Lean on talent, ACC merits 4 bids

March 12, 2005|By David Steele

WASHINGTON - The question, of course, is how many teams the Atlantic Coast Conference will get into the NCAA tournament. But that can't be answered without an answer to a bigger underlying question:

How much is the selection committee willing to believe the hype?

If it's swallowed whole, pits and all, then the whole conference might get in, from the Big Three (or Big Two and a Half, after Wake Forest's showing last night) down to Virginia. With what it did on back-to-back days at MCI Center, Clemson might get a No. 2 seed.

If the entire watered-down nature of college basketball today is taken into consideration, then at least six teams make the field of 65 - including two that played yesterday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals and one that was, as they say, done at 2 p.m. on the first day in its own back yard.

If, however, the committee prefers to trust its own lyin' eyes, then the conference proclaimed far and wide as the best in America will get four, and like it. Let the fourth be either Georgia Tech or North Carolina State, if you can tell either season-long underachiever apart. Rewarding both - and anyone beyond them - is pushing it too far.

It would be painful to the pride of this conference, as well-earned as that pride may be, to not get that second tier into the field. It would be more painful, however, to have to watch teams ride the coattails of the conference's elite. They'll be carrying the ACC banner, but it'll be hanging pretty low, and a lot of deserving yet lower-wattage teams left on the outside won't exactly be saluting as it goes by.

You know the argument by now, of course: a .500 record, or less, in ACC conference play beats a winning conference mark almost anywhere else. It hasn't been tested that much before - in many a year, the league has been six deep with legitimately scary tournament teams - but it's being tested big-time now. The amount of leash that mushy middle is getting as Selection Sunday approaches is almost unprecedented.

For instance, if Maryland could squeeze in a couple more losses this weekend, would that be enough to knock them out? Well, four in a row hasn't done it yet, if some people are to be believed, including people you'd swear know better.

Meanwhile, how do you gauge North Carolina State's win over Wake Forest last night? Can the committee act as if the dent in the ACC hierarchy didn't owe a lot to Chris Paul's absence, justifiable as it was? Does it negate a season's worth of letdowns by the Wolfpack?

The second game of the first session yesterday put the dilemma on full display: Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech, shaky as heck all year, leading that mediocre second tier with twin 8-8 conference marks that, disturbingly, earned them first-round byes. The Yellow Jackets rolled over the Hokies in the second half and, it would appear, shoved them off the bubble.

Yet it's more of a testament to the lowered standards, as well as the rep the expanded ACC brought into this season, for Georgia Tech to have even been on the bubble with them. Its play was far sloppier than the final score indicates. To his credit, coach Paul Hewitt recognized that politicking for a berth means less than earning one.

"I don't know if we're in it yet," he said. "I know that if we win two more games, we're in for sure."

That's how it should be, but it might not be. It would seem blasphemous for the ACC to get only the Big Three in, but it would be far from indefensible. Georgia Tech is still hoping, even though yesterday gave them consecutive wins for the first time in two months. This makes you worthy of national title competition?

Put the ACC coaches on the committee, of course, and records like Georgia Tech's, Maryland's and North Carolina State's can be explained away. Maybe even Virginia Tech's and Miami's, if you get them on a roll. And, in light of the scare it threw into North Carolina yesterday, put Clemson's in there, too.

Thus, when Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said that "seven or eight" teams could make a case for inclusion, he had more credibility: "If you want a great quality of basketball, yes. If you want the best 65 teams in, yes."

Roy Williams, basking in the glow of his first ACC tournament win as a coach, joined in. "I feel sorry for the teams that are 7-9," he said. "I honestly believe that the 7-9 teams are among the top [65] teams in the country, and they may not get in the tournament."

We can only hope that ... they don't. Chop off the three-headed monster of this year's ACC, and you have the Atlantic-10 or Conference USA, and a 7-9 mark and a first-round tournament loss by double digits wouldn't fly.

If only the rest of the ACC - in fact, all those swooning over America's marquee conference - could adopt Gary Williams' mind-set. After his Terps bottomed out Thursday, he said, "Whatever we are, we are."

This year, the ACC isn't.

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