Saturday, February 16, 2008

It’s the time of year — one month out from Selection Sunday — when it becomes obvious those in college basketball need a remedial course in how the NCAA tournament is selected.

Teams earn postseason berths, not conferences.

But don’t tell that to a coach residing in a conference ranked No. 1 in the RPI whose team is scrambling for an NCAA invite.

“Everybody has their opinion,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terrapins (16-9, 6-4 ACC) meet Florida State (14-11, 3-7) today at Comcast Center. “Everybody takes their normal shots at the ACC every year. That’s just the way it’s been because the ACC has won more tournament games in the last 20 years, won more national championships than any other league.”

Williams is not spouting off revisionist history, since his league does own six national titles since 1991.

Still, past performance means nothing in the hunt for postseason invitations, so teams remain on their own to etch out appealing resumes for the tournament selection committee.

And in this year’s ACC, it isn’t an easy task.

It is a season shaping up to resemble 1998-99, when three schools — Duke, Maryland and North Carolina — combined to go 33-3 against league competition. The conference ranked second in the country, but only the three powers earned bids.

Duke and North Carolina are the year’s dominant teams, stitching together a gaudy 17-1 record against the rest of the ACC. And with two top-five teams lording over everyone else, it’s tempting to give the pair of powerhouses credit for the conference’s No. 1 overall ranking.

But that’s not entirely true.

“League rankings are about the bottom of your league more than the top in the major conferences,” said Jerry Palm, who operates “A low ranking doesn’t mean the good teams are bad. It means the bad teams are bad.”

And ultimately, the ACC’s struggling schools remain better than the sluggards in the other power conferences. Only two conference teams have losing records entering the weekend, and both Georgia Tech (against Notre Dame) and Virginia (at Arizona) have upended teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI.

It’s a substantially better record than the Big Ten, which has only five schools in the top 100 of the RPI. Or the Big 12, which has a full third of its membership anchored in triple digits.

Even the redoubtable Pac-10, which might have the most convincing case this season as the nation’s most stacked league, has woeful Oregon State (6-18) acting as an RPI sinkhole and dropping the conference to No. 3 overall.

But while the ACC is free of abysmal programs, it doesn’t mean there is a surplus of tournament-worthy teams within its membership, either.

Clemson (18-6, 6-4 ACC) is probably in the best shape of anyone besides the two Tobacco Road titans atop the league. Maryland’s resume is rich in work away from home (4-2 in true road games) and solid play of late (10-3 since Christmas).

Beyond that, there are question marks.

Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are .500 in the league, but both have modest nonconference credentials. N.C. State, considered in the preseason a possible league contender, is 2-7 in road games. And Miami has followed a 14-1 start with six losses in eight games.

Much of the Terps’ remaining schedule includes games against teams in the midpack scrum. After today’s game, Maryland meets Virginia Tech on Wednesday before a road swing to Miami and Wake Forest.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” guard Eric Hayes said. “We have two games in a row at home. They’re good games for us. If we can get those two, we’ll be sitting pretty good going into the last four games.”

It’s a significant if. Palm said the Terps “are a bad week from falling right off” the tournament field and that home losses would be particularly hazardous.

But if Maryland can rattle off another winning streak, it would probably be enough to make the Terps a much safer NCAA bet.

“You can’t say for certain because no team exists in a vacuum, but if Maryland is 4-2 [down the stretch] and 10-6 in the league, you’d have to really like their chances at that point,” Palm said.

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