On the road to Greensboro …
Three more weeks remain in what has to be the most unpredictable ACC regular season in recent memory. You could have said that about several recent seasons but this one beats them all. Consider:
• Miami – and not Duke, N.C. State, North Carolina or any other team you might have expected – is undefeated atop the league standings at 11-0.
• Florida State won the ACC tournament last season and now likely needs to win it just to make the NCAA tournament.
• Virginia, 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Association, is 8-3 in the ACC, and in third place.
• N.C. State, surrounded by great expectations before this season, is a buzzer-beating victory at Clemson from entering the stretch run with a losing conference record.
Amid all the unpredictably, though, has emerged a clear division through the middle of the conference.
Six ACC teams will begin Saturday with firm knowledge or realistic hope that their seasons will end somewhere in the NCAA tournament. The league’s other six teams know their seasons could end in Greensboro, at the ACC tournament, if things don’t quickly improve.
With time ticking, dreams growing and hopes fading, here’s a look at the NCAA tournament picture:
Duke 22-2 (9-2)
vs. RPI top-50: 8-2; vs. RPI 100-plus: 10-0
Profile: No one has a better non-conference resume than the Blue Devils and, like Miami, Duke is undefeated at full strength. The Blue Devils would be a clear choice for a No. 1 seed if they win the ACC tournament, and it’s difficult to see them slipping below a No. 2 seed even if they stumble once or twice.
Miami 20-3 (11-0 ACC)
vs. RPI top-50: 7-1; vs. RPI 100-plus: 7-0
Profile: With a strong finish – and there’s no indication the Hurricanes won’t have one – Miami could earn a No. 1 seed. The Hurricanes have two great wins – against Duke and Michigan State – and no real bad losses, though the early-season defeat against the Atlantic Sun-leading Florida Gulf Coast hurts Miami’s overall resume. Still, no team in the country has played better since the start of January than the Hurricanes.
SHOULD BE IN
N.C. State 17-7 (6-5)
vs. RPI top-50: 3-4; vs. RPI 100-plus: 12-1
Profile: The Wolfpack has been a disappointing 5-6 against top-100 teams in the RPI. But N.C. State has one great win (Duke) and two good ones (North Carolina and Massachusetts). Based on power rankings alone, the Pack would be a lock – and they should be, given their talent and preseason expectations. They still struggle against lesser competition, though, and are likely to be favored in all seven of their remaining games.
WORK TO DO
North Carolina 16-8 (6-5)
vs. RPI top-50: 1-6; vs. RPI 100-plus: 11-1
Profile: Outside of a bad loss at Texas in December, the Tar Heels have been consistent: They’ve beaten teams they should beat. And they’ve usually lost to better teams. Eleven conference wins would likely make UNC a tournament lock, but the Heels would have to win five of their seven remaining games to get there. That could be difficult against a schedule that includes home games against Virginia, N.C. State and Duke, and road games at Clemson and Maryland. The game Saturday against Virginia is huge for both teams.
Maryland 17-7 (5-6)
vs. RPI top-50: 1-4; vs. RPI 100-plus: 15-0
Profile: Outside of its 51-50 victory against N.C. State in mid-January, Maryland doesn’t really have an impressive victory. Two losses against Florida State don’t help, but they have an opportunity to pad their resume, beginning with a home game against Duke. The Terps then have a manageable four-game stretch against Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest before closing against UNC and Virginia. Both of those likely will be must-wins.
Virginia 18-6 (8-3)
vs. RPI top-50: 3-0; vs. RPI 100-plus: 12-6
Profile: Virginia might just have the most bizarre resume of an at-large contender. The Cavaliers have three wins against top-50 teams in the RPI, and six losses against teams ranked 100 or worse. They lost to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion (which is 3-22, with an RPI of 317), yet have a legitimate shot of making the tournament. It won’t be easy. Virginia’s next two games are at UNC and Miami, and home games remain against Duke and Maryland.
ALL BUT ELIMINATED
Sure, it’s mathematically possible that Florida State (13-11, 5-6) and Clemson (13-11, 5-7) can win out play themselves into at-large consideration. But they likely would have to win the ACC tournament to reach the NCAAs. Same goes for Wake Forest (11-13, 4-8), Georgia Tech (13-10, 3-8), Boston College (11-13, 3-8) and Virginia Tech (11-13, 2-9).
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter