NCAA Bubble Watch: The Curious Cases Of The ACC
As the 2019 regular season winds down, there is a high level of volatility in the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference pack, and how that shakes out will have great bearing on which, and how many, teams from the league will receive at-large bids come Selection Monday.
Four teams stand out as finding themselves on the bubble – Clemson, Duke, Florida State and Wake Forest.
It’s a group that has converged on the bubble from a few different directions.
Clemson got off to a hot start, but has taken a freefall toward the bubble. The postseason hopes of Duke and Wake were left for dead after difficult first halves of the season, but now find themselves back in the mix.
Florida State, meanwhile, has ridden a roller coaster of a season that has featured dominance of their non-conference slate, hitting the skids early in ACC play and a late push to extend Mike Martin’s regional streak as head coach to 40 consecutive years.
The Seminoles have the strongest case of all of these teams heading into the last two weekends, at least as far as their conference performance goes. At 16-11 in the ACC, they currently rank fourth in the ACC and even getting swept at Louisville in their final conference series would still leave them with the winning conference record the selection committee prefers. Seven wins against the RPI top 50, with three more chances against Louisville, is solid as well.
The only thing that really has them on the bubble right now is the RPI, and that’s kind of a problem. Thanks to midweek losses to Jacksonville and Stetson this week, the Seminoles are down to 66 after having started the week at 51.
The good news is that simply taking the field for three games in Louisville will help that number. The bad news is that FSU might need to win the series to get it back toward 45, which has traditionally been an RPI number to target for ACC teams. And by the way, it can’t afford any slipups this weekend during a series against Richmond, which ranks No. 162 in RPI.
All in all, it’s a situation reminiscent of the one Florida State found itself in two years ago, when it also went to Louisville on the final weekend of the regular season with work to do. It won that series and the ACC Tournament and went home to Tallahassee as a regional host. That’s probably not possible given how far down it finds itself in RPI now, but FSU has been through this before.
Clemson’s case is the next strongest, but it’s the team most surprising to see having to fight just to get into a regional.
A month ago, this would have been absolutely unfathomable. The Tigers were flying high coming off of a series win against Louisville, sitting there with an overall record of 24-8 and ACC mark of 11-4.
Since then, they’ve gone 1-8 in their last nine league games, and it’s precisely that 12-12 ACC record that has them on the bubble. Getting to 14 regular-season ACC wins might get it there, but Clemson would certainly feel better getting to 15 wins.
The Tigers clearly have the ability to get it done, but it’s not going to be easy. They’ll spend this weekend in Raleigh taking on a North Carolina State team that is dealing with a skid of its own, and will therefore be desperate for wins as well, and they finish up with a home series against Wake Forest, a team that will likely be playing for its postseason life.
It’s also worth noting the RPI. It doesn’t have the current issues that FSU does in this regard, but a loss Tuesday to Presbyterian dropped Clemson from 40 down to 48, which is pretty borderline for an ACC team, at least historically.
If Clemson can stop its slide and at least split the final six conference games, it will likely be safe, both from a conference record and RPI standpoint. If it can’t do that, the ACC Tournament will become vitally important.
Duke finds itself in a slightly better position than Clemson at this precise moment. Good enough RPI? Check. The Blue Devils are at 45. Solid mark against the upper crust of college baseball? Check. Duke is 6-9 in games against the RPI top 50.
Like the Tigers, though, the Blue Devils find themselves with a conference record that puts their position in peril. They are one game closer to the 15 wins they probably need, as they currently sit at 13-11, but the difference is that they have a relatively tough finish.
This weekend, Duke welcomes Georgia Tech to Durham for three games, before finishing the season at Miami. If the season ended today, those are two teams that would be hosting regionals.
The good news is the Blue Devils are catching both of these teams at a good time. Georgia Tech has lost starter Brant Hurter for the season and indications are that righthander Xzavion Curry won’t be available against Duke either. Miami, meanwhile, has been without two of its weekend arms, Chris McMahon and Evan McKendry, the last few weekends, and even if they return in time for the series, it’s unclear what kind of form we can expect from them.
The Blue Devils probably won’t be favored, on paper, to win either of those final two series, but unless they want to go into the ACC Tournament – which they effectively host – with work to do, they’ll need to pick one of them off.
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That leaves Wake Forest, which is the longest shot to end up in a regional, but its the postseason case that has improved the most in recent weeks. The Demon Deacons had an RPI north of 100 all season until a month ago. Now? It’s 50, and with an ACC record of 12-12, they are in striking distance in both measures.
Wake has seven games left – a home series with Miami, a game at Radford and a series to end the season at Clemson, which, as you know, will probably be equally important to the Tigers.
Wake needs to win at least three of its remaining ACC games. Do that and the Deacs will finish at least .500 in the ACC and with a top 45 RPI.
The tournament in Durham, of course, is the big wildcard. Because the ACC uses pool play, some of what happens in Durham will simply be down to the luck of the draw. But in each of the two years the ACC has used a format with four pools of three teams, there have been significant upsets and teams seeded Nos. 8, 9 and 12 have made the semifinals. That could end up being great news for one or more of these teams that has work left to do in the ACC Tournament.
Any number of scenarios are in play for these four teams. We could look up in two weeks and see that some of the teams with the toughest roads simply haven’t been able to pile up enough wins. It’s also entirely possible that a couple of these teams play their way in with strong finishes to league play.
But what seems most likely, particularly in light of what we’ve seen as the season has come to a close, is that just about all of these teams go into the conference tournament looking for one last, final statement to prove that they belong in the Field of 64.