My apologies for going AWOL this week — I have been working on a big project for weather.com that I really hope you will check out on Tuesday.
When the 2011-12 NCAA Basketball season started, analysts and fans alike looked at the Atlantic Coast Conference and struggled mightily to find more than two teams that would be locks to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Fans of Florida State wondered, “What about us?”
Truthfully, I was confident FSU would be a good team (OK, not this good), and that they would be the third ACC team to enter the Big Dance field. But beyond that, I saw nine bad teams that were going to fight hard just to stay above water.
I was wrong.
Sure, those three teams — Duke, North Carolina and Florida State — are good to go. But there are three more teams that have emerged from the fray, and I’m thinking there will be six ACC teams in the NCAA Tournament this March.
So, who are these six teams?
North Carolina (21-4, 8-2 ACC)
This is a no-brainer, but you already knew that. The No. 5-ranked Tar Heels are tied for first place in the conference with Duke and FSU (keep in mind that FSU is the team that controls their own destiny, since they have wins over Duke and UNC), but four of their final six regular-season games are against teams on my “Super Six” list. Their losses this year have come at the hands of UNLV, Kentucky, FSU, and Duke, who are all ranked in the top-15. They’re definitely in the tournament, possibly as a No. 1 seed.
Duke (21-4, 8-2 ACC)
The Blue Devils are also in the running for a No. 1 seed, and I believe they’ll get it if they can sweep UNC. They’ve already won the game in Chapel Hill, so if they can hold serve in their own arena, they’ll get their sweep. But they may still have to beat Florida State in Tallahassee if they want to win the ACC, and that hasn’t been an easy task in recent years.
Florida State (17-7, 8-2 ACC)
They may be in first place in the ACC, but four of the other five teams on this list have a better overall record. FSU’s biggest conundrum is that they can’t beat bad teams. They’re 4-0 so far against my “Super Six,” but they have losses to Princeton, Clemson and Boston College (and a near-loss to Georgia Tech, at home). Those bad losses may drop the Seminoles when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding, but that may actually be a blessing in disguise — it would force them to play more solid teams in the tourney, which seems to be a recipe for success.
Virginia (19-5, 6-4 ACC)
The Cavaliers proved they could win in a big-game atmosphere on the road, beating NC State 61-60 two weeks ago. They’ve also beaten Miami and Michigan at home. UVA could easily finish the season with 24 or 25 wins, and that’s going to be hard to ignore on Selection Sunday. Could they afford to get one more quality win over UNC or Florida State (who they host back-to-back in a couple of weeks)? Absolutely. But I’m not sure those will be must-win games.
NC State (18-7, 7-3 ACC)
The Wolfpack control their own destiny when it comes to finishing in the top-4 of the ACC standings and earning a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament. Their lone quality victory was a road win at Miami. But they are about to embark on a murderer’s row of games — their next three games are against Duke, FSU and UNC. If they can go 1-2 in those games, I think they’re in. But NC State will need something to point to down the stretch when the selection committee asks them what they’ve done.
Miami (15-8, 6-4 ACC)
The Hurricanes may have the worst overall record on this list, and they may be one of only two teams with four ACC losses on this list, but they are going to rally hard down the stretch. Watch Miami, because they’re going to be lethal in the coming month. After a road game at UNC this week, they’ll host FSU (a game Miami should win), and their toughest game outside of that one is at NC State. I honestly think Miami is a better team than NC State, even if they lost the first time the two teams met. We can sit back and see what happens, but I have a hunch that the ‘Canes are about to make a run, and that win at Duke is going to be all they need to make the NCAA Tournament if they finish strong.