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Bubble Watch: Predicting Which ACC Teams Make The NCAA Tournament

There are only about a half dozen games left in the season for most college basketball teams, including our new friends in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

So with the season winding down and ‘bubble watch’ officially upon us, my colleague and fellow basketball fiend Alex Dunbar from engaged me in a bit of back and forth about the NCAA Tournament prospects of each ACC squad.

*Records and rankings as of February 16

Syracuse (25-0, 12-0 in ACC play) RPI #3

Alex - This one is easy right now. If the tournament started today, SU would almost certainly be the #1 overall seed. The Orange have some tough games coming up (on the road against Duke and Virginia) but even if they lose multiple games it's hard to imagine the Orange falling below a #2 seed. Probably best to just move on before I jinx anything.

Jeremy - Done and done. SU could lose another center this week and still be a #1 seed. Actually, forget I said that.

Duke (20-5, 9-3 ACC) RPI #8

Jeremy - I can hear the groans from Virginia fans now, but just look at Duke's strength of schedule. They have the 6th toughest slate in the country, and three of their losses - Kansas, Arizona, Syracuse - were to top 5 teams (at the time they played). Now that Sulaimon is back on track, and Parker has shaken his minor freshman slump, I think the Blue Devils are deserving of at least a #2 seed. They could possibly sneak into a #1 if a couple of teams ahead of them stumble.

Alex - Duke has a strange tournament resume. Great RPI, Great strength of schedule and #1 seed level talent...but also have two terrible losses to Notre Dame (RPI #112) and Clemson (RPI #71 and falling). The Blue Devils profile looks more like a #2/ #3 to me. SU, Kansas, Arizona and Florida have stronger profiles right now. I would even consider Villanova over them. Duke does have a favorable schedule moving forward.

Virginia (21-5, 12-1 ACC) RPI #18

Alex - I've been dreading this one. Virginia's RPI is inflated and right now the Cavaliers only have four true quality wins. Home and away wins over Florida State, a nice home win over North Carolina and a road win over a suspicious Pitt team (more on Pitt later). Losses to mediocre Wisconsin Green Bay and overrated Virginia Commonwealth may be a sign of things to come. Virginia looks like a #5/ #6 seed to me. (pencil them in to be upset by a #12 seed if they get a #5)

(Tuesday night update - some UVA fans pointed out that I did not include Southern Methodist as a quality win. SMU is another mystery wrapped in an enigma but those fans are correct and under the criteria I was using, SMU should count as a quality win. This would bolster UVA's case somewhat and I concede that UVA is probably a decent #4 seed.)

Jeremy - Virginia might be the toughest call of the entire league. They simply haven't played enough top tier teams to get an accurate read on how good they are. They have five games all season against top 25 teams, and have lost three of them. Their home matchup with Syracuse at the end of the year looms large for them. Win that, and the Cavs could win the ACC and end up as high as a #3 seed. Lose it, and I think you're right, they drop down to somewhere around #6.

Pittsburgh (20-6, 8-5 ACC) RPI #30

Jeremy - Pitt is one of those teams that beats the teams it should beat, and loses to everyone else. Their five losses have come to Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, Cincinnati and North Carolina, which is no real shame. But they also struggled to beat Virginia Tech in double overtime not long ago. Pitt's tourney resume is spotty at best - they seem to me to be the type of team that flames out in the round of 32 no matter their seed. That shouldn't matter, but it does to me. I can't put them any higher than a #5 right now.

Alex - Pitt will finish the season without a true quality road win and have a flat out shaky resume. The Panthers’ only road "highlights" would be a neutral-site win over Stanford and a victory over a bubble-licious Maryland team at Maryland. Pitt looks like a #7 seed to me (with a good chance to be a bubble team.) If they make the tournament, I could see them making a "surprise" early exit that would not be a surprise to anyone who watched them play on the road.

North Carolina (17-7, 7-4 in ACC play) RPI #36

Alex - North Carolina wins my "Nobody Knows Anything" Award. Bad losses to UAB (RPI #173!!!) and Miami are somewhat offset by good wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Pitt and at Michigan State. I think the Tar Heels are trending up at this point. If this was Selection Sunday, they would probably be a soft #7 seed. Going up to a #5 or #6 by the end of the season is a real possibility but a few shaky losses would put them right back on the bubble.

