ACC tournament final hope for bubble teams looking for NCAA invite

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2014 

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has reminded his team of the opportunity it has entering the ACC tournament and, undoubtedly, the league’s other coaches have talked plenty about that, too – about how this is the start of something new.

It always has been that way for the tournament, which will look and feel different when it starts Wednesday at the Greensboro Coliseum. For the first time, the tournament – an eight-team event at its humble origin in 1954 at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum – is 15 teams deep. And for the first time, it will feature five days’ worth of games.

Much has changed since the ACC tournament began as a regional event, featuring eight schools in four neighboring states. Yet it still offers the same kind of chance it always has – the opportunity for teams to erase mediocre, or worse, regular seasons, and for them to play their way into the NCAA tournament.

During the next two days in Greensboro, teams perceived to be on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in – N.C. State, Florida State, Clemson and the list goes on – will have a chance. The ACC tournament never has been this large and, because of that, there never have been this many teams fighting to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament, which Gottfried described “as the greatest show on Earth.”

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has been through a trying season, one in which the Terrapins rarely have played with the kind of sustained effort and level of execution he’d like. Yet this week Turgeon described this as “a fun time.”

It wasn’t just because Maryland, approaching the end of its final season in the ACC, was days removed from beating then-No. 4 Virginia.

“This time of year everybody’s got a chance – again,” Turgeon said. “If your season hasn’t gone exactly like you wanted it to go, you still have one more chance to make it right.”

Maryland’s quest to make it right will begin Thursday against Florida State. Both finished 9-9 in the ACC, but long gone are the days when a .500 or better finish in the conference nearly guaranteed a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Maryland and Florida State, the eighth and ninth seeds, need to go on a run during the next few days to have a shot at making the 68-team NCAA tournament. In Maryland’s case, its only path might be to win the whole thing in Greensboro and earn the ACC’s automatic bid.

There is a precedent for such a thing, with N.C. State’s 1983 run offering the greatest hope and evidence that it’s possible to find magic in the ACC tournament and keep riding it. The Wolfpack entered the tournament that season needing to win it just to make the NCAA tournament. It ended the season as national champions.

That’s the most dramatic example of an ACC team using the league tournament as a springboard, but there have been others. Recent history suggests entering the tournament as the No. 7 seed – like N.C. State will Thursday – might not be a bad thing.

Georgia Tech reached the NCAA tournament in 2010 after it made the ACC tournament final. The Yellow Jackets finished the regular season 7-9 in the league and entered the ACC tournament as the No. 7 seed.

In 2009, Maryland reached the ACC tournament semifinals as the No. 7 seed and received an NCAA tournament bid despite their 7-9 regular-season league finish. In 2005, N.C. State finished 7-9 and entered the ACC tournament as the No. 7 seed. The Wolfpack won two games to reach the semifinals and earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Those kinds of stories, though – the ones about teams on the NCAA tournament fringe making a run to earn a bid – are far outnumbered by the other side. Georgia Tech in 2010 is the most recent ACC team to use the conference tournament to play its way into the NCAA tournament.

It has been a while, since 2008, that the top four teams in the ACC tournament advanced to semifinal Saturday.

Yet despite the upsets and despite lower-seeded teams playing with a sense of desperation, the ACC tournament hasn’t been the bubble-team springboard during the past several years that it sometimes is.

Nine ACC teams will enter the conference tournament this week with .500 records or better. Only the top four seeds, though, are viewed as certainties to make the NCAA tournament: Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. Pittsburgh is in the best position to become the fifth.

Clemson, the No. 6 seed, won 10 league games and lost in overtime against Pitt last weekend. Even if the Tigers had won that game, they still would have had work left to do in the ACC tournament to earn an NCAA bid. Clemson, N.C. State, Florida State and Maryland will have to win three games in three days to reach the ACC tournament final.

The league’s bottom six teams face a more daunting task. To win the ACC tournament, they’d have to win five games in five days. The tournament format this season is similar to what existed in the Big East before defections and realignment dramatically altered that conference.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, leading the Orange in its first season in the ACC, has no shortage of experience with the old Big East tournament. It wasn’t uncommon, he said, for lower-seeded teams, especially ones that began play on Wednesday, to beat higher-seeded teams.

“It’s proven,” Boeheim said. “ It’s proven in the Big East … the statistics (were) overwhelmingly in favor of the teams that had played one or two games.”

It would take some upsets – probably several – for the ACC to be well-represented in the NCAA tournament. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recently said it was a shame that the ACC might only receive five tournament bids.

He called for the conference to receive seven or eight, which means he believes Clemson, N.C. State and Florida State, closest to the NCAA tournament bubble, deserve consideration.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said he wasn’t worried about a hangover effect after the Pitt loss. Players have shorter memories than ever, he said, and besides, nobody expected much out of Clemson this season anyway.

“What we’ve been able to do, we’ve been able to do more than several teams in this league,” he said. “And we weren’t picked to do that.”

Brownell and his players celebrated their season Sunday, even after the emotional loss to Pitt. During that celebration, he said, there was a meeting and a meal, and satisfaction at far exceeding expectations.

Now comes the start of a new, five-day season, one in which teams on the margin have one final chance to prove themselves.


Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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