Georgia Tech has two key games these next six days, neither against a ranked opponent. And that’s kind of the point: The ACC is thinner at the top than it has been since … well, since ever. The latest Associated Press poll includes only two representatives from the Tiffany League, and Florida State slipped in at No. 22. (And the Seminoles aren’t ranked in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll, leaving the ACC stuck on one.)
It has become a Tobacco Road Talking Point: Apart from Duke, is anybody any good? North Carolina was ranked in the Top 10 in preseason but has played its way downward. (The nadir for the Tar Heels was losing by 20 here.) N.C. State was thought to be promising but hasn’t done a thing. Maryland began ACC play by losing to Boston College and hasn’t quite recovered. Even Florida State, which beat Duke, suffered one of the season’s worst losses by losing to Auburn, which carries an RPI of 304 among 346 Division I teams.
Which brings us, however circuitously, to Georgia Tech. The Jackets suffered their first reversal Nov. 15, losing by 17 points to Kennesaw State, which has an RPI of 312. The Jackets entered league play at 7-6, which augured poorly. On cue, they dropped their first two ACC games, the second by 25 points at mediocre Clemson, and seemed poised to go 10-20. But then a funny thing happened.
Tech beat Carolina, which raised some eyebrows, and then demolished Wake. The Jackets were 2-2 in ACC play headed to Virginia, which is yet another tepid team, and had a chance to nose above .500. To the surprise of no one, Tech fell behind by 14 points after 20 minutes and lost 72-64. And now the Jackets arrive at these two massive-for-them conference tests needing both to get them to 4-3 in the league.
Tonight brings Virginia Tech to the building once known as the Thrillerdome, and the Hokies are probably the ACC’s third-best aggregation. On Sunday the Jackets meet Maryland, which is 2-3 in the league — the Terps play at Virginia on Wednesday — and in real RPI trouble. These will be difficult games for the Jackets, but if you can beat North Carolina you can certainly play with the other Tech and Maryland.
The Jackets are better than they were before Christmas. This might sound like faint praise, but there has been improvement. Daniel Miller has become a competent man in the middle, and Tech leads the world in guards. Iman Shumpert is a major talent. Moe Miller is a man you dismiss at your peril. This isn’t a championship team, but it should be competitive.
But here’s what happens when you lose to Kennesaw and Siena before Christmas: Your RPI takes a hike. The Jackets are 154th, which means they could improve 100 places and still not make the tournament as an at-large. And right about here you’re saying: Are we seriously talking about the Big Dance for a 9-9 team?
Well, yeah. Because the Big Dance is all that matters in college basketball. Because Paul Hewitt said before the season he believed this was an NCAA tournament team. And because, when you eyeball it, Tech’s schedule beyond Sunday is remarkably cushy.
The Jackets play Florida State only once, and that game is here. They play Duke only once. They don’t play North Carolina again. They don’t have to travel to Maryland. If the Jackets could win these next two, there’s a chance — a chance, I say — they could finish 9-7 in the ACC. And Tech under Hewitt has finished above .500 in the ACC only once, that in its Final Four season.
Understand: I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but I am saying it could. The ACC is hugely unsettled, and the Jackets are better than they’ve played. If Tech beats the Hokies and the Terps, we can talk more. If it loses these two, forget I mentioned it.
By Mark Bradley