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Sorting out the ACC mess

With only two weeks of the regular season remaining, March Madness-the greatest spectacle in all of sport-is almost upon us.

And in anticipation, the chatter among ACC coaches is growing louder as they campaign hard to get an NCAA-record nine teams into the Tournament.

Currently, those nine ACC squads are all ranked among the RPI's top 50, which seems to suggest that they each have tournament résumés worthy of an invite to the Big Dance.

But given the increased respect mid-majors have received over the past several years, it is unlikely that each of these teams will earn a berth.

So what exactly will distinguish those nine teams?

Although the tournament selection committee is supposed to judge a team's entire body of work when evaluating it, there is no doubt that conference record plays an integral role in the decision.

Over the past 10 years, in only four of the 15 instances that a team has finished 7-9 in the conference has it received an NCAA bid. Four of the six times a team finished at .500 it has reached the tournament, and only twice has a team with a 9-7 record not made it.

But how valid are these records in the post-ACC expansion era? How accurately can you use them to compare teams against each other when the schedules' difficulty-level are not equal?

"In general, unless you have a round-robin, you have to look in depth to each conference," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said this week. "There's still a superficial response to imbalance in conference schedules. You would hope that that's not going to be the case when committee members meet because that would be a big mistake."

Still, the imbalance is a hard dynamic to ignore.

When the ACC added its 12th member prior to the 2005-2006 season, it adopted a schedule that assigned each team two primary partners-aimed at preserving historic rivalries-against whom they would play both home and away games each year. They would play three other teams twice and the remaining six just once. These last nine teams would rotate on a yearly basis.

This scheduling scheme creates an inherent discrepancy, though.

Duke's two partners, Maryland and North Carolina, have averaged the second and third most wins in the conference over the past 10 years, respectively. Only North Carolina, which is paired with Duke and N.C. State, has two primary partners that have combined to average more league wins during that span. And that is in large part a result of having to play Duke, which has averaged 13.3 ACC victories per season-three more than any other conference team.

Meanwhile, Clemson's primary partners, Georgia Tech and Florida State, have combined to win nearly nine fewer games per season than Duke's pair. And Florida State's opponents rank second worst, only 0.4 games behind Clemson's.

While I cannot say for sure that the strength of the Seminoles' conference schedule last year hurt them, it is highly likely given that they were left playing in the NIT with a 9-7 ACC mark. Of the five teams with which they played home-and-away series last season, only Duke finished in the top half of the final conference standings. In those games, they went only 6-4, and two of their other wins came against the league's worst two teams.

So was Florida State penalized for only going 9-7 against one of the easier schedules in the ACC? Given the previous track record for 9-7 teams in the conference, a strong case can be made that it was.

But that is the reality the conference faces since it decided to forfeit its prized round-robin format three years ago. The league standings just don't mean quite as much anymore on their own because certain schools are regularly going to have tougher conference slates.

Only six ACC teams currently sit at .500 or better so far this season in conference play and the other three teams contending for a berth are each at least two games under .500.

So exactly how many ACC teams will be playing come March?

With scheduling imbalance, your guess is as good as mine.

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