The message from Mike Krzyzewski to Mark Gottfried, from one coach to another as they walked through the handshake line, was a simple one: “I hope you guys get in.”
The Duke coach wasn’t merely being magnanimous in victory. He has lobbied all season for the ACC to get more respect from the NCAA tournament selection committee. With Saturday’s 75-67 loss to Duke, N.C. State became the test case for that campaign.
The Wolfpack still has a shot to make the tournament, since just about every other team sitting precariously on the bubble flamed out this week while N.C. State won twice to get to the ACC semifinals, but a win over the Blue Devils unquestionably would have sealed the deal.
Instead, the Wolfpack will spend 24 anxious hours awaiting its fate.
“I still think there’s something special left for this team,” N.C. State’s Gottfried said, “wherever that may be.”
The gap between “wherevers” is pretty large: Dayton, for the First Four; or Reynolds Coliseum, for a first-round NIT game.
Bracket forecaster Patrick Stevens of the Syracuse Post-Standard rates N.C. State slightly ahead of Southern Methodist for the final spot in the field based largely on non-conference schedule strength (N.C. State is ranked 109th, SMU 294th). No bubble team with a nonconference schedule that soft has made the tournament since 2007.
This is splitting the finest of hairs, which makes it almost impossible to predict what the committee will do Sunday -- with Green Bay still looming as a mid-major wild card.
“We lost all that we lost from last year and played a really good nonconference schedule,” Gottfried said. “We could have lightened it up. I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I wanted to do what the committee has asked us to do. … I trust them. I do. I hope they take a really good look at our team and see how much better we are now than we were at the beginning.”
N.C. State isn’t alone in this. The ACC has chafed in recent years over what it feels is a lack of respect from the NCAA tournament committee. Krzyzewski argued Saturday on behalf of not only N.C. State but Clemson and Florida State as well.
There’s nothing new about that. Lobbying the committee on behalf of the conference is a tradition so old it ought to be honored with the other ACC legends. But as the ACC has added strong basketball programs, it expects more bids, not fewer. Even if State makes it, the ACC would only have six teams in the tournament.
“The Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six teams in there,” Krzyzewski said. “Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”
The basketball tragedy of it all was pretty obvious Saturday: The way N.C. State is playing right now, it’s clearly worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. That’s not the way teams are judged. It all matters, from November to March.
The Wolfpack figured it out, getting better as the season wore on, maybe only days too late.
“They got it going,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re a tough out, man. They’re a tough out. They’d be a tough out. I wouldn’t want to play them.”
In 2012, after losing another ACC semifinal, N.C. State not only made it, but proved to be a very tough out, upsetting San Diego State and Georgetown.
Does N.C. State deserve an NCAA bid the way the Wolfpack is playing right now? Has the Wolfpack done enough to earn it? Those questions may have very different answers Sunday.