Mike Krzyzewski usually likes to look forward - his favorite catch phrase is "Next play" after all - but Sunday's hard-fought victory over Georgia Tech caused the Duke coach to take a glance backwards in time."The kids in this conference are playing their butts off," Krzyzewski told reporters. "I think it's been the most competitive conference - and not just the race for first place - that I've ever seen. It reminds me of the 1980s. Johnny [Dawkins] and I were talking after the game and I said, 'That reminds me of a Dalrymple-Dawkins-Price game.' Those were some of the most amazing games in the history of our conference. The intensity of this game and the physicality of this game reminded us of that."
Earlier last week, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was also flashing back on the 1980s, when he sat on the bench with UNC head coach Dean Smith.
"We had some great teams in the ACC when I was in the league as an assistant," he said. "But there were also some games then where you felt, 'Okay, we can probably win those games.' I think top to bottom, the league is as strong as I've ever seen it. There are some teams that are struggling, but you'd better be ready to play when you play them."
Considering that the Tar Heels were knocked out of first place not too long ago by last-place (at the time) N.C. State, Williams' appreciation for the depth of excellence in the ACC this season is understandable. His assertion that there's more talent at the bottom of the standings than in the 1980s is debatable - the ACC didn't produce a single overall losing team in 1984 or 1985, for instance - but his main point is still valid.
This ACC IS amazingly balanced and competitive this season. When a team like Virginia Tech can start the week with a victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then finish it with a 25-point loss to N.C. State in Raleigh, you know the league is topsy-turvy. The Wolfpack can squeeze a lopsided loss to Miami in between victories over UNC and Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech can lose four straight, then win four straight.
"I felt coming into the year that this was the deepest the league had been in my seven years [at Georgia Tech]," Paul Hewitt said. "The thing I've always said is I don't think people really factor in just the wear and tear and the grind this league takes on the players. By the end of the year there's going to be an injury or a player wearing down that I don't think everybody outside the league has an appreciation for how hard it can be. If you talk to coaches who have come from outside the league, they have a greatest appreciation for how hard it is.
"I did a year in the Pac 10 and five years in the Big East and game by game, this is the hardest league I've ever been around."
Hewitt - and the rest of the league's coaches - are holding their collective breath, waiting to see what the NCAA selection committee makes of the ACC this season. Or rather, they are NOT holding their breath - or their tongues. Instead, the coaches have combined to launch an unprecedented propaganda campaign to make sure the league gets its due.
"It's hard for me to think our league won't get nine teams in the NCAA Tournament," Krzyzewski said. "This conference is so deep ... all these teams had better get rewarded."
His view was echoed by Maryland's Gary Williams.
"I'm not going to get up on a soapbox, but there are facts about RPIs and things like that that anybody can see," Williams said. "I know that in the past what were considered the best conferences have gotten 7-8 teams in. I think we've got pretty good statistics to support the ACC this year and hopefully, they'll speak for themselves."
But the ACC coaches tried letting the statistics speak for themselves last year and the saw the likes of Florida State (19-9 with a 94 SOS and two top 50 wins) and Maryland (19-12 with a 14 SOS and two top 50 wins) passed over for the likes of Air Force (22-6 with a 158 SOS and no top 50 wins) and Utah State (22-8 against the 102 SOS and one top 50 win). What was really galling about the snub was afterwards, when one of the committee chairmen defended the inexplicable selection of Air Force by pointing out that the Falcons beat Georgia Tech - what prompted Gary Williams to point out that the Terps beat Georgia Tech three times!
"Selection Sunday was sort of a slap in the face of the ACC," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said earlier this season. "It caused great consternation."
So what do the coaches think happened to the ACC in 2006?
"We talked during spring meetings about the number of teams we got in the tournament and what we can do to increase that," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We've got a big-time league. We've got to say that more. The mid-majors play the political game more than we do."
So the ACC coaches agreed to do more jaw-boning to remind people of how good the ACC is.
"It's unfortunate, but that seems to be a reality," Prosser said. "The huckstering going on seems to bear fruit in March. I think it's an abomination that you can have teams that win nine games in this league and don't make the tournament."
