Even the chairman of the tight-lipped NCAA selection committee can't deny this simple fact: Heading into this week's conference tournaments, there's Kentucky and Syracuse, and then everybody else.
In a teleconference to preview Sunday's release of the NCAA tournament pairings, committee chairman Jeff Hathaway all but handed two of the four top seeds to the Wildcats and Orange, each of whom entered their conference tournaments with a record of 30-1.
"I think we all agree that if the season ended today, we know who the two best teams are," he said Wednesday. "If you're looking at 3 and 4 on the first line and the entire second line, we have the same handful of teams in mind but where they would be placed will be a tremendous debate."
Although Hathaway, former athletic director at defending national champion Connecticut, did not get specific, among those lumped into consideration for the other top seeds are Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State.
The brackets come out Sunday evening, with the tournament starting Tuesday.
When Hathaway was pressed about his Kentucky-Syracuse statement, he tried to back off.
"I don't want to say anyone should feel secure," he said. "If I did, those two coaches would get after me and say we took away some motivation."
He said injuries or a suspension, each of which the committee considers when making up the bracket, could change the picture.
"The bottom line is, everyone today knows that if the season ended, we would say those two teams are the best in the country," Hathaway said.
As is typical in the lead-up to Selection Sunday, the chairman talked a lot about process but offered few specifics or promises.
He said the Big Ten, widely perceived as the strongest conference top to bottom this season, would not receive special consideration for a top seed.
"The fact of the matter is, conference RPI and conference rankings are not brought up in the rating room at all," Hathaway said, speaking to a change the selection committee made in the time since he joined five years ago.
He said the knee injury to freshman Branden Dawson of Michigan State, denying the Spartans of an eight-point, four-rebound player as they head into the postseason, could play into their seeding.
"The ... great thing about this situation is, we're going to have the ability to see Michigan State play without him" in the Big Ten tournament, Hathaway said.
Two years ago, Purdue lost two of its last five games heading into the tournament after high-scoring forward Robbie Hummel tore up his knee late in the season. The committee dropped the Boilermakers, once a top-seed contender, into a No. 4 seed and conceded Hummel's injury made Purdue a different team and affected their decision.
Hathaway said committee members have been instructed to look at teams on their own merits, without lumping them into the usual categories — mid-majors vs. BCS or 'power'-conference teams.
The number of mid-majors that earn at-large bids is always widely scrutinized. Last year, there were seven — one fewer than in 2010, but three more than in 2009 — and Virginia Commonwealth made the Final Four. Meanwhile, mid-major Butler has been in the last two finals, though the Bulldogs struggled this year and aren't expected to make the tournament.
Among those on the bubble this year are South Florida, Miami, Texas, North Carolina State and Colorado State. The Rams' fate might be as telling as anyone's. They are a low-profile, mid-major team with 18 Division I wins, only three of which were away games. Yet they have an RPI rating of 22 and the eighth most difficult strength of schedule.
"We look at the body of work, front to back, beginning to end," Hathaway said. "We put them up against other teams that are being considered for selection. That's the bulk of the work. That's why we spend so many days and hours here. We make sure we compare all the teams, irregardless of what conference they come from."
Hathaway said this was the most challenging year he's spent in his half-decade on the committee.
"There's a greater number of quality teams this year than we've ever seen before," he said. "We said that last year. We feel there's more quality this year. And certainly that's going to make the process even more challenging."