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Special to the ACC.com by ACCDN Guest Reporter Jacob Dennis
By early March, most of college basketball knows its destination; either teams are preparing to make a run in the NCAA Tournament or they’re resigned to the fact that they won’t get to go dancing. For a select few “bubble teams,” the work of an entire season depends solely upon a good performance in conference tournament play. In the ACC, there are two teams for whom the tag “bubble team” can be applied: Miami and Pittsburgh. There is another team, NC State, that could fall back onto the bubble with an early loss. Each team has different odds of advancing to the NCAA tournament, as the Wolfpack seem squarely in the field, while Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in. Here are my takes on how this week in Greensboro will ultimately determine the fate of the bubble teams.
Miami is currently listed as the top team in Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out,” meaning that the ‘Canes wouldn’t make it to the Big Dance if the teams were selected today. Every year, the bubble shrinks when an unforeseen conference champion earns an automatic bid to the tournament, stealing an at-large spot from teams like the Hurricanes. What this means is that Miami cannot afford a loss to 14 seed Virginia Tech. Such a loss would eliminate any chance the team has of earning an at-large bid. Furthermore, a win against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals might also be required of Miami, since a win over a team like the Hokies isn’t a mark that will impress the tournament committee.
Miami currently has a BPI of 47 and an RPI of 60, numbers that aren’t particularly convincing when it comes to evaluating the tournament field. The ‘Canes do, however, have a win on the road against Duke that could push the Hurricanes over the edge should they make a run this week in Greensboro. Miami transforms into a really solid basketball team when Angel Rodriguez is playing well, something that the ‘Canes will undoubtedly need to make the NCAA Tournament. In the team’s January 13 win against Duke, Rodriguez scored 24 points, while grabbing five boards and dishing out four assists to go along with five steals.
For much of the season, Duke wasn’t the only quality win that the Hurricanes possessed. The ‘Canes managed to beat eighth-ranked Florida back in November in Gainesville, a win that seemed certain to put Miami in the tournament field until the Gators stumbled their way to a 15-16 regular season record. In that matchup against the Gators, Rodriguez scored 24 more points, adding three assists and three steals. There is a direct correlation between the success of Miami and the play of Angel Rodriguez, and the team needs him to be healthy and effective this week in order to perform at the highest level. Rodriguez is currently questionable for Wednesday night’s game against Virginia Tech with a wrist injury. While the ‘Canes certainly could survive the Hokies without Rodriguez, saying that the team has a chance against Notre Dame without the junior transfer is a bit of a stretch.
For Pittsburgh, an 0-3 record in ACC play this month is a mark that has all but staggered the Panthers’ chance to make the NCAA Tournament. Realistically speaking, Pitt would need to win at least two games in Greensboro to push themselves back into the tournament conversation, meaning that wins over NC State and Duke are required.
The Panthers currently have an RPI of 65 and a BPI of 82, numbers that must be improved upon for Pitt to have any realistic shot of extending its season. The team’s best win came over twelfth-ranked UNC on February 14, but since then Jamie Dixon’s squad has dropped four of six. In the Panthers’ win over the Tar Heels, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter, James Robinson and Chris Jones each hit four 3-pointers, as the team shot a scorching 53.3% from distance en route to scoring 89 points. The Panthers haven’t been particularly consistent in any facet of the game this season, as the team ranks outside the top 100 in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. Scoring leaders Artis and Michael Young must lead Pitt to an improved overall performance to charge into the weekend and potentially re-enter the tournament conversation.
On a different note, NC State is currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament field, but must avoid an opening game loss in order to prevent questions about their résumé from arising. Joe Lunardi has the Wolfpack as the ninth seed in the Midwest Region, affirming the fact that team’s RPI of 44 is good enough to punch a ticket to the dance. The Pack owns quality wins over Duke, Louisville and North Carolina, and a Wednesday night win would solidify the team’s spot in the tournament field.
Assuming NC State advances to face Duke on Thursday, the team can begin to focus on improving its seeding for the Big Dance. Should the Wolfpack beat Duke, a feat that the team has already accomplished once this season, it’s realistic to think that State could potentially move up to a seven or even a six seed in Lunardi’s projection.
I think NC State passes the all-important “eye test;” the Wolfpack seem like a team that can make a run in not only the ACC Tournament, but also the NCAA Tournament. Look for State to improve its tournament seeding this week in Greensboro.