They’re in. They’re out.
They’re soft. They’re stout.
They’re on the bubble, they’re off the bubble.
They’re home free, they’re in bracket trouble.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament fate of N.C. State reads like a Dr. Seuss verse. Every time the Wolfpack takes one step toward what coach Mark Gottfried calls “The Greatest Show on Earth,” it inevitably takes one step back.
Saturday’s 79-63 loss at Boston College, which entered the game with one ACC win and alone in last place of the conference standings, is the latest setback for the Wolfpack (17-12, 8-8).
Up and down the Wolfpack’s season continues to go. A poor loss at Wake Forest is followed by an unexpected win at Louisville. An upset at North Carolina is followed by a pratfall at Boston College.
Twenty-nine games into the season, and two weeks until Selection Sunday, N.C. State still isn’t quite sure who N.C. State is.
“We have proven on certain nights we’re as good as anybody in the country,” Gottfried said. “On other nights, we haven’t been.”
Just as Tuesday’s win at UNC didn’t make the Wolfpack a lock for the 68-team NCAA field, Saturday’s loss at Boston College didn’t knock them out of the picture.
This is for certain: 36 teams will be on the final at-large board. Each team at the end of the list will have its own issues.
The Wolfpack, back on the bubble after Saturday’s loss, is no exception, but it has two important factors working in its favor: quality wins and strength of schedule.
Good wins – three really good ones in N.C. State’s case – always count more than bad losses.
For N.C. State, wins against Duke (No. 5 in the Ratings Percentage Index), UNC (No. 13) and Louisville (No. 16) give it an advantage over just about every other team on the bubble.
Brigham Young, for example, knocked off Gonzaga (No. 8 in the RPI) on the road Saturday night. That’s the Cougars’ only win vs. a team ranked among the RPI top 50.
How the selection committee uses the RPI has evolved. Teams don’t just get in based on their ranking; in that case, Boise State (28) or Tulsa (30), would be way ahead of N.C. State (55) or Purdue (57).
Rather, the RPI is used to measure the strength of wins. How many wins does a team have vs. the top 25? The top 50? The top 100?
In addition to its three top-25 wins, N.C. State has five against the top 50 and seven against the top 100.
Remember, the committee compares teams by putting them on a board and looking at their key numbers.
Tulsa has more wins (21) than N.C. State but none against teams in RPI’s top 25. Texas has a better RPI than N.C. State (49) but only four of its 17 wins are against the top 100.
Strength of schedule
The selection committee uses two numbers to compare strength of schedule – one for all games played and one for nonconference games.
The nonconference rank has more weight because it is the games a team controls on its schedule. On both fronts, N.C. State has strong numbers.
The Wolfpack’s overall strength of schedule ranks third in the country and its nonconference schedule is ranked No. 28. Strength of schedule is one of the main reasons N.C. State earned at-large bids in 2012 and 2014.
Gottfried learned the value of scheduling early in his career when one of his first Alabama teams was left out.
It’s also one of the tricks he picked up from his mentor, Jim Harrick. Gottfried was an assistant to Harrick at UCLA during the 1990s. The career achievement for Harrick, who was at Saturday’s game at Boston College, is winning the national title in 1995 with UCLA, but getting Georgia – with a 16-14 record – into the tournament field in 2001 is also a piece of bracketology lore.
If you look at some of the other teams on the bubble, and in the top 100 of the RPI, you’ll notice quite a few – Boise State (28), Wofford (51), Louisiana Tech (56), Purdue (57), Richmond (64) – from N.C. State’s schedule.
ACC bubble brethren Miami (No. 199) and Pittsburgh (No. 117) have more overall wins than N.C. State – and Miami beat N.C. State head-to-head – but both compare poorly to the Wolfpack because of their respective nonconference schedule ranks.
Whose bubble will pop?
Five spots for 15 teams, a comparison of teams at the end of the at-large board:
Wins vs. RPI
Source: Jerry Palm, CBS Sports
Note: Records through Saturday’s game and only include results vs. Division I opponents.