Jeremy - If you bet on North Carolina games, you're either insane or a gambling addict. There's simply no way to predict how well this team will play from half to half, let alone game to game or week to week. However, I think you're right. They are on a bit of a roll right now, winning five in a row and six of seven (losing only to Virginia) since SU kicked the crap out of them a month ago. They could be one of those teams that no one wants to play in March. They could also be a first round washout and no one would bat an eyelash. I'd give them a 7 or 8 seed if the season ended today, but keep in mind they still have both Duke games left on their schedule.

Clemson (15-9, 6-6 ACC) RPI #71

Jeremy - Now we're starting to get into the mucky middle of the conference. I really don't know what to make of Clemson. They sure as hell didn't impress me in their ho-hum loss to SU. They have just one win vs. a top 25 team, home vs. Duke a month ago. Given the way Duke has been playing lately, I'd expect the Devils to win a rematch handily. They're literally one of the worst scoring teams in the country, and have exactly one player (K.J. McDaniels) averaging double figures. I think they get in the tourney, but I would put them at a 9 or 10 seed and tell them to hope for the best.

Alex - You're a little more optimistic about Clemson that I am. That RPI number is brutal and at this point, Duke is the Tigers only top 60 win. Clemson will have plenty of chances to play their way into the tournament but I think they are solidly on the wrong side of the bubble right now.

Florida State (15-10, 6-7 ACC) RPI #64

Alex - I would actually put Florida State in before Clemson. Florida State's profile is obviously pretty weak but I like the wins over UMass and VA Commonwealth. If the Seminoles can stop the bleeding (losing five out of their last seven) their RPI would go up pretty quickly. Keep in mind, Florida State lost to Michigan and Florida by a combined three points in October.

Jeremy - Now that I think of it, you're probably right. Florida State should get in before Clemson. They've played a decent schedule (SOS #43), and I think the losses to Michigan and Florida look better by the day. They definitely do have to turn things around, and quickly. But they're another one of those teams you don't want to play early on in a tournament setting. Their slow pace and tough defensive style could make life miserable for someone on the first weekend. I could see them barely getting in and played in the 'first round' in Dayton.

North Carolina State (16-9, 6-6 ACC) RPI #59

Jeremy - How did a team in a major conference like the ACC go this far into the season without playing anyone ranked in the top 20? NC State has lost to Missouri and Duke, which were #25 and #23 in the country respectively at the time they played. That's it for ranked opponents. Yet somehow their strength of schedule is a reasonable 46, which I suppose speaks to the overall depth of the league. Their visit to the Carrier Dome on Saturday may have been their best and last chance to impress the committee with a big time win - which they gagged away in legendary fashion.

Alex - The crazy finish at Carrier Dome will haunt North Carolina State. The Wolfpack desperately needed a signature win and let it slip through their fingers like an overtalkative James Bond villain. They have a relatively soft schedule to finish the regular season and still have a chance but at this point, I just don't see how they get in. N.C. State is decent enough but nothing about their work so far is tournament worthy. N.C. State's recent tradition of consistent mediocrity is holding strong.

Maryland 14-12 (6-7 in ACC play) RPI 74

Alex - I take back all the mean things I said about N.C. State. They look like 1990 UNLV compared to Maryland. The Terrapins pulled the old "play good teams, get your butt kicked but take the RPI boost" trick for all it was worth. Of Maryland's remain five games, three are against Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia. Realistically, they need to win at least two of those to stay in the conversation. Get ready for some "Maryland needs to go on a deep run in their last ACC Tournament" type stuff from color commentators.

Jeremy - You spent more time on Maryland than I would have. They made a good showing at Duke on Saturday, and probably should have won the game. But they didn't, and probably blew any chance of getting into the NCAAs. I guess they can get an early start on moving to the Big Ten, huh?


Bringing up the rear in the "No chance in hell" portion of the league are Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College. The only way any of these schools are going to make it to the NCAA Tournament is to win the ACC Tournament, which is only slightly more likely than Syracuse going back to the Big East.

So by my count, Alex and I have five ACC teams definitely in (Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh, North Carolina) and four more on the bubble (Clemson, North Carolina State, Florida State, Maryland). What do you think? Agree or disagree?