So what's the pitch the ACC are trying to make?
It starts with the argument that the ACC is the best league in the country.
For some reason, the ESPN pundits have fallen in love with the Pac 10 and not even North Carolina's short-handed demolition of Arizona in Tempe two weeks ago has been able to shake that perception. No matter that the ACC has a higher RPI than the Pac 10, a better non-conference winning percentage and a better winning percentage against the BCS conferences.
Actually, the RPI rates the SEC a shade ahead of the ACC as the toughest conference (both well ahead of the Pac 10). They are so close that the top ranking has flip-flopped three times in the last two weeks and might do so again at any moment.
Against the SEC's thin RPI claim to superiority, the ACC can boast a better non-conference winning percentage (indeed the best of any conference), a better BCS winning percentage and an 8-4 straight-up edge on its rival. The Pomery polls ranks the ACC well ahead of the second-place Big Ten and the third-place SEC (Pomery has the Pac 10 fifth!). The Sagarin poll rates the ACC first by a wide margin over the SEC, followed by the Pac 10 and the Big Ten.
But when it comes to getting at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, it's all about teams, not leagues.
At least it's supposed to be.
Who knows what factors are important to the members of the selection committee?
Not Leonard Hamilton.
"Different factors are important to different committee members," the Florida State coach said. "I recently heard a committee member suggest that they were going to put more value on postseason conference tournaments. Who knows? The criteria changes. It's like you're trying to hit a moving target."
Hamilton has a right to be bitter. A year ago, the committee's explanation for FSU's exclusion was that the Seminoles played a weak non-conference schedule. That was true, but FSU, by playing in the ACC, actually played a tougher overall schedule than several teams that did get at-large bids (especially Air Force).
Now, the NCAA's selection criteria does call for the committee to consider a team's strength of schedule. What last year's committee did was to invent new, unpublished criteria, called, "Who you choose to play." In other words, the importance of overall strength of schedule was downgraded in favor of a school's non-conference strength of schedule.
Obviously that penalizes teams in power conferences who are being punished for not playing more killer non-conference opponents. On the other hand, a team such as Gonzaga, which usually gets a pass from its low-major conference foes, can schedule half-a-dozen killer games and still come out ahead. For instance, last year Gonzaga played the nation's No. 9 rated non-conference schedule ... but was No. 95 in overall strength of schedule (one place BEHIND No. 94 Florida State). Maryland was No. 49 in non-conference strength of schedule ... yet No. 14 in overall strength of schedule.
To the committee's eyes, it didn't matter that FSU played a slightly tougher schedule than Gonzaga - and a MUCH tougher schedule than Air Force and Utah State. The Seminoles HAD to play Duke twice and UNC, Boston College and N.C. State, so apparently they got no credit for playing them.
Who knows what criteria will be important to the selection committee this year? When they start making up the rules as they go along, anything can make or break a team's chances. It's no longer possible to rely on published guidelines, RPI rankings, historical performance or even common sense.
All we can do is guess.
As the ACC enters the final two weeks of the regular season, here are my best guesses for the NCAA fortunes of the 12 ACC teams. Please note, I'm listing them based on RPI, rather than conference standings - technically, when considered for an at-large bid, a team's conference standing is not relevant, except as a part of the team's overall profile.
From the top:
-- North Carolina (23-4). The Tar Heels are ranked No. 2 in the RPI, but No. 1 in both Sagarin and Pomeroy.
Obviously, the Tar Heels are an NCAA lock. They are fighting for a No. 1 seed and to lock down a spot in the Winston-Salem subregional. The latter is very likely, but the first UNC goal is still up for grabs. Right now, UNC is battling Florida, UCLA, Wisconsin and Ohio State for one of the four top seeds. That's five legitimate contenders for four spots.
Who will be the odd man out?
