North Carolina's Roy Williams says he doesn't lie awake at night thinking one dadgum thing about the league's RPI.
Come March, however, other coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference could be fretting about it.
As ACC play opened in earnest this weekend, only four ACC teams - No. 1 Duke, UNC, Miami and Boston College - are ranked in the top 45 of the Ratings Percentage Index, which is a key component examined by the NCAA tournament selection committee. As of Friday, half of the ACC's 12 teams had slumped to below 100 in RPI rankings that combine winning percentages, opponents' winning percentages and the winning percentages of opponents' opponents, according to realtimerpi.com. Most years, such lowly ratings wouldn't even be good enough to earn an invitation to the NIT.
"I don't remember a year when the ACC has been so mediocre," said Jerry Palm, who runs collegerpi.com, a website that also had half of the league ranked below 100 as of Monday. "Even in the 12-team era, you usually don't see more than two teams below 100. It depends on how they do in conference play, but really right now more than four or five [making the NCAA tournament] would be a surprise. And five is the upside."
In past years, conference play automatically boosted ACC teams' individual RPIs because the league's overall RPI was so high. But the potential problem this season is that the league's overall RPI currently ranks sixth, according to realtimerpi.com, behind the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West and Pac-10.
Over the last 10 years, the ACC has been limited four times (2002, 2003, 2006, 2008) to four NCAA bids. The last time only three teams got into the NCAA tournament was 2000, but a variety of factors this season has the league in jeopardy of slumping to that low-water mark again.
Those factors include:
Injuries. N.C. State (11-4) clearly missed senior forward Tracy Smith, a second-team, All-ACC selection last season, in the 10 games he was sidelined because of knee surgery. Senior forward Mike Scott (six double-doubles this season) has missed six of the last seven games for Virginia since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle. Knee and hand injuries have benched forward Xavier Gibson of Florida State (11-5) for the next couple of months. And then there's Virginia Tech (10-4), which entered the season as a potential league title contender but has lost four of its top nine players for the season to injuries. Only undefeated Duke seems to keep rolling despite its own injury issue - a toe injury to star freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who is out indefinitely.
New coaches. Boston College's Steve Donahue, Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik and Clemson's Brad Brownell are all in their first seasons with their respective programs - and that means player defections, the installation of new systems and the rebuilding of rosters. Donahue, for example, had only seven scholarship players in late June because his predecessor Al Skinner signed only one player - who subsequently opted to go elsewhere.
Player turnover. It's nothing new that underclassmen continue to go pro early, but it has had a cumulative effect on the ACC.
"Like Paul Hewitt [at Georgia Tech], how many NBA players has he lost early in the last five years?" ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "It's been a lot, and guys get hurt by that."
The latest early exit for the Yellow Jackets was freshman Derrick Favors, who was chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft last summer. Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu and UNC's Ed Davis were also early entry first-rounders. And then there are the talented seniors who left holes - including Maryland's Greivis Vasquez and Clemson's Trevor Booker.
Despite the league's inconsistencies and the fact that the Blue Devils are the only ACC team to have been ranked in the top 25 for more than a month, several of the league's coaches insisted that it's too early to be concerned about ratings and rankings.
"Our conference is still tough," N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said, prior to the Wolfpack's win over Wake Forest on Saturday. "And I think it will show that."
But even if it does, you've got to wonder if it will be too little, too late, considering some of the league's ugly nonconference losses already, to Kennesaw State (Georgia Tech), Seattle (Virginia) and Auburn (Florida State).
In playing fellow ACC teams, the league's quality of competition increases. But the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 will be doing the same thing in their respective conferences, which likely limits the ACC's ability to raise its overall RPI all that much.
"How can a coach in the league with a straight face say, 'Well, when you get in the ACC, we beat each other up,'" Bilas said. "Well, you know what? You had a whole nonconference to beat up somebody else, and you got beat up."
Even with middling RPI rankings, some ACC teams are in better spots than others, because in the eyes of the selection committee, quality wins can sometimes balance out eyebrow-raising losses.
Undefeated Duke (No. 6 RPI, according to realtimeRPI.com), Miami (28), UNC (29) and Boston College (42, despite losing to two Ivy League schools - Harvard and Yale - at home) remain in the best positions, thanks to solid strengths of schedule.
Florida State, though, is among the ACC teams that could find itself out of favor in March. Although it has the talent to finish in the top quarter of the ACC standings, its only good nonconference win is against then-No. 15 Baylor. Its strength of schedule ranks 181st, according to realtimerpi.com's Friday update, and it stood 93rd on the RPI scale.
N.C. State could also find itself in an interesting position. Its RPI was 107 prior to Saturday's game against Wake Forest, but all four of the Wolfpack's nonconference losses came during the absence of Smith, the team' leading scorer. The selection committee takes key injuries into account, but N.C. State is going to have to put together a solid league record to be a factor.
"We have to concentrate, and try to win as many games as we can, and let the chips fall where they may," Lowe said. "I know earlier, our RPI was pretty good. When we played Georgetown and Syracuse and Wisconsin and Arizona, it was great, and now it's kind of down. But I think in the end, if we do what we're capable of doing, then that will take care of itself, because those games are important. And not only that, those games we played without Tracy Smith. So we come back now with Tracy back, and have a great year, then that will take care of itself."
'Worst it's ever been'
Great may be relative, though.
Bilas said there are a number of major conferences that have taken a step back season, calling it a "cyclical thing." But the ACC, he said, "is the worst it's ever been."
Duke, which hosts Maryland today, would be really good any year in the ACC, he added. However, "this is not your father's North Carolina team. They're good, but they're not 'historically, North Carolina-good.' And they're the second-best team, and I don't think anybody is with them. But then it's Maryland. Then it's take-your-pick-on-a-given-night."
Williams, whose Tar Heels defeated Virginia on Saturday, admits that come NCAA selection time, the ACC's lower RPI is going to hurt, "if we don't start winning more."
And that, he added, should be the focus.
"We as coaches have to be concerned about our team, and how our team is doing," Williams said. "We want the league to do well, and the whole bit. But the bottom line is, we've got to get in games and play well to win."
Without enough of those, the RPI won't matter, anyway.
Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.
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