clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Time To Look At The Bubble

Things are getting real for several teams.

Syracuse is still on top, but Virginia is hanging around
Syracuse is still on top, but Virginia is hanging around
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Timing is everything.

I love Christmas, but I hate it when radio stations and TV networks start pushing the Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving. Did I say Thanksgiving? I know of one local radio station that went all-Christmas music all the time on the day after Halloween.

I also love NCAA speculation. I know some fans - and many coaches - hate the dreaded "bubble" talk, but I believe it's fun.

Just don't start too early. When I hear bubble talk before Christmas, it drives me crazy … although, I admit that I sometimes slip and join the too early rush to judgment.

This season should serve as a warning not to jump the gun on NCAA talk. Take Virginia - as the old year ended, the Cavs were one of the most disappointing teams in the country. Tony Bennett's club was 9-4, coming off a 35-point loss to a thoroughly mediocre Tennessee team.

If you had caught me at a New Year's Eve party, I'd have labeled Virginia a bubble team … and maybe on the wrong side of the bubble.

Of course, Bennett's team has turned things around in conference play. There's no longer any doubt that Virginia will be in the NCAA Tournament - the only question is whether they'll go in as the ACC regular season champs.

Duke has also turned its season around after a lackluster November/December performance and a 1-2 ACC start. One prominent bracketologist listed Duke as a No. 8 seed after the Clemson loss, but it's now clear that the Devils will be much better than that.

There is still a lot of basketball to be played before selection Sunday, but it's February now and in my mind that's when bubble talk should start. In this situation, Feb. 1 is like Thanksgiving. Once it's past, it's time to start dreaming about the goodies under the Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, there won't be as many goodies for the new 15-team ACC as we once hoped. Last spring, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski predicted that this would be a 10-bid league. While I think he's right in the long term, it ain't happening this season.

How does the ACC stack up with a month before Selection Sunday? Allow me to break the league into four segments:

-- Four teams are NCAA locks. Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and Pitt are playing for seeding.

If the selection were today, Syracuse would be the No. 1 seed in the entire field. However, the Orange face a challenging February schedule, starting with a trip to Pitt on the 12th and followed by games at Duke, at Maryland, at Virginia and at Florida State.

Duke's potential seeding remains fairly wide open. At the moment, the two most prominent bracketologists have Duke listed as a No. 3 seed (Joe Lunardi, ESPN) and as a No. 4 seed (Jerry Palm, CBS).

I usually prefer Palm's projections to Lunardi's guesses, but in this case, I think Lunardi is on the money. If the season ended Friday, I can't see how Duke would be lower than a No. 3 seed. The Devils are No. 8 in the RPI and No. 11 in both human polls. Duke has four top 25 wins, no bad losses - indeed, three of the five losses were to top five teams in the RPI.

Time out for a note about the RPI. I understand that Pomeroy's rating is a better metric (and Duke is No. 2 in his rankings). And I check Sagarin from time to time. But I talk about the flawed RPI because it is far and away the most important of the geek polls as far as the NCAA Selection Committee is concerned. They look at the other polls, yes, but when they sit down to do their work, the RPI is their primary resource.

It's not so much that they say, "Team X is No. 10 in the RPI, that translates to a No. 3 seed". But when they start talking about top 50 wins or "bad losses" (which usually means teams outside the top 150), they're talking about those things measured by the RPI.

So pay attention to the RPI.

On the other hand, there's some evidence that for the very top seeds, the human polls are more important than any geek poll - including the RPI. Just look at last season.

The top four teams in the RPI were (in order): Duke, New Mexico, Louisville and Miami. Just one of those teams (Louisville) got a No. 1 seed. Duke and Miami were No. 2 seeds, while New Mexico was a No. 3 seed.

On the other hand, the top four teams in the final AP poll before the tournament were Gonzaga, Louisville Kansas and Indiana - all were No. 1 seeds. The next four in the poll were Miami, Duke, Ohio State and Georgetown - all were No. 2 seeds.

The poll and the seeds don't always line up so exactly, but the poll rank usually calls Duke on the money. Since 1998, Duke has been a No. 1 seed 10 times and in nine of those times, Duke was also in the top four of the final pre-tourney AP poll. The one exception was 2005, when No. 6 Duke earned a No. 1 seed. There has never been a case when a top four Duke team failed to win a No. 1 seed.

So watch the polls as Duke completes the rest of the season to get a clue to its eventual seed. Right now, a No. 3 seed for a No. 11 ranked team seems right. But Duke has been playing much better since that Clemson loss in early January and has climbed from a low of No. 23 to the current spot at No. 11.

Can Duke be a No. 1 seed?

The Blue Devils have eight games remaining and then the ACC Tournament before Selection Day. I'm not saying they have to win out to get a No. 1 seed, but they must come close. For one thing, they need to beat No. 1 Syracuse in Cameron (and it probably helps if the Orange are still unbeaten at that point). Duke can't afford to lose to any of the non-top 100 teams left on the schedule (Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech). Even more importantly, Duke MUST win the ACC Tournament - Duke has gotten a No. 1 seed only twice since 1998 without winning the tournament (1998 and 2004) - and in both cases, Duke was the regular season champ in what was clearly acknowledged as the strongest conference in America.

The ACC is no longer the top conference and winning the regular season won't have the same weight as it did in 1998 and 2004. Besides, Duke has a better chance of earning a No. 1 seed than the Devils do of being ACC regular season champs.