That is pretty much up for grabs. If UNC wins out, the odds are pretty good that the Tar Heels will grab one of the No. 1s. But if Roy's Tar Heels tank in the ACC Tournament (as they did after winning the regular season title in 2005), that might be enough to cost them a No. 1 ... although that depends on what the other four contenders do. Right now, UNC (and Florida and UCLA) have a slight edge because Ohio State and Wisconsin are in the same conference. The two superpowers meet Sunday in Columbus, then at least one will lose again in the Big Ten Tournament.
-- Duke (20-7): Despite the ACC standings, Duke is consistently the ACC's second-ranked team - No. 10 in the RPI, No. 9 in Pomeroy and No. 11 in Sagarin.
The back-to-back victories over Boston College and Georgia Tech put a stop to the silly speculation about Duke being an NIT team, but the Blue Devils are still playing for as high a seed as possible. Jerry Palm, whose projections over the years have been amazingly accurate (although more accurate the closer it gets to Selection Sunday) has Duke as No. 4 seed at this moment. That could change depending on how the regular season and tournament play out - win out (including a victory at UNC and a third straight ACC Tournament triumph) and the Devils could be as high as a No. 2 ... lose out and the Devils could limp in as an No. 9 or No. 10.
Neither extreme is very likely - that No. 4 looks to be pretty close to where the Devils will end up. Duke's greatest asset in the selection process is its balance between good wins (seven in the top 50) and bad losses (none ... Duke hasn't lost to a team out of the top 50). That's why the most important remaining games for the Devils will be at No. 129 St. John's and a potential first-round ACC Tournament matchup with either Wake Forest, N.C. State or Miami (all out of the top 100).
-- Maryland (20-7): Like Duke, the Terps are ranked much better than their ACC standings - No. 18 in the RPI; No. 13 in Pomeroy; No. 15 by Sagarin.
There was a lot of panic in College Park when the Terps started off 3-6 in ACC play. Three straight league wins, including road wins at Wake Forest, N.C. State and Clemson have calmed the populace a bit. [Note: Just remember, the Maryland fan base - for all its passion-- is the ACC's most fickle. In 2001, the crowd at Cole booed the Terps off the floor after a loss to FSU, leading the Terp players to declare that they were playing the rest of the season for themselves. As it turned out, the team trashed by its fans gave the school its first Final Four trip and set the stage for the next year's national championship.]
The Terps finish out the regular season with three home games and a trip to Duke. They're battling the Blue Devils for fifth place and could pass the Devils as the ACC's No. 2 ranked team with a win in Durham. Barring a total collapse, the Terps are home free to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
-- Virginia Tech (17-8): Seth Greenberg's team is headed for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since former Clemson coach Bill Foster (no relation to the ex-Duke coach of the same name) earned a bid in 1996.
Considering that the Hokies have just seven NCAA appearances and just five NCAA wins in its history, that's a big deal in Blacksburg. Solid poll numbers (No. 25 RPI; No. 33 Pomeroy; No. 23 Sagarin) and headline wins over UNC - twice! - and at Duke offset a handful of curious losses (Western Michigan, Marshall) and lackluster performances (especially Saturday's drubbing by N.C. State).
Virginia Tech closes the season with three of the final four at home, including what should be a sure win against Miami. Barring an epic meltdown, the Hokies are in.
-- Boston College (18-8). Less than a week ago, the Eagles were atop the ACC standings, ranked No. 21 in the nation and owned solid numbers in all the rankings.
Today, BC is firmly on the bubble.
How can that be for a team with such a solid resume - including a No. 26 rating in the RPI; No. 29 in Pomeroy and No. 26 in Sagarin?
The problem goes back to the midseason loss of Sean Williams. Forget Akida McLean - he played in just two games before his dismissal and was a non-factor. But Williams was a force - the ACC's best shot-blocker, a strong rebounder and a developing inside offensive threat.
The Eagles are 12-3 with Williams in the middle, including victories over Michigan State, UMass, Virginia and Maryland. BC is 6-5 without Williams, including losses to Vermont, Duke twice and at Clemson.
Under NCAA guidelines, the committee is supposed to take Williams'absence into account. Since he's not returning, they are required to evaluate the team Al Skinner will take to the NCAA Tournament. The same rule killed Maryland last year after the Terps dismissed Chris McCray at midseason.
