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Who will win the race for the final No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's tournament?

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

The far more intriguing race is for the final spot on the top seed line.

Is Tennessee still the leader despite a home loss to Kentucky on Saturday afternoon? Did North Carolina leapfrog the Vols by completing a season sweep of Duke a couple hours later? Does Arizona still have hope even after taking a bad loss at USC? Could someone else come from behind with a deep conference tournament run?

The pole position appears to still belong to Tennessee even after the Vols missed a chance to widen their lead by beating Kentucky. No other contender for the final No. 1 seed can match Tennessee’s six victories over teams ranked in the Top 25 of the NET. Also, only one of the Vols’ seven losses is outside Quadrant 1, a four-point home loss to NCAA tournament-bound South Carolina.

Tennessee Volunteers

24-7, 14-4 SEC | NET: 5 | KenPom: 5 | SOR: 5 | Q1: 7-6 | Q2: 6-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Auburn, at Kentucky, Alabama (2), Illinois, at South Carolina, Wisconsin

Worst loss: at Texas A&M

It would be difficult for anyone to catch Tennessee if it reaches the SEC tournament title game, but North Carolina poses the biggest threat. The Tar Heels boast a comparable resume to the Vols, albeit with fewer top-tier wins and one extra loss outside Quadrant 1. Plus, North Carolina has the ultimate tiebreaker on its side: An emphatic head-to-head victory over Tennessee on Nov. 29 in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina swept its season series against rival Duke. Will it have a No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
North Carolina swept its season series against rival Duke. Will it have a No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images) (Grant Halverson via Getty Images)

North Carolina Tar Heels

25-6, 17-3 ACC | NET: 7 | KenPom: 8 | SOR: 4 | Q1: 7-4 | Q2: 6-2 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Tennessee, Duke (2), Clemson (2), at Pittsburgh, at Virginia

Worst losses: at Georgia Tech, at Syracuse

The SEC and ACC tournaments both offer opportunities for Tennessee and North Carolina to bolster their cases.

Tennessee could potentially draw NCAA tournament-bound Mississippi State in the SEC quarterfinals and Auburn or South Carolina in the semis, but the selection committee typically hasn’t factored the league’s Sunday title game into seeding decisions. By contrast, North Carolina won’t face a surefire NCAA tournament team until at least the ACC title game, but a potential third matchup against Duke on the eve of Selection Sunday would certainly have the nation’s — and the selection committee’s — full attention.

It was only three-plus weeks ago that Arizona, not Tennessee or North Carolina, was the selection committee’s choice as the final No. 1 seed in its in-season bracket reveal. Judging from what committee chair Charles McClelland said when he joined CBS’s studio show, it wasn’t all that close either. When former Villanova coach Jay Wright asked if Arizona snuck in over other teams, McClelland responded that the Wildcats were “firmly” the fourth No. 1 seed and “didn’t sneak in at all.”

Since then, Arizona has dropped a pair of games, a late-February home loss to Washington State and Saturday night’s stunner at USC. The Wildcats also have done little to improve their resume since their remaining Pac-12 schedule offered no chances for marquee wins.

Where that leaves Arizona is with one more Quadrant 1 victory than Tennessee or North Carolina but fewer top-tier victories than the Vols and more questionable losses than either of them. The Wildcats also have little chance to gain ground on their rivals since they cannot face a projected NCAA tournament team until the Pac-12 title game.

Arizona Wildcats

24-7, 15-5 Pac-12 | NET: 4 | KenPom: 6 | SOR: 12 | Q1: 8-3 | Q2: 6-3 | Q3, Q4 losses: 1

Marquee wins: at Duke, Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Colorado (2)

Worst losses: at Oregon State, at Stanford, at USC

Could Arizona regain the final No. 1 seed if it beats Washington State or Colorado to claim the Pac-12 tournament title on Saturday night? It’s a long shot, and it would almost certainly require Tennessee and North Carolina to lose early in their respective conference tournaments.

The possibilities are even slimmer for fringe No. 1 seed contenders Iowa State and Marquette. Either would have to win a conference tournament loaded with quality teams and hope that Tennessee and North Carolina don’t add to their resumes.

Shaka Smart and Marquette Golden Eagles have stumbled down the stretch this season due to key injuries. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Shaka Smart and Marquette Golden Eagles have stumbled down the stretch this season due to key injuries. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) (Patrick McDermott via Getty Images)

Iowa State Cyclones

24-7, 13-5 Big 12 | NET: 9 | KenPom: 12 | SOR: 6 | Q1: 8-6 | Q2: 5-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Houston, Kansas, BYU, Texas Tech, at Texas, at TCU

Worst losses: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, at Kansas State

Marquette Golden Eagles

23-8, 14-6 Big 12 | NET: 13 | KenPom: 13 | SOR: 7 | Q1: 8-7 | Q2: 5-1 | Q3, Q4 losses: 0

Marquee wins: Creighton, Kansas, at Illinois, Texas, Villanova (2)

Worst loss: Butler

History suggests that teams that secure a No. 1 seed have a significant advantage over teams who settle for No. 2s. Twenty-four of college basketball’s 38 national champions have been No. 1 seeds since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985. Only five No. 2 seeds have hoisted the championship trophy during that span.

Eleven No. 2 seeds have lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. No. 1 seeds were unbeaten against No. 16s before Virginia lost to UMBC in 2018 and Purdue fell to Fairleigh Dickinson last March.

The other incentive for teams chasing the final No. 1 seed is who they’d be fortunate enough to avoid if they secure it. The fourth No. 1 seed is guaranteed not to see UConn, Houston or Purdue until at least the Final Four, noteworthy considering those three teams have separated from the rest of the field over the past few months.

The final sprint for the No. 1 overall seed will get a lot of attention this week, but the truth is that it doesn’t actually matter all that much. Whatever order the committee picks for Houston, UConn and Purdue, they’ll each almost certainly receive their preferred, geographically favorable path to the Final Four.

UConn will likely play first- and second-round games in Brooklyn before traveling to the East Regional in Boston. Purdue will likely go from Indianapolis to the Midwest Regional in Detroit. And Houston would likely go from Memphis to the South Regional in Dallas.

The race for the fourth No. 1 seed, by contrast, has some real stakes.

Expect Tennessee, North Carolina and the rest of the contenders to play like it.