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Featherston On The State Of The ACC!

As most ACC teams hit the halfway mark in the conference race (UNC and Wake Forest are still one game away), the muddle in the middle of the league standings is starting to sort itself out.

A couple of weeks ago, it was almost like there was Duke at the top, Wake Forest at the bottom and 10 nearly indistinguishable teams scrambling in a pile between those two polar extremes. In the last couple of weeks, North Carolina has emerged as an ACC contender to challenge Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech have solidified their resumes, while at least four teams have joined the Deacons as clear non-tourney contenders.

If I were to break down the ACC today, there's still Duke at the top - contending for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. North Carolina isn't going to climb that high nationally, but the Tar Heels could challenge the Blue Devils in the ACC (we'll see how the two team stand after Wednesday night's game in Cameron) and have re-entered the AP top 25. UNC's return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence seems pretty certain. FSU is in good shape, despite last Saturday's disheartening loss at Clemson.

At the other end of the league, N.C. State has made it emphatically clear that the Pack is not going to be a tourney team this season. Indeed, the way Sidney Lowe's team played last Saturday in Chapel Hill - I'm not talking about losing to UNC, which is not shameful; I'm talking about the lack of effort and concentration in a rivalry game - it looks like the Pack doesn't even want to qualify for the NIT.

But N.C. State is not the only ACC team that has seen its postseason hopes fizzle in the last two weeks. Virginia's bright hopes ended when Mike Scott was lost for the season. At least the Cavs (unlike the Pack) are playing out the string with a little heart. Miami doesn't have injuries to excuse its 2-6 ACC start, but the team so many liked as an ACC sleeper (including, I admit, this writer) hasn't been able to overcome its inability to win close games. You'd think a team with two such accomplished guards as Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant wouldn't be losing to FSU by two; to N.C. State by two; to UNC by three; to Virginia Tech by four.

Okay, the 'Canes did get a two-point win Thursday night, but after blowing 19 of a 21-point lead in the final 13 minutes, that hardly qualifies as a breakthrough win.

Add Georgia Tech to the list of non-tourney teams in the league. Actually, the Jackets have been playing fairly well at home recently (with wins over UNC and Virginia Tech), but an inability to perform on the road and a truly horrendous pre-ACC resume has dug Paul Hewitt's team far too deep a hole to escape with a few home upsets.

So let's recap - three ACC teams (Duke, UNC, FSU) are in great shape for NCAA bids … five ACC teams (Wake Forest, N.C. State, Miami, Virginia, Georgia Tech) already out of the field.

Okay, you don't need to be Jerry Palm or Joe Lunardi to figure that much out. The real expertise is in sorting out the four remaining ACC contenders. It's difficult because - unlike the nine teams already mentioned -- their fates are NOT decided yet.

Here's how I rank their chances going into this weekend's games:

(1) Virginia Tech (15-6, 5-3 ACC): The Hokies really helped their chances with a win at N.C. State Wednesday night. That's 11 wins in the last 13 games. Plus the schedule is set up to allow the Hokies to build a significant winning streak - at slumping Boston College, Georgia Tech and Maryland at home, at Virginia and at Wake Forest.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Virginia Tech could be riding a seven-game winning streak and be 20-6 (10-3) when Duke visits Blacksburg on Feb. 26.

In fact, Virginia Tech's prospects are so good, I would have included them among the safe teams (along with FSU) if it weren't for one worrisome number - the Hokies' RPI.

Time out for a rant: Anybody and everybody who follows basketball closely understands what a flawed measure that the RPI is. Most educated fans prefer Ken Pomeroy's ratings … or even the Sagarin rankings.

But, unfortunately, the RPI remains the touchstone of the NCAA Selection Committee. Yes, they look at other computer polls, but participants in the NCAA-sponsored mock drafts have reported that RPI measures are (to use Ken Pomeroy's memorable phrase) "burned into the computers of the committee members". It's almost always the first and last numbers they look at when evaluating a team.

Historically, RPI ranking has been the best guide to the selection committee's actions. Actually, the human polls - the AP and the USA Today/ESPN rankings - are better guides to seeding, but since those polls only include a top 25, they usually have little impact on the crucial selection of the last at-large teams. Keep in mind that with 31 automatic qualifiers, there are now 37 (up from 34) at large selections. Since a number of those 31 automatics are legitimately top teams (for instance, if Duke wins the ACC or Ohio State the Big Ten) the committee usually ends up dipping into the low-to-mid 40s in the RPI for its final at large teams.

Now, they don't always follow the RPI rankings exactly, but they usually stick pretty close. When you see a real stretch - such as No. 77 New Mexico a decade ago - you can be pretty sure that that school is represented on the selection committee. Just for reference, the ACC's only current member of the committee is Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman - and even his presence can't help the dreadful Deacs.

Virginia Tech is currently sitting at No. 60 in the RPI. That's not normally in the at-large range - even with the three extra at-large spots available this season. And even if the Hokies do make it with a number like that, it could mean starting out in one of the new play-in games.

A year ago, Seth Greenberg's team had 23 wins and a 10-6 ACC record on Selection Sunday … and that wasn't enough, thanks to a pitiful schedule. This year, the schedule is better (110th nationally, which is barely in the top third), although so far the Hokies have lost to most of the quality opponents they have faced (Purdue, Kansas State, UNLV). They have decent non-ACC wins over Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.