Is Boston College - without Williams -- good enough to earn a bid? The next two weeks could decide that. The Eagles sandwich road games at Virginia Tech and at Georgia Tech around a home game with Clemson. BC let a golden opportunity to clinch a bid slip away last week with homecourt losses to Duke and North Carolina. It's vital that the Eagles win enough of the remaining games (one? two?) to convince the committee that they are viable contenders even without Sean Williams.
-- Clemson (19-7): Obviously by this time, everybody knows that the Tigers are 2-7 after opening 17-0. That might be conventional wisdom, but it is wisdom - and unless Oliver Purnell can arrest his team's late season slide, it won't matter that Clemson has enough wins and a strong enough computer ranking (31 in RPI; 24 in Pomeroy; 19 in Sagarin) to qualify for an at-large bid.
The schedule makes it tough. After Thursday night's home game with Duke, the Tigers have road games at Boston College (also fighting for its tournament life) and at Virginia Tech sandwiched around a home game with Miami.
Considering Miami's RPI rank (an ACC worst 162), a homecourt victory over the Hurricanes probably won't be enough to do it. But add just one other win - and Duke at home is the Tigers' best chance - and that's a 21-9 record going into the ACC Tournament with a 2-2 finish ... that will look a lot better to the selection committee.
-- FSU (17-10): The irony is that Hamilton took care of the problem that haunted his team last year. FSU's overall SOS is No. 12 nationally and its non-conference SOS is a solid No. 40, but it still might not be enough.
The problem is the loss of point guard Toney Douglas with a broken hand. The 'Noles are 0-3 since Douglas was lost - actually 0-4, since he was hurt early in a one-point loss at Clemson.
That's the kind of thing - like the dismissal of Williams at BC - that can negate what has gone before. FSU's RPI is a solid No. 40 (No. 36 in Pomeroy; No. 39 in Sagarin). The key for Florida State is to get Douglas back - not just back in uniform, but able to demonstrate that he can play at a high level.
If that happens, the committee's guidelines will work in FSU's favor - if Douglas returns and proves he's close to full speed, the committee will to some degree downplay the losses without him. If he doesn't return, then they downplay (let's be clear ... that's downplay, not totally discount) the 17 wins with him.
Hamilton said Monday that Douglas would not play tonight at Maryland, but that he should be back before the season is over, wearing a flexible cast on his injured right hand.
-- Virginia (18-7): The computers don't like the Cavaliers all that much, despite a record that has Dave Leitao's team in the race for the ACC regular season title.
Of course, much of that is due to the unbalanced schedule, which has given Virginia the easiest ACC slate - by far. The Cavs rank 35 in the RPI (sixth in the ACC); 42 in Pomeroy; and (curiously) 25 in Sagarin.
None of that will matter if the Cavs take care of business down the stretch. The two road games are at Miami and at Wake Forest, while Virginia gets Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home. A sweep would guarantee Leitao's team a share of the conference title (although UNC owns the tiebreaker, that's only used to determine tournament seeding ... both teams could hang a banner). Even a split would leave the Cavs home free for their first bid since 2001.
-- Georgia Tech (17-9): The young Yellow Jackets played themselves back from the brink of NCAA elimination with four straight wins - three in conference and a nationally televised rout of Connecticut (which is down this season).
Hewitt acknowledges that his teams is still on the bubble - probably outside the field as of today, but close enough to qualify with a strong finish. The polls differ wildly on the Jackets - the RPI has Hewitt's team at a borderline No. 46 (which is right at the historical cutoff line), but both Pomeroy (No. 16) and Sagarin (No. 18) have them in the top 20.
It's going to be close. The Jackets have a number of quality wins - Memphis, Georgia and Purdue are all likely to be in the tournament; as well as Duke, Clemson and FSU twice. A poor road record (1-7) will hurt.
The best thing Georgia Tech has going for it is that three of its final four regular season games are at home. A victory over Wake Forest tonight won't help much, but wins over North Carolina and/or Boston College next week could put the Jackets in the field.
