Handicapping the Early Race For At-Large ACC Bids

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 15th, 2016

The conversation about the ACC potentially placing a record number of teams in the NCAA Tournament has already started. There are currently 11 ACC teams among the RPI top 70, and that number excludes two more quality teams that have played weaker schedules to date in Syracuse and Miami (FL). Using an expected RPI calculation (per RPIforecast.com), 13 of the ACC’s 15 teams are projected to finish the season among the RPI top 100. With the possible exception of Boston College and its four albatross losses to Nicholls State, Richmond, Harvard and Hartford, the rest of the ACC has yet to remove themselves from at-large contention. North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Virginia and Notre Dame can feel pretty safe about inclusion barring an unprecedented collapse, a rash of injuries or some sort of unanticipated scandal. Georgia Tech is an interesting case with losses to Ohio, Penn State and Tennessee, but it doesn’t seem as if Josh Pastner’s group has enough talent to make a run in conference play. Let’s review the eight teams that fall somewhere in the middle.

The Resume Builders: Florida State, Clemson

Florida State Appears in Good Shape to This Point (USA Today Images)

Florida State Appears in Good Shape to This Point (USA Today Images)

The Seminoles are off to a nice 10-1 start with wins already over Illinois, Minnesota and Florida. On top of that, Florida State is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the ACC’s unbalanced schedule this season. Of the league’s presumptive top four teams, only Duke appears twice on the schedule. If Leonard Hamilton’s bunch can hold serve at home and do no worse than the middle of the pack in conference play, they should be in.

Clemson hit the ground running with early wins over Georgia and Davidson and the Tigers have avoided any ugly losses to date. As most schools drift through exams and the holidays without much of a test, Brad Brownell’s team will do the opposite with upcoming tough games against South Carolina, Alabama and a strong UNC-Wilmington squad. After that stretch, the Tigers will enjoy an even easier conference schedule than Florida State, catching all five of the ACC’s best teams only once this season.

The Toss-Ups: Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh

With no win better than Monmouth to this point, three losses before this weekend’s rivalry game with Georgetown leave the Orange in a tough spot. Even a .500 record in conference play is likely to leave Syracuse with fewer than 20 wins entering the ACC Tournament. Only three teams earned an at-large bid with 19 or fewer victories last season, and one of that trio was Syracuse. If Jim Boeheim’s team doesn’t find its way to a positive ACC record, it will need to notch a handful of impressive wins against the many highly-ranked teams scattered throughout the conference.

Buzz Williams Would Love to Get His Hokies Into the NCAAs in Year Two (USA Today Images)

Buzz Williams Would Love to Get His Hokies Into the NCAAs in Year Three (USA Today Images)

Virginia Tech’s win at Michigan highlights a nice early resume but the Hokies’ overall strength of schedule has been disappointing. Seven of the 12 non-conference games they’ll play before New Year’s Eve will have come against teams ranked 230th or worse, per KenPom. If they are going to stay in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, the Hokies will need to survive a brutal stretch in early January comprised of games at Virginia, at Miami, vs. Virginia, at Pittsburgh and at Louisville. To keep hope alive, Buzz Williams’ team will need to collect at least two (more likely, three) wins over that period.

Pittsburgh can match tough ACC schedules with just about any other team this season. The Panthers will play Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville twice each, and their only meeting with Duke will come at Cameron Indoor Stadium. This should give Kevin Stallings’ team some leeway in its win-loss record, but it leaves the Panthers in the position of needing to absolutely take care of business at home and against weaker ACC foes.

The “Work Left To Do” Crowd: Wake Forest, Miami (FL), NC State

Wake Forest is currently ranked 12th in the RPI thanks to a mostly hollow early schedule. After a pair of tests in the next week (at Xavier, vs. LSU), the Deacs may be able to ride a relatively soft ACC schedule to March bubble status. Danny Manning’s team will only play Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame once each. Compared to what, for example, Pitt will face, Wake Forest has a relative cakewalk. It also means that the Demon Deacons will need to finish 10-8 or better in ACC play to have a reasonable shot at an at-large bid.

For Miami (FL) to receive at-large consideration, the Hurricanes will need to be ACC road warriors. Jim Larranaga’s team faces a similar conference schedule as Wake, avoiding second games against Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame, but their road trips have been clumped on the schedule. Miami in January will face four road games in a five-game stretch and they’ll finish the conference season with three of four away from Coral Gables.

NC State has yet to notch a quality win this season and needed overtime last weekend to eke out a win over Tennessee State. If the Wolfpack can tread water and hang around the 9-9 ACC mark against a schedule that features trips to Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, they’ll at least stay in the conversation long enough to win their way into the Big Dance with a few victories in Brooklyn.

Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

Shane McNichol is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com and has contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *