Wake heads line at nail-biting time Among bubble-riders, 15-12 Deacons occupy singularly iffy spot

March 04, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Of all the teams that sit astride the NCAA basketball tournament's infamous bubble this week, none occupies so precarious a perch as Wake Forest.

That's because with a record of 15-12, the Demon Deacons are fighting history in their bid to land an NCAA berth.

Not since Davidson in 1969 -- when there were a mere 25 teams in the tournament -- has a Division I team received an at-large bid with as few as 15 victories.

Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only 10 teams have gotten in with as few as 16 wins.

Which means the Deacons, who have participated in the last seven NCAA tournaments under coach Dave Odom, almost certainly must win their first-round game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on Friday against Clemson.

And hope 16 is enough.

"Are we a bubble team? I guess so," Odom said yesterday. "I told the team, we're not in. We've got to keep coaching, keep playing. Every possession is important."

Bubble-mania is acute in the ACC, where Duke, North Carolina and Maryland are in and everyone else is posturing for position. It started on Sunday, when Clemson coach Rick Barnes issued this proclamation after a 76-62 win over Georgia Tech: "I think we're in the tournament. If we're not, they shouldn't have it."

Barnes has a good argument. The Tigers are 17-12, have the third-toughest schedule in the nation and a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of 32. Clemson, then, should wind up with the ACC's fourth bid.

But who gets the fifth, or, if there is one, a sixth?

Florida State and Wake Forest appear to be next in line, followed by a distant Georgia Tech. But each bid is fraught with problems.

Florida State (17-12) beat Connecticut and Arizona back in November and December, but lost seven of its last 10 games to disappear from the polls. Wake Forest suffered a frightful, 73-66 loss at Marshall on Dec. 17 and promptly dropped from sight.

Georgia Tech (17-12) padded its record with six home wins against Winthrop, Delaware State, Coastal Carolina, North Texas, Wofford and Georgia Southern. Coach Bobby Cremins has no argument if Tech doesn't go.

Wake Forest, on the other hand, has beaten three nonconference teams that already have qualified for the NCAA tournament in Richmond, Davidson and Radford. Navy might make a fourth. And the Deacons beat Maryland twice.

"I can't speak for the tournament committee," Odom said. "They have to evaluate every team on their own merits. But I think Wake Forest amazingly has put itself into the conversation. I'm not saying we're in the tournament or we're not in the tournament. But I think we're in the conversation."

Might the Deacons get in with a 16-13 record? In 1991, Villanova went in as a ninth seed with a record of 16-14.

Here is a preview of some other decisions the NCAA will have to make by Selection Sunday.

Atlantic 10: This league put five teams into the tournament a year ago, but they combined to win only four games -- two by St. Joseph's. Temple, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are locks this year. Next up are George Washington, which faltered down the stretch; Xavier, which didn't, and Dayton. The conference tournament will tell for these teams.

Big East: After UConn, Syracuse and St. John's, hopefuls include West Virginia and Miami. The Mountaineers appeared to be a lock until a late slide. Depending on how things go at Madison Square Garden starting today, Miami could grab the fourth spot. West Virginia has an RPI of 38 to Miami's 41.

Big Ten: Minnesota reclaimed some of the league's lost prestige with its Final Four run a year ago, when the Big Ten matched the ACC with six tournament teams. Four are locks this year -- Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan.

Despite 20 wins, Iowa is only 66 in RPI and 137 in strength of schedule, hardly imposing numbers. Still, most expect the Hawkeyes to make it. That leaves Indiana -- and Bobby Knight -- on the hot seat. Is it hot enough yet, Bobby?

Big 12: This is another conference that might not get as many bids as it did a year ago (five). After Kansas and Oklahoma State, the choices are Nebraska and Oklahoma. With an abysmal road record, Missouri played its way out of the tournament.

Conference USA: There is a sharp dropoff from the American Division (Cincinnati, UNC-Charlotte, St. Louis) to the National, where Memphis, at 16-10 and 12-4, is the best of the lot. With an RPI of 55 and the 54th-toughest schedule, Memphis is hard on the bubble.

Midwestern Collegiate: Regular-season champion Detroit (25-5) and runner-up Illinois-Chicago (22-6) both were upset in the conference tournament. Now, each has to hope for an at-large bid. The MCC put just one team (Butler, which again won the title last night) in the tournament last year.

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