Commentary: ACC Enters Crunch Time
It's crunch time in the ACC, folks. It's all-out undeclared war in which the victors earn the right to extend their basketball season beyond March 11.
By the time you read this we'll know the results of two crucial Tuesday games having a direct bearing on how many ACC teams get berths in the NCAA and NIT Tournaments. A third Tuesday game should have been an easy win for a team that still has a slim mathematical shot at the postseason. And today three more games will have a similar impact. In other words, the whole midweek ACC schedule has a direct bearing on the ultimate success of 11 conference members. The only reason it isn't 12 teams is because Virginia Tech is idle until a Saturday match with Virginia.
The featured Tuesday match was conference co-leader Virginia at Maryland. On the surface, it appeared that the game was more important to the eighth-place Terrapins. A loss would have buried Maryland even deeper in the lower half of the standings. But Maryland entered the game with a 17-6 overall record, a 13-1 home mark, and a higher RPI rating (as well as a higher Sagarin rating) than the Cavaliers. On the other hand, both the AP and Coaches' polls have higher regard for Virginia. It was a pick 'em game with the winner having more of an inside track to The Big Dance.
Locally the game between the overachieving North Carolina State Wolfpack and the talented but disappointing Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets generated more interest. The loser claimed sole possession of 10th place. The winner moved solidly into the middle of the pack. Tech should have been the odds-on favorite, but State's previous two games saw them knock Virginia Tech and North Carolina out of first place. The fact that they did it to the Hokies on the road made this contest another toss-up.
Wake Forest hosted Winston-Salem State in the other Tuesday game. This one should have been an easy win for the Demon Deacons. But a win only puts off the inevitable loss at Chapel Hill on Saturday. Wake is only three losses away from entering the ACC Tournament with no chance at a postseason other than winning the whole shooting match. Road games against the Tar Heels, Georgia Tech and State should put them in that unenviable position.
The game of the week is Carolina at Duke. The 20-3 Heels are smarting from a major upset at the hands of the Wolfpack. They will be out for blood. Duke (18-5) has been upset in their last two games, including a home loss at the hands of Florida State. The Blue Devils will be pumped to avoid a three-game losing streak, back-to-back home losses, and the humiliation of losing to Carolina at Cameron (or anywhere else). It'll be a no-holds-barred slugfest between the Blue Devils defense and the Tar Heels offense.
Today's No. 2 pairing does everything but guarantee the winner an NCAA berth. Florida State (17-6) is on a three-game roll. Clemson (18-5) owns a three-game losing streak. But Clemson is almost impossible to beat at home unless your name is Duke or North Carolina. This one could be a real barnburner.
Boston College (16-6) should maintain at least a share of first place in the ACC with a road win at Miami (9-14). The Hurricanes have lost six straight and appear headed for the conference cellar. Two more losses and Miami's only chance to play after March 11 will be to win the ACC Tournament. Personally, I think Miami's season is all but done. But I also saw State do a number on Carolina Saturday. Nothing is a given in the wild and wooly ACC.
Depending on how the games work out tonight, Boston College, Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina could all be fighting for a share of first place this coming weekend. The fact that virtually any team can beat any other team on a given night is part of the attraction of the best conference in the country.
It's also part of the reason why the ACC probably won't send more than six teams to the NCAA Tournament despite a CBS Sportsline prediction that no less than eight squads will represent the conference. This is the time of the year when upset after upset relegates several deserving teams to the NIT.
Last year the conference managed only four NCAA bids. Six teams had to settle for a consolation trip to the NIT. I fully expect 10 ACC schools to make it to the postseason again this year. Every squad except for Miami and Wake has a legitimate shot at making it to the NCAA. I just hope that no more than four have to settle for the NIT.
Like I said, it's crunch time in the ACC.
Bruce Williamson is a freelance writer who lives in Cameron.
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