Heading into this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., there are a host of schools trying to upset a top-heavy group of powerhouses.
No. 6 Virginia, No. 7 Duke, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 16 North Carolina highlight the ACC tourney bracket and have each earned first-round byes into Friday's quarterfinals. All 15 teams in the league will take part in the tournament, which begins on Wednesday with the bottom six squads battling it out.
Looking at the latest NCAA tournament projections, most expect the ACC to send five teams to the Big Dance. Pittsburgh is currently in the best position to earn the fifth at-large bid, according to Joe Lunardi of ESPN, and could probably still be a part of March Madness with one or two victories.
Meanwhile, the other schools in the conference are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and make deep runs against this rugged field. Here's a look at three teams that have to reach the semifinals or finals in order to make their cases to the NCAA tournament selection committee.
No. 6 Clemson (19-11 overall, 10-8 ACC)
The Tigers fell short on Saturday against Pitt, 83-78, in a crucial regular-season finale for both teams.
A win for Clemson would have put it in much better position heading into the conference tourney, but for now they have little to no shot of making the Big Dance with their current resume.
But perhaps the Tigers are feeling confident about their chances to make the semifinals in the ACC tournament. In order to do that, Clemson must defeat the winner of Georgia Tech/Boston College before upsetting Duke in the quarterfinals.
Clemson already knocked off the Blue Devils in early January at home behind a big effort from Jaron Blossomgame, so the Tigers know they're capable.
On Tuesday, the program also celebrated K.J. McDaniels, who was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
McDaniels is Clemson's first major ACC award winner since Greg Buckner won Rookie of the Year honors in 1995!— Clemson Basketball (@ClemsonMBB) March 11, 2014
With a current RPI of 80 and a 1-6 mark against top-50 RPI opponents, a second win against the Blue Devils is a must for the Tigers.
No. 7 North Carolina State (19-12 overall, 9-9 ACC)
On Tuesday, N.C. State sophomore forward T.J. Warren was named the ACC Player of the Year following a stellar campaign that was capped off with a couple of exclamation marks. To close out the regular season, Warren popped off for 41 points against Pittsburgh and 42 against Boston College.
Warren, who led the league in scoring (24.1 PPG) and field goal percentage (53.2) while pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game, received 48 votes for the award compared to 25 that went to Duke freshman Jabari Parker.
Your 2014 ACC Player of the Year is NC State's T.J. Warren! pic.twitter.com/Zuy1kJ4Wly— NC State Athletics (@PackAthletics) March 11, 2014
But the Wolfpack still have to add some signature wins to their resume, following a season full of close losses. Coach Mark Gottfried recently spoke to Joe Giglio of the Raleigh News and Observer about his squad heading into the ACC tournament.
"We're the team, in my mind, we're the near-miss," Gottfried said. "We've had a couple, two or three, where we've missed closely, that would have changed this whole thing. The reality is we're not there."
The "two or three" would be a reference to one-point losses to Wake Forest, Syracuse and North Carolina. All three, it must be pointed out in Gottfried's defense, hinged on either missed calls (Codi Miller-McIntyre’s walk, James Michael McAdoo’s foul on T.J. Warren in overtime) or a dubious interpretation of a foul call (Trevor Cooney’s foul of Warren).
Ultimately, close losses aren't worth much in today's competitive world of college basketball. In order to hear their name called on Sunday, the Wolfpack will have to get past the winner of Miami/Virginia Tech to reach Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
To this point, the Wolfpack are 0-6 against top-25 RPI teams and 2-7 against top-50 RPI opponents, so a win over the Orange is necessary for their fleeting tourney hopes.
No. 9 Florida State (18-12 overall, 9-9 ACC)
This year's Florida State Seminoles squad has been hit-or-miss.
On the bright side of things, they have three top-50 RPI victories (VCU, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh) on their resume. On the flip side, they're capable to prolonged funks, like the 2-6 stretch they encountered earlier this year, lowlighted by the 77-73 loss to Miami.
FSU had a chance to make a statement against a struggling Syracuse squad on Sunday, but fell flat in a 74-58 loss. Still, the team sounds upbeat heading into the ACC tournament, per Corey Clark of Tallahassee.com.
“We’re right where we want to be still,” FSU senior guard Ian Miller said after Sunday’s loss to Syracuse. “We’re not behind and we’re not ahead. We’re just right on time. We’ve just got to go back, get our bodies rejuvenated and get ready to go up to Greensboro and really shock the world now.”
Florida State comes into the ACC Tournament as the No. 9 seed, having finished the regular season with an 18-12 record overall and a 9-9 mark in the ACC. The Seminoles will take on the eighth-seeded Maryland Terrapins (17-14, 9-9) on Thursday in the second day of the conference tourney.
Maryland will be a handful in itself for Florida State, and if the Seminoles were to win on Thursday, top conference seed Virginia will be awaiting them. The Cavaliers have handed FSU a pair of 12-point defeats this year, but the Seminoles will have to overcome the odds and pull the upset in the quarterfinals to have any shot of reaching the NCAA tournament.