-- N.C. State (14-11); Wake Forest (13-13); Miami (10-16): All three are ranked outside the top 100 in the RPI ... none of the three has a realistic chance of earning an at-large bid.
The ACC would be better off if the three bottom teams weren't as good as they are. Wake Forest has seriously damaged the NCAA chances of Clemson and Georgia Tech, while Miami has early season wins over Maryland and Georgia Tech that could hurt those teams. N.C. State, of course, had single-handedly kept Virginia Tech out of the top 25, while damaging UNC's chances of a No. 1 seed.
One note about N.C. State. They're not close enough for it to matter to the selection committee, but you have to wonder whether or not Sidney Lowe could have put his team in NCAA contention if Engin Atsur - his only senior and his only point guard - had not been hurt. Atsur missed 12 games and was less than full speed in a number of others. N.C. State is 9-4 when Atsur has played, including wins over UNC, Michigan and Virginia Tech twice ... 5-7 without him.
While the ACC coaches can make a legitimate case that nine league teams deserve bids, the final tally will depend on how the rest of the season plays out. Let me suggest that the following games this week are vital to the hopes of the bubble teams:
-- Boston College at Virginia Tech, Feb. 21 - It's a good question as to who needs it more. Probably BC, since the Hokies will still have Miami and Clemson visiting Blacksburg.
-- Florida State at Maryland, Feb. 21 - Without Douglas, it's not yet life or death for the Seminoles, but if FSU could complete its sweep of the Terps, that would go a long way towards helping their resume.
-- Duke at Clemson, Feb. 22 - It would be a significant win for a team that hasn't won a significant game in a month. Win this one and add a near-certain home win over Miami and the Tigers are probably in. Lose to the Devils, then it probably will take a road win at Boston College or Virginia Tech.
-- Clemson at Boston College, Feb. 24 - Depending on the outcome of tonight's BC-Virginia Tech game and tomorrow's Duke-Clemson game, this one could be life or death for either or both teams. Put it this way - an 0-2 week could knock either team out of the field - at least temporarily.
-- Georgia Tech at Virginia, Feb. 24 - The Cavs need it to stay in the race for the regular season title. The Jackets need it to bolster an NCAA resume that's just short of what will be needed. A road win over a top 50 team would go a long way towards putting Hewitt's team in the field.
-- Duke at St. John's, Feb. 25 - It doesn't mean as much to Duke as it does to the rest of the ACC. A loss to a Big East also-ran at this point in the season wouldn't help the perception that the ACC is the nation's best conference. Funny, but Coach K caught a lot of heat for suggesting he was pulling for UNC at Arizona ... you can bet that a lot of guys who don't necessarily like Duke's coach will be pulling for him in the Garden.
If everything breaks right, the ACC could still get nine bids. I bow to the proven track record of Jerry Palm at collegerpi.com - at the moment, he has UNC, Duke, Maryland and Virginia as locks. He also has Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Clemson in the field at the moment (Clemson is one of his last four in). He has Florida State on the wrong side of the bubble, largely because of Douglas' injury.
That's eight bids - twice as many as the ACC got last season. While it's not quite as many as the coaches are campaigning for, you can bet that privately, most would be delighted to get eight ... and would be satisfied with seven.
"I told Paul [Hewitt] after the game, I just hope all these teams get in because I think the league would make a big splash in March," Krzyzewski said Sunday.
With his two latest wins, Krzyzewski can speak from a position of strength and not sound like a coach on the bubble pleading his case. Virginia Tech's Greenberg, who is in that situation, tried very hard not to sound too desperate when asked about his team's NCAA chances Monday.
"I try not to think about it," he said. "I'll worry about it in two weeks."
But before the reporter could ask another question, Greenberg began to reel off reams of information, ending with a stern, "Most teams with those credentials get in."
There was a pause and Greenberg must have replayed the conversation in his mind. He gave a little chuckle and added, "For a guy who doesn't think about it, I know a lot about it, don't I?"
It's a subject no college basketball fan can ignore at this time of year.