Everyone wants a to dance
March is fast approaching, and like every March since about my freshman year of high school, its the time of year where I start to do March Madness research. I treat my bracket with the same care as one would the Shroud of Turin; it’s not glass enclosed, but it’s well researched and guarded under lock and (encryption) key. Okay, so maybe it isn’t that bad, but I do take chances to win bragging rights and $1,000,000 seriously. I have never won.
This year has been slightly more interesting than most years because of the makeup of some teams. There are young #1 seeds like Arizona, wrought with talent but not experience, solid programs like Creighton finally getting their comeuppance, and veteran, defensive juggernauts like Virginia. Of course there’s the old guards like Duke and Syracuse, but by and large there’s a definite power shift occurring this year. So-called mid major programs and A-10 schools are making strong cases to supplant traditional power conference schools like Georgetown, Xavier, Gonzaga, and Oregon.
But what’s even more interesting are the levels of mediocrity surrounding the bubble teams. Yes, every year teams are on the bubble for being just mediocre enough to be out of the tournament, but good enough to merit mentioning. Nebraska is one of those schools, Georgetown is also laying claim to that, same goes for Dayton, Mississippi, Tennessee, and plenty of others. The teams trying to blast through the bubble is massive this year and filled with traditional power teams, ones that have more recent history in the tournament than the teams currently in the tournament.
Of course, that brings us to Maryland. Neither a traditional power nor a realistic bubble team at this point, the Terps are 15-12 and seventh in the ACC. Still, two games from now, we’ll definitively know whether or not the Terps are officially in or out of even the bubble watch. The next two games will either put the Terps on the bubble, or will put the kibosh on their tournament hopes once and for all.
First up, they’ve got the #1 (for now) team in the nation, Syracuse. Previously undefeated, Syracuse will come to College Park very upset with being handed their first loss of the season against Boston freaking College. That game looked like a closer match before Syracuse lost, but Jim Boeheim isn’t known for back-to-back losses to underdog opponents over his career. Fortunately, he’s got Virginia wedged in between the Maryland game and that BC loss. Could benefit Maryland, actually.
Then the Terps get Clemson on the road. Clemson is one game ahead of Maryland for sixth in the ACC and playing solid basketball, so if Maryland wants to do the improbable and get into the top five of the conference, beating Clemmy is a requirement.
Now, even assuming Maryland wins those two games, they’d still have to beat Virginia Tech and Virginia (both home games) to make it to 19 wins. I said before the season that their final stretch was forgiving, and I’m sticking with that prediction. Three of your final four games at home before the conference tournament is all you can ask for. But here’s the bad news:
If we look at TeamRankings.com’s projections about how many wins Maryland needs to make the NCAA tournament, we get a clearer picture of how tough it’s going to become for them. 22-23 wins will probably get you in 90% of the time. But less than that, the odds of making the tournament fall off a cliff. 21 wins gives you a 77% chance of winning; 20 wins is a 39% chance of making it; 19 wins and you’ve got no chance at 7%. Even if the Terps finish the regular season improbably winning out to 19 wins, they’ve still got plenty of work to do.
But what about that conference tournament!
The key here is getting two more wins. First though, let’s play into your fantasy that the Terps win out and try to project the final top 7 standings in the ACC, because we’re only concerned with those spots:
(Asterisk denotes the only spots Maryland could realistically end up in a best case scenario)
1.) Virginia – 15-3 ACC
2.) Syracuse – 15-3 ACC
3.) Duke – 14-4 ACC
4.) North Carolina – 14-4 ACC
*5.) Pittsburgh – 10-8 ACC
*6.) Clemson – 10-8 ACC
*7.) Maryland – 11-7 ACC
The top four spots in the ACC, while there may be some movement, are all but assured. These are all projected finishes, and while Duke and UNC could flip flop or Virginia and Syracuse could as well, these four teams are highly likely to be locked in here. These four teams aren’t going to lose out, and only Syracuse has a tough remaining schedule (at Maryland, at Viriginia, at Duke, at Florida State).
That leaves us with Pittsburgh, Clemson, and Maryland for the final three spots.
Pitt holds tiebreakers over the Terps because of the season sweep, so that’s a knock against Maryland. But Pitt also has a very tough schedule to finish out the season. They’ve lost two straight, and three of their final five games are on the road. Boston College, Notre Dame, and Clemson. Then they’ve got two tough outs in North Carolina State, who they beat earlier in the year, and Florida State, who is far better than their conference record suggests.
Clemson is in another situation where the Terps could presumably jump them in the standings if things play out favorably. They play Pitt at home and they play the Terps, both of which could benefit Maryland should Clemson win and lose. In that scenario, Maryland holds the tiebreaker over Clemson despite having a worse overall record, and Pitt falls lower because of the loss to Clemson. Unfortunately, the Tigers also have a great finishing schedule: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, and Maryland, Miami, and Pitt at home. Basically, Maryland has to win out and beat them to get the top five spot, and pray Pitt continues their poor play.
A five spot and 19 wins assured, with Clemson then Pitt rounding out the ACC, gives us a tournament picture of this:
Game 1: Miami VS GT (12 vs 13)
Game 2: Notre Dame VS Virginia Tech (10 vs 15)
Game 3: Wake Forest VS Boston College (11 vs 14)
Game 4: North Carolina State VS Florida State (8 vs 9)
Game 5: Winner of Game 1 vs Maryland (#5 seed)
Game 6: Winner of Game 2 vs Pittsburgh (#7 seed)
Game 7: Winner of Game 3 vs Clemson (#6 seed)
Winner of Game 4 vs #1 seed (Syracuse or Viriginia)
Winner of Game 5 vs #4 seed (Duke or UNC)
Winner of Game 6 vs #2 seed (See above)
Winner of Game 7 vs #3 seed (See above)
This is where we’ll pause for a second. The conference picture is still very much in flux, but if we’re going with the “Maryland wins out” scenario, then that’s what we’re going to be left with. One thing is for certain: Maryland does not want to finish sixth or seventh. Doing that, and winning their first conference game, pits them against Virginia or Syracuse in our hypothetical scenario. This is NOT advisable. In an ideal world, you get to face Virginia or Duke, because there’s a high probability the Terps lose to Syracuse or North Carolina on a neutral court. The other two, there’s historical precedent to suggest the game would be closer.
So even if we live out the dream scenario, there’s no statistical hope of getting in?
Well actually, there might be a little hope for the Terps in this case. Right now, they’ve got the 11th toughest SOS according to KenPom (and it’s only going to move up). They also play Virginia, Syracuse, and Clemson, which are top 50 RPI teams. Wins against those three would boost their RPI significantly. If you add on their tournament games, that would give them some big wins, close losses, and completely change the landscape. Basketball does actually change that much over time.
Gary Williams back in 2008 did the same thing to get a team into the tournament that underachieved severely. Some of his wins came earlier in the season, but Maryland ending up with a similar record, only later in the season, would probably benefit them more in the eyes of the voters.
It’s still incredibly improbable, so don’t get your hopes up at all. But there is historical precedent to suggest that even mediocre teams that thrive later in the season have some hope of getting into the tournament.