Last year, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech missed the field of 64 or 65 or 66 or whatever it is/was, and this year they aren’t off to the kind of start that makes those teams' returns to the Big Dance all that promising.
Yes, it’s only early December, and all three can insure themselves spots in the tournament with a good run through their ACC conference schedules, but to date, only Duke looks likely to dominate, and everybody else is looking like 8-8 or worse.
So when conference play is over in early March, the bubble-bursting needles are those pesky non-conference games. So far, neither the Heels, Wolfpack nor Hokies have posted what the hoop gurus call “quality non-conference wins.”
North Carolina, which lost much more than it gained in the offseason, has struggled mightily to date, posting a 4-3 record with wins over Hofstra, Lispcomb, UNC Asheville and College of Charleston—none of which will improve anybody’s power rankings.
The Heels have lost to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois and face No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday and No. 20 Texas on December 18. The remainder of their non-conference schedule is made up of Evansville, Long Beach State, William & Mary, Rutgers and St. Francis (PA).
The Hokies have also been a bit of an early disappointment. Virginia Tech is also 4-3 with wins over Campbell, UNC Greensboro, Cal State Northridge and Oklahoma State. The win over OSU could prove helpful down the road. The Hokies have lost to No. 5 Kansas State, UNLV and a Purdue team they should have (could have) beaten.
The Hokies have remaining non-conference games with Penn State, Mississippi State, St. Bonaventure and USC Upstate. Not much help résumé building there.
Which takes us to Raleigh, where the Wolfpack is in a little better shape. N.C. State is 4-2 with wins over Tennessee Tech, East Carolina, George Mason and Fairleigh Dickinson. They have lost to No. 16 Georgetown and unranked Wisconsin.
The Wolfpack faces a tough test on Saturday playing No. 8 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. They finish up non-conference with games against USC Upstate, Youngstown State, Arizona, Delaware State, Alabama A&M and San Diego—all at home.
The point of this small tale of woe is that all three need to post rock-solid ACC regular season records in order to make the NCAA tournament. None of these teams face many quality non-conference foes, and so far they have either lost (or are predicted to lose) the few quality non-conference games that will ultimately matter to the Selection Committee.
Not exactly what those three programs were looking to contemplate as they approach the heart of the holiday season.