All the hard work, all the tough wins, all the emotions of the last four months will boil down to a seed next Sunday when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. The only opportunity remaining for ACC teams to help their own causes is the conference tournament this weekend.
If precedents and rankings are correct, the outlook for the ACC, the nation’s top-ranked conference according to collegerpi.com, appears favorable. Seven of the 11 teams are in the top 19 in the RPI and two more are in the 50s, generally considered the “bubble” area for teams to make the 64-team field.
“I think some of the teams that don’t have as many wins feel like maybe they can get on a roll and do something special,” Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said of the ACC Tournament, which begins Friday.
Starting at the top, Duke and North Carolina may each be competing for an NCAA No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils won the regular season and ACC Tournament crown each of the previous five years and have received a No. 1 seed the past four seasons. If North Carolina or Duke were to win the conference tournament, especially with the ACC deeper than it has been in years past, a top seed would be likely.
“This year, Carolina feels that they need to win the tourney to get a No. 1 seed,” Goestenkors said. “We want to make sure we solidify a No. 1 seed. We feel we need to win this tournament to make sure, to leave no doubt.”
Beyond seeding, an important implication of this weekend’s games is the location for the teams’ first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. North Carolina hosts Round 1 and 2 for eight of teams at the Dean Smith Center. Because the women’s tournament has adopted the “pod” format, which attempts to keep high-seeded teams close to home, it is possible for both Duke and UNC to play their games in Chapel Hill, regardless of seeding.
“Playing at home is a tremendous advantage,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Hopefully we can get a couple of ACC teams in here, and that will help our conference do even better.”
Even though it would be in Chapel Hill, Goestenkors considers playing the first two rounds eight miles from home to be a major advantage.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to play close to home, you want to fight for it,” she said. “We’ve already played over there, and we’d have the opportunity to still sleep in our own beds and not have to travel far.”
For the other five teams—N.C. State, Florida State, Virginia, Maryland and Virginia Tech—that already appear to have secured at-large bids, the ACC Tournament will play a large factor in determining seeds. A year ago, North Carolina, with an RPI ranking of 21, finished second in the nation’s third-best conference and received a No. 4 seed.
It is unlikely that seven teams from one conference would all be within the top 16 seeded teams in the tournament. But with RPIs of 19 or better, it is unlikely that any of the five will have a seed lower than seven or eight.
Georgia Tech and Miami, the two bubble teams, play each other in the first round of the ACC Tournament and the loser will be all but eliminated from NCAA contention. The winner will play North Carolina in the second round Saturday, and a victory in that game may be enough to secure a bid. Last year the 57th team in the RPI, West Virginia, made the 2004 NCAA Tournament after losing in the Big East Tournament finals. With a similar performance, Georgia Tech or Miami could be the eighth ACC participant in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our league is so strong,” Hatchell said. “The parity is incredible. I’m hoping we’re going to have seven, maybe eight teams that will get in the NCAA Tournament.”
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