As you are probably aware, there’s a big game this week between the two best teams in the ACC. I’m going to write an article and not mention those two teams by name, because while the game this Wednesday night is deserving of some hype, the events taking place in the rest of the conference are even more interesting.
Last week, Dan Hanner at Yet Another Basketball Blog was the first I saw to notice this: the ACC is lapping the field in the category of close games. After another couple of tight games on Sunday, the ACC has had 22 of its 43 games come down to the final possession–-defined here as being decided by three points or less or going to overtime. That’s 51.2% of ACC contests so far, compared to a figure of 20.8% in all NCAA conference games since 2000. (If you’re looking to keep the blood pressure down, try following the Big West this season. They’ve had just one of 37 games fall into this category.)
The ingredients for such a scenario have been brewing for a few weeks. As a group, ACC teams played solid defense but poor offense against non-conference teams, so you’d expect teams to struggle to score in conference play since it’s pretty easy for good defenses to defend poor offenses. This leads to increased probabilities of close games. In addition, the ten teams not ranked in the AP top four are difficult to separate. Clemson is the best of the pack but the Tigers are not so far from the rest of the group that one can feel certain about them having much success on the road against the other nine.
This puts the ACC on the cusp of historic territory. No conference this decade has had more than a third of its games fall into the nailbiter category. The 2007 MAAC and 2006 Big 12 share the record for close games. The ACC still needs 11 games to break that mark, so it’s far from a done deal, but it’s clear the tremendous parity in the conference makes the chase for at-large bids somewhat of a lottery.
There’s one more point to consider before we talk about the ramifications of these close games–-there’s a price of having two dominant teams as opposed to having only one great team, and say, an Oregon State in your conference. It’s not inconceivable that the ACC will have only three teams with a winning conference record (most likely Clemson to go along with the top two.) Yet a .500 team in the ACC is not the same as a .500 team in the Pac-10. Every at-large hopeful in the conference on the west coast will have its record boosted by two games thanks to the poor quality of the Beavers this season, a luxury ACC teams won’t have.
When Selection Sunday comes around, it’s possible that Oregon State’s presence will help the Pac-10 secure more bids, especially considering the growing movement that a team with a losing conference record shouldn’t be considered for an at-large bid. When considering a Pac-10 team’s conference record, you’d be advised to subtract two from the win column to get something equivalent to what they’d do in the ACC this season. This is why a postseason restriction on sub-.500 teams is silly. Should this ever happen, I would advise ACC Commissioner John Swofford to invite Elon to join the conference as a men’s basketball-only member to ensure that all relevant teams get a couple wins to pad their record.
So back to the ACC Lottery. There are two main components to winning it-–performance in close games and schedule strength. I’m going to simplify the schedule portion so that it’s based on how many times one has to play the top two teams. Here’s how my power ratings predict the final conference record of the bottom ten teams along with their record to date in nailbiters and how many times they play the top two teams.
Team Finish Close Games vs. Top 2
Clemson 10-6 2-2 3
Virginia Tech 9-7 4-1 2
Maryland 9-7 2-2 3
Georgia Tech 7-9 2-3 2
Boston College 6-10 1-1 3
Wake Forest 6-10 2-2 2
Miami 6-10 1-2 3
NC State 6-10 3-1 4
Florida State 5-11 2-3 3
Virginia 4-12 0-4 3
Only three teams in the conference deviate by more than a half game from the .500 mark. Farthest on the plus side of the ledger is Virginia Tech, who has been one of the surprise teams in the league and the most extreme of the great defense/ordinary offense teams that have permeated the ACC in 2008. After winning yet another overtime game against Virginia on Saturday, they are in third place in the conference at 5-3, with four of those wins falling into the close category. With only two games this season against the top two, the Hokies are early frontrunners to win an at-large bid thanks to a big contribution from good fortune. The 9-7 finish and a fourth-place finish would seem to be good enough to get a bid given that they are appearing in some brackets already. However, if the committee considers that they could easily be 7-9 and had one of the easier schedules in the conference, they might reconsider.
On the flip side, Virginia has been on the wrong end of every close game they’ve been in. This is an interesting development because last season, UVa was 3-0 in close games and played the easiest conference schedule, helping them tie UNC for the regular season title at 11-5. The Cavs were improbably rewarded with a four-seed in the Tournament. Now, they’re relegated to playing the role of spoiler, which they easily could do, because as stated before, there’s not much difference between any of these teams.
The first game in the ACC’s showcase rivalry on Wednesday night deserves your attention. It could add to the litany of great finishes the conference has seen so far, and it features what are far and away the two best offenses in a defense-happy league. But every ACC game not involving the top two teams will have the potential to be something special, too. How the ball bounces in the last possession of regulation in those games could have a huge impact on which teams represent the ACC in March Madness.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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