If there was a more exciting game in college basketball this season than Notre Dame’s comeback victory in overtime at North Carolina State on Sunday night, we didn’t see it. The 19-2 Irish — off to the program’s best start in over 40 years — clearly are the real deal, but are they No. 1 seed material? If the NCAA Tournament were upon us, the Irish wouldn’t be on that top line just yet.The first of what will be, from here through Selection Sunday, weekly assessments of the tourney field:
THE FIRST FOUR
Kentucky (19-0).Right now, the Wildcats — who had 64 out of a possible 65 first-place votes in the new AP top 25 released on Monday — are as strong a No. 1 overall seed as there ever has been. The question isn’t whether or not they’ll be a top seed; it’s whether or not they’ll have a perfect regular season.
Virginia (19-0).Kentucky has the nation’s most intimidating defense, but the Cavaliers are allowing the fewest points per game — only 50.5, an amazing total. They’re RPI ranking of 3 is rock-solid. Whatever praise you like to heap on Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, give some of the same to Tony Bennett.
Arizona (18-2).This isn’t a strong season for the Pac-12 by any stretch of the imagination. The Wildcats will have to tear the league apart to hold on to a No. 1.
Kansas (16-3).Anyone who saw the early debacle against Kentucky — or the blowout loss to Temple — might choose not to accept it, but the Jayhawks are gobbling up quality wins in the excellent Big 12, have played the most difficult schedule in the country and are No. 1 in the RPI.
THE NEXT FOUR
Duke (17-2).You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe the Blue Devils are one of the best four teams out there. With dominant freshman center Jahlil Okafor, they might be the biggest threat to Kentucky. Back-to-back January losses to N.C. State and Miami hurt a bit.
Gonzaga (20-1).The Zags’ one defeat — in overtime at Arizona — actually was one of their finest moments in terms of their résumé. This is a tremendous offensive team that passes and shoots as well as anybody. The competition level in the West Coast Conference always is going to be an issue.
Villanova (18-2).The Wildcats will have opportunities — on their home floor — to avenge losses at Georgetown and Seton Hall. An eventual top seed wouldn’t be the least bit surprising.
Wisconsin (18-2).The Big Ten is way down from last season. It’ll be very hard for the Badgers to build a case for a No. 1 seed.
VCU.Two of the Rams’ three losses — to Villanova and Virginia — are more than excusable and certainly help the team’s RPI ranking (No. 4). Arguably Shaka Smart’s best squad yet is on an 11-game winning streak.
Yes, Notre Dame.The non-conference schedule didn’t help the cause — the Irish are 36th in RPI — but things look more promising with every ACC victory. Not for nothing: Jerian Grant gives this team a legit shot against anybody.
The Big Ten.Did we mention it’s way down from last season? The league has two teams among the RPI top 33. Yeah, that’s awful. And it would’ve been worse had No. 14 Maryland failed to eke out a one-point victory over Northwestern on Sunday.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 4 Duke at No. 8 Notre Dame (Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2). Biggest hoops game in South Bend in … decades?
No. 12 Wichita State at No. 18 Northern Iowa(Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2). The Shockers (18-2, 8-0 Missouri Valley) have won 29 straight against league opponents, but have you watched NIU — sorry, UNI — play? Every possession is a fight to the death for the Panthers. Time for this streak to end.
No. 4 Duke at No. 2 Virginia (Staurday, 6 p.m., ESPN). Okafor hasn’t seen anything like what Bennett’s team will throw at him defensively. It’ll take a lot of long threes for the Blue Devils to get this job done.
IN OR OUT?
Other than Notre Dame, which of the “locals” has the best shot to get into the tourney? Without factoring in league tournaments, it pretty much has to be Illinois. The Illini (No. 58 RPI) are 13-8 overall and 3-5 in Big Ten action; with consecutive home games on tap against Penn State and Rutgers, they have a great shot to get to .500. From there — with leading scorer Rayvonte Rice soon to return from injury — anything would be possible.