Thesemajor-conference teams' NCAA hopes may depend on a strong showing in theirrespective conference tournaments
The wave ofFlorida State fans spilled onto the court on March 1 with 1.7 seconds left onthe clock. They couldn't wait for the game to end, but who could blame them?The Seminoles were about to upset the No. 1 team in the nation, Duke. But moreimportant, the impending 79-74 win would greatly boost Florida State's case foran at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Seminolescame into the game having just suffered an ugly 72-61 loss at Virginia Tech,and at 7-7 in the ACC, they looked NIT bound. But after beating the Blue Devilsand then ending the regular season with a 67-64 win over Miami on Sunday, theSeminoles (19-8, 9-7 in league play) have greatly enhanced their chances withthe selection committee. Still, to eliminate any doubt, Florida State has towin two games in this week's ACC tournament. As the No. 5 seed, that would meanbeating No. 12 Wake Forest on Thursday in the opening round and then No. 4 N.C.State, the Seminoles' opponent if they make it to the quarterfinals.
Of course,Florida State is not alone in having a tenuous claim to one of the 34 at-largebids. Here are other major-conference teams that could still use a good showingin their league tournaments so that they can rest easy on Selection Sunday.
Maryland (18-11, 8-8).
Like Florida State, Maryland can reach the 20-win mark in the ACC tournament.But that will be a challenge without senior guard Chris McCray, who wasdeclared academically ineligible in January. Since then Maryland has gone 5-7.Two things, however, work in the Terps' favor over the Seminoles: Maryland'sRPI (No. 47 versus No. 56) and strength of schedule (12th versus 86th).
Seton Hall (18-10, 9-7) and Syracuse (19-11, 7-9).
The Pirates gained ground with a huge 65-61 victory over No. 8 Pittsburgh lastFriday, but because their RPI is lower than Cincinnati's and Syracuse's (48versus 31 and 43, respectively), it might be Seton Hall that needs more help,even though it had the better conference record. To be sure of getting into theNCAAs, the Pirates will probably have to beat No. 10 seed Rutgers and No. 2Villanova.
The Orangefinished the regular season on a three-game losing streak, including aninexplicable 108-69 thumping at DePaul. But Syracuse meets the Bearcats (19-11,8-8) on Wednesday in the Big East tournament, guaranteeing a win for one ofthem. Unfortunately, national No. 1 Connecticut then awaits.
Texas A&M (20-7, 10-6) and Colorado (19-8, 9-7).
A 46-43 upset of regular-season co-champion Texas on March 1 raised the Aggies'hopes for an at-large bid. "To be where we are, I think this team hasoverachieved," says coach Billy Gillispie, "but I don't think we haveplayed our best basketball yet." The No. 4 seed in the Big 12 tournament,A&M earned a first-round bye but might have to face No. 5 seed Colorado(provided the Buffaloes get by No. 12 Baylor) in the quarterfinals. The clubshave comparable RPIs-49 for A&M, 52 for Colorado--so the winner of thematchup could get the Big 12's last bid.
California (18-9, 12-6).
The Golden Bears would have been a lock if they had beaten UCLA last Thursday(the Bruins won 67-58 in overtime). Not since UCLA in 1988 has a team with 12Pac-10 wins been left out of the NCAAs. Cal finished ahead of Arizona (18-11,11-7) in the regular season but has a much lower RPI (59 versus 25), whichmeans it might have to beat No. 6 seed USC and perhaps No. 2 Washington toimpress the committee.
In December,North Carolina coach Roy Williams wrote two questions on a whiteboard toillustrate a point to his team: "Who do you guys think is the best shooteron the team?" and "Who do you think works hardest at it?"
The answer toboth was junior guard Wes Miller, a former walk-on who, until this season, wasused primarily to play defense against Raymond Felton in Tar Heels practices.But Miller took his role seriously and also spent hours in the gym perfectinghis three-point shot. It's finally paying off. After scoring just 26 points allseason as Carolina won the national championship a year ago, Miller was movedinto the starting lineup on Jan. 22 and in the last 13 games of the regularseason averaged 25.8 minutes, 7.8 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 46.9%from the three-point line. On the season 123 of Miller's 137 field goalattempts have been treys. "Leave Wes open, and you can count it," saysfreshman swingman Danny Green.
North Carolina,meanwhile, has prospered, going 11-2 in that span as it continues its stunningsuccess after losing its top seven scorers from a year ago (four of them in thefirst round of the NBA draft). After last Saturday's shocking 83-76 upset ofNo. 1 Duke, the Tar Heels are a surprising 21-6, ranked No. 10 in the nationand likely to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
No playerepitomizes North Carolina's surprising season more than Miller, who's long oftooth (at 23) but short in size (he's generously listed at 5'11", or, asWilliams puts it, he's "not gifted sizewise"). A Charlotte native whoattended the New Hampton (N.H.) School, Miller had an offer from formerCarolina coach Matt Doherty to join the Tar Heels as a walk-on out of highschool, but he opted instead to accept a scholarship to James Madison. Naggedby a belief that he could play in the ACC, Miller met with Williams in thespring of 2003 and transferred to Chapel Hill. "He couldn't promise meanything, except that I had a spot on the team," says Miller.
The rest ishistory. Thanks to his scrappy work in practice during the season he sat out asa transfer, Miller was rewarded with a scholarship last year. After coming offthe bench for North Carolina's first 14 games this season, he scored acareer-high 18 points in his first start as the Tar Heels pulled out an 81-80victory at Florida State. "I was watching the game, and there's this littlekid who hit six threes," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Every timeit looked like they were going to get blown out, Boom! Boom! Boom!"
Six days laterMiller scored 14 in an 86-69 win over Arizona on national television--on hisbirthday. "The guys were giving me a hard time because I'm older than mostpeople who are juniors in college," says Miller. "But I can't think ofa 23-year-old out there working at a nine-to-five job who wouldn't do anythingto trade places with me. I'm pretty satisfied with the way I am."
• NCAA tournamentanalysis at SI.com/collegebasketball.
An NBA scout evaluates the potential of Boston Collegeforwards Jared Dudley and Craig Smith (right). In the regular season Dudley, a6'7", 225-pound junior, averaged 16.3 points and 6.9 rebounds, while Smith,a 6'7", 250-pound senior, averaged 17.0 points and 8.5 rebounds.
"Dudley is really versatile. If he's guarded by asmaller player, he will take the ball to the low post and punish him, but as anoutside shooter he doesn't have three-point range.... He's a junior, so he cantest the waters at the predraft camp, but since he's not a great athlete, he'dbetter do something special.... I think he's a second-rounder.
"Smith is very skilled. He can pass, face thebasket, put the ball on the floor, and he's got great hands. He will rebound intraffic. But he's just too small.... I'm not convinced he can play powerforward in the NBA. Maybe he can, but he's not even close to afirst-rounder."
JOEL AUERBACH/US PRESSWIRE
STRONG MOVE The 'Noles and Alexander Johnson (32) want their case to be a slam dunk.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
¬†SPARKPLUG The Heels have gone 11-2 since Miller, a former walk-on, became astarter.