Teel Time: Expanded ACC could be relegated to five NCAA bids

Six of the ACC’s eight basketball teams reached the NCAA tournament in 1986, unsurpassed depth and representation that the league repeated in three subsequent seasons. This year, the conference might well send only five of its 15 teams to the tournament, a jarring disappointment following the fanfare that greeted its offseason expansion.

Not that the ACC was unwise to grow from 12 to 15 by adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Indeed, had the Fighting Irish not lost top scorer Jerian Grant last month to an academic suspension, all three would likely be NCAA-bound.

And not that March is sure to ring hollow for the league. Undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse, plus Virginia and Duke have Final Four potential. Not to mention North Carolina, which has regained the early-season form that produced marquee conquests of Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State.

But the remainder of the ACC has struggled, none capable of proving itself NCAA-worthy. Perhaps North Carolina State, Florida State, Maryland and/or Clemson can change the equation, but with Selection Sunday less than a month away, time is a wastin’.

With nonconference victories over the Atlantic 10’s VCU and Massachusetts, Florida State was poised to make a strong NCAA case. But the Seminoles have dropped seven of their last 10, including an 81-75 home loss to North Carolina on Monday in which they squandered a 15-point, first-half lead.

By the way, don’t be surprised if the A-10 matches or exceeds the ACC’s tournament bids. Saint Louis, UMass, VCU, George Washington, Richmond and Saint Joseph’s give the Newport News-based league six teams among the top 43 in the Rating Percentage Index used by the NCAA selection committee.

Richmond continues to play well, despite losing top scorer Cedrick Lindsay to a season-ending knee injury earlier this month, a credit to coach Chris Mooney, his players and staff. The Spiders had won three straight before Tuesday's loss to George Washington.

Back in the ACC, some are wondering whether a 1-6 record against the RPI’s top 50 and a non-conference schedule ranking of 219 endangers Pitt (20-6, 8-5). I can’t imagine.

Ranked 32nd in the RPI released by the NCAA on Monday, the Panthers are undefeated against opponents ranked 51-100, have no head-scratching defeats and twice took Syracuse to the wire. Book Pitt for its 12th tournament appearance in the last 13 years.

N.C. State, Florida State, Maryland and Clemson are Nos. 51, 61, 68 and 78 on the NCAA’s RPI — ESPN’s daily update differs slightly — a range that history says makes their chances for an at-large bid unlikely at best.

Here’s a breakdown of the foursome.

N.C. STATE (16-10, 6-7)

Case for: The Wolfpack won at Tennessee, boast an overall schedule strength of 21 and lost by a point at Syracuse on Saturday.

Case against: State is 0-7 versus the top 50, lost to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference leader North Carolina Central at home and played poorly in Tuesday's defeat at Clemson.

Must win: Feb. 26 at home against North Carolina.

FLORIDA STATE (15-11, 6-8)

Case for: The selection committee values performance away from home, and none of the Seminoles’ three best wins — VCU, UMass and Clemson — came in Tallahassee.

Case against: Yes, leading scorer Ian Miller missed most of a home loss to Clemson and all of a road setback at Maryland with an ankle sprain. But he returned and played 34 minutes in an unsightly home defeat to Miami.

Must win: Sunday at Pitt, or March 9 against visiting Syracuse.

MARYLAND (15-12, 7-7)

Case for: The Terps’ non-conference schedule is ranked 20th, and they defeated Providence on a neutral floor and Florida State at home.

Case against: Saturday’s excruciating loss at Duke leaves Maryland 0-8 versus the top 50, 2-12 against the top 100 and 0-7 against the top 100 on the road.

Must wins: Monday against Syracuse and March 9 versus Virginia, both at home, the latter the final ACC game on the College Park campus and a serious challenge for the Cavaliers.

CLEMSON (16-9, 7-6)

Case for: The Tigers defeated Duke at home and Florida State on the road and defend like few others. They rebounded from Saturday's home setback to Virginia with a solid victory over N.C. State on Tuesday.

Case against: A non-conference schedule strength of 269, which includes a loss at Auburn, will doom Clemson absent a late run.

Must wins: The Tigers close the regular season with three consecutive home dates, versus Maryland, Miami and Pitt.

In short, this is not what ACC coaches had in mind when they trumpeted the expanded league as one that could earn 8-10 NCAA bids, or even match the Big East’s record 11 in 2011.

"I think what (expansion) does for the conference is awesome," Miami coach Jim Larranaga said in October. "I think it gives us a chance to have double-digit at-large berths."

Four at-large and five total do not approach that potential.

But if you think this is grim, check out the 14-team Southeastern Conference, where only Florida and Kentucky have secured their NCAA tournament bids.

I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.

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