I'm sure that up in Syracuse, Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, basketball fanatics are making the same kind of calculations. The Orange have the best shot at earning a No. 1 seed, if they can hold their own against the ACC's best teams on the road (they don't have to win them all, but most of them).

It's going to be tough for either Virginia (that poor pre-ACC performance) and Pitt (one of the nation's weakest non-conference schedules) to vie for a No. 1 seed, but both can still earn reasonable high seeds.

In fact, there is one aspect of the season to keep an eye on - the relative rankings of Duke and Virginia. With the NCAA assigning the top seeded teams to the most geographically favorable sites, it's possible that Virginia and Duke could end up vying for a spot in the Raleigh regional.

Ideally, both could play there in different pods, but it's also possible that the choice could come down to one or the other. Under NCAA guidelines, that choice would come down to the one that is seeded highest by the selection committee.


I think it's safe to say that while four ACC teams are locked into the tournament, five more are already locked out.

That's an easy call to make with Miami, which is struggling to say at .500, and for Boston College and Virginia Tech, which have given up the .500 dream long ago.

But it's also true of Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, which go into the weekend with identical records - 12-11 and 3-7 ACC. There is nothing on either resume to suggest an NCAA invite.

Okay, Notre Dame does have a quality victory over Duke, but the Irish (105 in the RPI) have thrown that away with a lackluster conference performance. There's really no way the Irish can turn things around - short of winning the ACC Tournament. They have two more games with North Carolina, but the Tar Heels aren't the heavyweight they once were. Of the ACC's top four teams, Notre Dame gets a home game with Pitt and a road game at Virginia.

That's not going to be enough.


Okay, that leaves six bubble teams - and that's being generous. Taken in order of their chances:

-- North Carolina (15-7, 5-4, No. 36 in the RPI). The Tar Heels are probably going to get in, barring more Miami, Belmont type gaffes. In fact, with their three killer pre-ACC wins (Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville), I'm tempted to include them in the locks.

UNC doesn't have to pull any upsets to get in. Beating Duke or Pitt in Chapel Hill would polish their resume and improve their seed, but they don't have to win either game. As long as they take care of business against the ACC's other lower and middle echelon teams, they're safe.

-- Florida State (14-8, 5-5 ACC, No. 42 RPI). Two weeks ago, I though the Seminoles were safely on track for a bid. Then came back-to-back losses at N.C. State and at home to Clemson.

Neither is a killer, but together, the two losses transformed FSU from a near certainty into a question mark. Lunardi has FSU as a No. 10 seed and lists them as one of the four lowest teams that are not in the Dayton first round. Palm has the 'Noles as a No. 11 seed.

FSU still faces road games at Maryland, at Pitt and at Wake Forest. They get UNC at home and - in the regular season finale - get Syracuse in Tallahassee.

The 'Noles have to win some of those games and take care of business in three games against the also-rans to slip into the field.

As of today, that's the ACC contingent in the NCAA Tournament. But four more teams are clinging to hope:

-- Clemson (15-6, 6-3 ACC, No. 68 RPI). The Tigers are hanging tough, hoping to use their home victory over Duke as a springboard to the NCAA field.

That's the Tigers best win - by far. Their problem is that they have just three top 100 wins - Duke, FSU and Wake Forest. They don't have any really bad losses - at No. 148 Auburn is the biggest blemish on the schedule.

Clemson is starting a stretch of four road games over the next six games, starting with Sunday's game at Syracuse. They do get Pitt and Virginia at home. If the Tigers can hold serve in Littlejohn, and get a couple on the road, they could get to 12-13 ACC wins and that might be enough.

Lunardi currently lists Clemson as one of his first four out. One warning - the NCAA has severely punished teams in the past for playing a weak non-conference schedule. Clemson's non-conference SOS is a dreadful 301st in the country. That's what makes them a long shot.

-- N.C. State (14-8, 4-5 ACC, No. 59 RPI). Hard to believe the Pack has a better RPI than Clemson. But that and a head-to-head victory over the Tigers, has to at least put N.C. State in the conversation.

Of course, the RPI doesn't measure margin of victory and the ugliest thing about N.C. State this season is the number of lopsided - and downright ugly - losses the Pack has suffered. But only one of those losses (an early season overtime loss to No. 138 NCCU) is a bad one and the Pack does have four top 100 wins (one more than Clemson).

Don't get me wrong. I don't like N.C. State's chances. Just saying that if they got on a hot streak, it's possible.

But with upcoming games at Syracuse, at Clemson and at Pitt, it's going to be tough.

-- Maryland (13-10, 5-5 ACC, No. 78 RPI). Look, I said I was being generous here. The Big Ten bound Terps are going to be lucky to get in the NIT.

To stay in the NCAA conversation, Maryland needs to win back-to-back road games at Virginia and Duke next week, then use the momentum of those wins to knock off Syracuse in Comcast on Feb. 24.

If and when that happens, then Maryland joins the conversation.

-- Wake Forest (14-9, 4-6 ACC, No. 79 RPI). To be honest, Wake Forest's NCAA chances probably died when they lost at home to Georgia Tech last weekend.

The Deacons' slim, slim NCAA hopes were built around a good homecourt record and the chance to pull off a couple of big upsets in Lawrence Joel. But the Syracuse upset didn't happen and the earlier UNC upset isn't as big a deal as it normally would have been.

The Duke loss earlier this week was the start of a stretch of four road games in five games that will almost certainly squash any hopes the Deacons have of making an NCAA run.

In fact, I think I would characterize Tuesday's Wake at NC State game as an NCAA elimination game for the loser - although the Pack could already by eliminated Saturday at Miami.