That might be enough, especially if the Hokies take advantage of their soft upcoming schedule. Pomeroy projects the Hokies at 20-9 (10-6) going into the ACC Tournament. That looks pretty good … although it's not quite as good as they were last year at the same point - and THAT wasn't good enough.

All of that points to the importance of Duke's Feb. 26 visit to Blacksburg. Before the season, when it looked like Duke and Virginia Tech would be 1-2 in the ACC, ESPN picked that Saturday to send its GameDay crew to Blacksburg. Well, the game isn't likely to decide the ACC race, but Virginia Tech has overcome injuries and a rough start (4-4 after eight games) to make themselves relevant again.

A victory over Duke would erase any doubts about Virginia Tech's chances.

Without that win … Greenberg is likely to be sweating Selection Sunday once again.

(2) Clemson (15-7, 4-4 ACC). The Tigers really hurt themselves Wednesday night with that 13-point first half against Virginia. Even though the Tigers fought back and tied the game late, they botched the endgame (Demontez Stitt missing the first of a one-and-one that could have tied the game with 26 seconds left) and took a tough loss on the road.

That's the problem for Clemson. They are winless on the road in the ACC and 1-1 on the road out-of conference (losing at South Carolina, beating only College of Charleston).

The Tigers don't have any bad losses, but they don't have much in the way of quality wins either. And unless Clemson can upset Duke in Cameron - and keep in mind that the Tigers are almost as inept in Durham as they are in Chapel Hill: just 4-58 in Duke's home gyms - there's not a signature win to be had.

However, a homecourt victory over a rising UNC team on Feb. 12 would help. And the Tigers also get Virginia Tech and Boston College in Littlejohn. They could really help themselves at home.

But to really be a viable at-large candidate, Clemson needs to do at least some damage on the road. Other than the Duke visit, the Tigers get games at Georgia Tech, at N.C. State and at Miami. Brad Brownell's team needs at least one of those games - and probably two - on the resume to be a viable at large candidate.

The biggest problem for Clemson is their RPI. Their current spot at No. 75 is a big hurdle to overcome. And it's hard to move an RPI up significantly this late in the season, especially when the ACC offers so few opportunities for big wins.

Clemson could still make it, but that loss at Virginia could come back to haunt them.

(3) Maryland (14-8, 4-4 ACC). It's funny, but while Ken Pomeroy's computer loves the Terps, the RPI doesn't like Maryland at all. Considering the Selection Committee's preference for the inferior RPI, Gary Williams' team would be better off it was the other way around.

Right now, the Terps are at No. 72 in the RPI and that's not in the usual at-large range (even accounting for the expanded NCAA field). But Kenpom rates Maryland at No. 21 and projects a 21-10 record (10-6 ACC) going into the ACC Tournament.

At that level, Maryland might get in - especially since to do that, the Terps would have to finish 7-2 (6-2 ACC). That's a tall order with four ACC road games left, including trips to Virginia Tech (which has already beaten the Terps in Comcast) and North Carolina. Of course, Maryland has been better this season on the road (3-1 in ACC road games) than at home (1-3 vs. the ACC). Maybe home games with N.C. State and Florida State should be the big concern.

At exactly the same moment Wednesday night as Clemson was hurting its NCAA chances with a loss at Virginia, Maryland's hopes suffered a blow with an 18-point loss to Duke in College Park. A victory over the Blue Devils would have lifted the Terps to a level with FSU as a likely NCAA team. The loss leaves them a longshot.

(4) Boston College (14-8, 4-4 ACC).The Eagles are hanging on by a thread after losing three in a row and four of the last five. Two weeks ago, Reggie Jackson looked like an ACC player of the year contender. Now he can't get off the Eagles' bench.

But Boston College is in the exact opposite situation from Maryland and Virginia Tech. Pomeroy has no respect for the Eagles, ranking them as a dismal No. 76. But the RPI loves Steve Donahue's team - they are currently at No. 42.

That shouldn't last. The Eagles still have road games at Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Clemson coming up as well as home games with the Hokies and with Maryland. Pomeroy projects BC to finish 17-13 and 7-9 in the ACC.

That won't get it done, especially with two bad home losses (to Harvard and Yale) on the resume.

It shouldn't be long before the Eagles join the ranks of the non-contenders … if they're not already there.

As the NCAA bubble talk heats up over the next month, please try to keep one salient fact in mind: No team is judged in isolation … only as it relates to everybody else.

For instance, when we start wondering whether Maryland or Virginia Tech is in or out, it's based on more than their own performance. How do they relate to Colorado and Nebraska in the Big 12? To Cincinnati in the Big East? To Georgia and Arkansas in the SEC? How to they relate to the mid-major at-large contenders - St. Mary's and Gonzaga; Butler and UNLV; George Mason and Utah State?

And as usual, conference tournaments will mess everything up. There are sure to be several major upsets. If an N.C. State in the ACC or an Arizona State in the Pac 10 were to win a major conference automatic bid, that would knock an at-large out (and not necessarily from their own conference).

On the other hand, the ACC Tournament could provide a boost to the league's bubble teams, although I've been amazed in recent years how few teams have used the tournament for that purpose in recent years. It almost seems as if the more a team needs a tourney win, the worst they play - example: Virginia Tech a year ago … the Hokies were a clear bubble team, but showed no fire in losing to 12th seeded Miami in the quarterfinals.

Still, the opportunity is there - even Wake Forest could earn a spot with four wins in four days, as unlikely as that is to happen.