 junior guard is averaging 16.3 points per game while shooting 46.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s expected to miss up to two weeks.
However, Gibbs’ absence didn’t stop the Panthers from beating West Virginia on the road in their “Backyard Brawl” rivalry game, 71-66, on Monday.
Big 12 teams Kansas (23-1) and Texas (20-3) hold the No. 2 and No. 3 ranks, respectively. Palm said while Kansas is the least accomplished team in the top four, it still deserves its ranking.
Texas has already beaten Kansas in their only scheduled meeting of the season Jan. 22, though they may meet again in the conference tournament. If they do, it’s possible that a No. 1 tournament seed will be on the line, along with a Big 12 Championship.
Fifth-ranked Duke also remains in the running for a top seed, and has a favorable schedule ahead. The Blue Devils don’t play another ranked team until North Carolina on March 5, their last game of the regular season.
Palm said he doesn’t believe OSU will finish its regular season undefeated, but it would take a string of losses to cost the team a No. 1 seed. He pointed to Saturday’s road game at No. 13 Wisconsin (17-5, 7-3 Big Ten) and the Feb. 20 contest at No. 14 Purdue (19-5, 8-3 Big Ten) as the toughest games remaining on the Buckeyes’ schedule.
OSU coach Thad Matta has never won a game at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center during his tenure at OSU, while Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is 75-6 there in Big Ten play since he took over for the Badgers.
But the Buckeyes have given their best performances against good oppositions, most notably against Florida, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue.
Matta’s players have said all season that they don’t feel the pressure associated with their No. 1 ranking.
“To be honest I don’t think we really feel pressure at all because we don’t really talk about it as a team,” senior guard Jon Diebler said. “I think the coaches have done a great job at having that next-game mentality and focusing on the next game at hand.”
Fifth-year senior forward David Lighty agreed.
“When you start looking too far ahead, that’s when you lose sight of what’s in front of you,” he said, “and you end up losing.”