College Basketball

Let the NCAA tournament bracket games begin

Duke’s Grayson Allen takes on the Miami defense during the first half at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fl.
Duke’s Grayson Allen takes on the Miami defense during the first half at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fl. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Selection Sunday is less than four weeks away, which means bracket season is fully upon the college basketball world. Some might argue it began in November, though there was absurdly little data to work with at the time.

Not so anymore. At this stage of the season, it’s reasonable to guess at nearly any team’s fate for inclusion in the NCAA tournament without issuing too many qualifying statements.

In the ACC, five teams appear to be in excellent shape and one more has solidified its standing in recent weeks. Meanwhile, three others find themselves in more precarious straits with fewer than 10 games left in the season.

Miami, North Carolina and Virginia possess such exceptional profiles that the unlikely event of losing out probably wouldn’t cost them an NCAA bid. Both Duke and Notre Dame are nearing that point as well, and while their overall resumes aren’t as strong as the league’s top three teams, they appear likely to wear home jerseys in their first tournament game.

Syracuse (18-8, 8-5 ACC) is nearly done with the bottom third of the conference, so it might sputter a bit after winning eight of its last nine. Nonetheless, the Orange doesn’t have much too much work left to assure itself a return to the tournament after a one-year hiatus.

That leaves three teams in less stable situations, and how they fare over the next month will dictate just how well-represented the ACC will be in the field of 68.

Pittsburgh (17-7, 6-6): The Panthers are perfectly benign, with an unremarkable top-50 record (2-5), an unoffensive record away from home (4-4) and only one borderline questionable result (a Jan. 19 home loss to N.C. State). The schedule works in favor of Jamie Dixon’s team; it still gets games against Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, and its two most imposing remaining opponents (Duke and Louisville) visit the Steel City.

Florida State (16-9, 6-7): The Seminoles have no poor losses and are plenty competent away from Tallahassee (8-6). They could use a little more heft at the top of their profile (2-7 against the top 50 entering Tuesday) and will get the chance to add to their resume while closing the regular season against Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse. They’d be wise to knock off Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech this week.

Clemson (15-10, 8-5): The Tigers are going to have trouble slipping into the field if they’re a borderline candidate thanks to a dreadful nonconference schedule ranked 328th nationally by the NCAA’s RPI formula. Losses to Virginia Tech, Massachusetts and Minnesota harm Clemson’s hopes, too. The remaining schedule (two games against Boston College, trips to Georgia Tech and N.C. State and a home game against Virginia) is both good and bad. If Clemson finishes strong (as it should), it won’t gain much. And if it loses to an also-ran or two, its postseason profile will take another serious hit.

Trivia

Duke returned to the national rankings this week, just days ahead of its first meeting of the season with North Carolina. When was the last time the Blue Devils met the Tar Heels as an unranked team?

Schedule issues for Louisville

When Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban earlier this month, the Cardinals immediately pointed to finishing first in the ACC’s regular season standings as a remaining target. But after throttling Boston College, Rick Pitino’s team fell last week at Duke and Notre Dame.

It won’t get any easier for the Cardinals (19-6, 8-4), who have only one remaining game left against a team below .500 in the ACC. Until that March 1 game against Georgia Tech, Louisville faces Syracuse and Duke at home, and Pittsburgh and Miami on the road.

It’s a remarkably similar problem to the one Syracuse encountered last season both before and after it announced a one-year postseason ban.

The Orange was 6-3 in the ACC at the time of the sanction but had played only two league games against eventual NCAA tournament teams. Six of Syracuse’s last seven opponents would go on to reach the tournament, and the Orange went 2-4 in those games en route to a 9-9 finish in the league.

Answer

The last time Duke faced North Carolina as an unranked team was March 3, 1996, when the Blue Devils fell to No. 19 North Carolina 84-78 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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