Bubble Watch: The ACC's List of Maybes Is Shrinking

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps writing off UNC after its 0-3 start was wishful thinking, as the Heels are currently positioned best among the bubble teams to be the last ACC team in, but N.C. State can have a lot to say about that.

In tracking the journey to March Madness, we've operated under the safe assumption that Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, schools with RPIs over 100 and a combined 4-16 ACC record, have basically been playing out the string for weeks now. With the bulk of the league down to 10 or 11 games remaining, it's time to make some more cuts. Notre Dame, Miami, and Maryland probably have as good a chance at hitting the powerball as making the NCAA tournament at this point.

Notre Dame, devastated by the loss of Jerian Grant, has lost two straight to fall to 2-5 in the league and just 11-9 overall. With an official NCAA RPI of 91st and an 0-5 road record, at best the boys from South Bend are NIT bound.

Jim Larrañaga has done yeoman's work to keep a depleted Miami squad afloat in this conversation for as long as he has, and the Canes have a nice road win over North Carolina and nearly knocked off Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, but even with a much easier row to hoe down the stretch--Miami has already played Cuse twice and Duke--there just aren't enough wins left on the schedule to save a team that is 2-5 in league play and only a game over .500 overall. Miami's RPI has plummeted to 88th.

January has been a tough month for the Terps, as they've gone just 2-4 with non-RPI helping home wins over Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. Maryland's RPI has taken a double-digit plunge in just the past week alone, falling to 73rd, and it still has to play at Virginia, Duke, UNC, and Clemson, not to mention Cuse and the Hoos at home. Though the Terps are just a game under .500 in league play at the moment, it's hard to see them getting to .500 with what's left on their slate. Even if a .500 or better record in league play is a magic number, it's probably not enough without an RPI of 50 or better (though there have been notable RPI exceptions, including #63 N.C. State in 2005). As a team with a 2-9 record against the RPI top 100 that counts Providence as their best win, the Terps have a lot of turning it around to do if they are to achieve both important benchmarks.

Our locks remain the same in this snapshot of the tourney picture: Syracuse (#6 RPI), Pittsburgh (#14), Duke (#16), Virginia (#25), and Florida State (#28) are all pretty safe bets considering Oklahoma was the last major conference school with an RPI under 40 to get left out of the dance. And that came in 1994! I could see the Seminoles slumping to an 8-10 league mark but still getting in with an RPI around 40 thanks to quality non-conference wins over VCU and UMass.

If there are six out and five in, that leaves four teams jockeying for what will likely be one or two at-large bids. Having righted the ship a bit with wins over BC and Clemson to get to 2-4 in the league after an 0-3 start, the Heels probably have the inside track of ACC bubble teams thanks to their impressive non-conference wins over Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky. North Carolina's RPI is up to 51st, and the NCAA Tournament Dance Card, a site that has correctly predicted 73 of 74 at-large bids over the past two seasons, has the Heels in at the moment with 97.13% confidence. Yeah. I'm not trying to hear that either.

The Tar Heels have Georgia Tech and Notre Dame on the road and N.C. State and Maryland at home before running into the meat of their league schedule: Duke, Pittsburgh and a trip to FSU in consecutive games. Even just going 4-3 in these games probably keeps them safely in the tournament; something less than that and there may still be work to do. I remain convinced that the Heels only need to finish 8-10 in the league to get a bid due to their brand, especially since the NCAA doesn't seem to care about the flimsy, farcical foundation of said brand.

N.C. State will certainly have opportunities to position itself in front of its rival, starting with a pivotal Wednesday night game against the Seminoles. The Pack then travel to Chapel Hill Saturday. If the Pack can win both, they'll likely be looking down the RPI ladder at UNC. It's definitely make-it-or-break-it time for the Pack if the ACC is only getting six teams in the dance.

However, if the ACC can squeeze seven teams in, the Pack are neck and neck with upstart Wake Forest and probably ahead of Clemson in the conversation. As I have noted ad nauseam, the one-point loss at Wake (where the guy traveled from the three-point line all the way to the basket for the game-winning shot) may ultimately sink this team's tourney boat. The Deacons have an RPI of 59th and enjoy a game lead in the league standings. The Pack, at 67th, are lurking not too far behind RPI-wise and have a chance to square the series when Wake makes its return trip to Raleigh on February 11th. In the meantime, the Deacons have Cuse and Duke sandwiched around Georgia Tech. If Wake goes 1-3 in that stretch while the Pack goes 3-1 in their games against FSU, UNC, Miami, and Wake, then the Pack should leapfrog the Deacs for tourney positioning while simultaneously making the case for the inclusion of seven ACC squads (if we are conceding that UNC is poised to grab the sixth spot over State).

That leaves Clemson. By virtue of their win over Duke and 4-3 mark in conference play, the Tigers remain in the conversation for now. But the computers remain unimpressed; Clemson is 79th in RPI. The Tigers have been blown out of consecutive conference games and are just 2-4 away from Littlejohn. They are going to need a quality road win or two to stay in this conversation, and I don't see it happening.

That loss to Wake, not to mention the one that got away against Missouri, has left the Pack with little margin for error. This article never gets written if the Pack had not found a way to skirt disaster against the Yellow Jackets. The fun thing as a fan is that every game from here on in will have huge meaning...until they don't. Hopefully after this pivotal four-game stretch--two chances at quality wins against teams with solid RPIs, a can't lose game in Miami, and a revenge match with the Deacs--the Pack will live to see another bubble blog post.

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