Wake Forest's win over Duke Sunday night may end up affecting more teams than just the Demon Deacons and the Blue Devils in the long run.
At first glance, the game marked Duke's first ACC loss and put Wake Forest alone in fifth place in the conference. Time will tell, however, if the game might affect how many ACC teams receive bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite having two teams-North Carolina and Duke-ranked in the top 5, the ACC does not have the depth it has enjoyed in recent years. Last season, seven teams from the conference received bids to the NCAA Tournament, and two others, Florida State and Clemson, were left barely on the outside looking in.
For much of 2007-2008, only Duke and North Carolina have looked like Tournament locks. But after recent strong play from Clemson and Maryland, and in light of the Demon Deacons' 13-point victory over the Blue Devils, the ACC is beginning to shape up as a conference that will likely receive several more bids.
"Hopefully [Wake Forest's win] helps a lot of teams," Maryland head coach Gary Williams said. "At the same time, our league has the top RPI in the country and that seems to have not gotten the same attention that other factors have."
For the fourth straight week, only two ACC teams are ranked in the top 25. But the ACC still sits atop the conference RPI ratings, even ahead of leagues that have four or five ranked teams.
In late December, Miami started the season 12-0 and appeared to a be a contender for a Tournament berth. If the Hurricanes drop two home contests this week against Duke and Maryland, however, they will stand at 4-8 in the conference and out of the postseason picture. Wake Forest, on the other hand, has slowly ascended the conference standings and, after beating Duke, has placed itself right into the middle of the postseason conversation.
"I hope we're in a position where it comes down to that," Demon Deacon head coach Dino Gaudio said. "Hopefully we're in a position on March 9 where people look and say, 'Wow that's a quality win over a great team. They deserve to be in.'"
Despite being picked 11th in the preseason ACC media poll, Wake Forest made it a goal early in the season to reach the NCAA Tournament. Even while playing weak non-conference opponents, Gaudio and his staff made sure his players were aware of Tournament implications.
"To try to motivate the kids throughout the season, we talk a lot about going to the Tournament and how important these games are," Gaudio said. "We played a non-conference game earlier in the year...and I told them, 'This team might not get us into the NCAA Tournament, men, but they'll keep us out.'"
Clemson and Maryland both sit at 7-4 in conference play, with Wake Forest right behind at 6-5. With five games remaining, all three teams-as well as some other squads in the middle of the ACC pack-still must play their way into the big dance.
"You can't help yourself in any way except to win the next game," Williams said. "[The players] hear all the stuff about who's in, who's out, who's doing what, but it's not really necessary to think about those things because that doesn't affect anything. If you play well enough, you're going to get there. That's how you have to look at it."
Now that Wake Forest has beaten Duke, the Demon Deacons have reinforced the unofficial ACC mantra that any given team can win on any given night. But whether the NCAA Tournament selection committee rewards the conference come March remains to be seen.
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