In North American sports, there is no greater meritocracy than college basketball.
Did you win the tournament that crowns your conference champion? You get to play for the national title.
Did you have a great year that ended in one off night? You’re not necessarily out. But like a job seeker without an inside referral, you’ll have to apply with the masses.
There are 68 openings to be filled this March, and short of winning the ACC tournament, Virginia coach Tony Bennett needs to make his team attractive enough to garner one of the 37 at-large berths.
At 18-7, and in third place in the ACC with an 8-4 conference record, the Cavaliers at first glance look like ideal candidates. Three wins against RPI top-50 teams burnish their credentials.
With six games remaining in the regular season, 20-plus wins and a top-five conference finish are well within striking distance – usually more than enough to earn an invite to the NCAA tournament.
But this year’s Wahoo squad can’t coast in on the strength of their blue-blooded ACC pedigree. Just like this year’s conference as a whole, Virginia has some serious holes in their CV.
UVa’s biggest problem? Six of their seven losses qualify as ‘bad’ losses, coming at the hands of teams with triple-digit RPIs.
If those losses mark Virginia’s resume, then the 63-61 pre-Christmas setback in Richmond against Old Dominion is the indelible stain that may be too big to ignore.
A proud mid-major program with four trips to the Big Dance since 2005, ODU has fallen way past hard times and hit whatever lies beneath that. The Monarchs have already fired coach Blaine Taylor, and are currently slogging through the end of a 3-23 a season.
For UVa, dropping that game was getting fired from an internship after just one week. Try to explain that one away when you’re asking for more responsibility and a higher profile.
All of this has contributed to a lower-than-you’d expect RPI of 79 for the Cavs, which doesn’t bode well unless some serious moves are made.
Since the rating system was introduced, no team has received an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament with an RPI worse than 67, when USC snuck into the 2011 tournament and promptly laid an egg in the First Four – a performance that likely won’t escape the notice of this year’s selection committee when similarly rated schools like UVa come up.
Plenty of time remains for Joe Harris, Jontel Evans, and company to improve their standing, including tonight’s tilt with No. 2 Miami.
Though UVa is winless in their last 15 games played in the state of Florida, a good effort against the surging Hurricanes may empower them to take care of business the rest of the way down the stretch.
The rest of the slate is very beatable – even No. 6 Duke, recently rendered mortal in College Park by 18-7 Maryland.
A 4-2 record to finish the season – perhaps coupled with a strong conference tournament run – should be enough to get UVa’s application accepted. Anything more than that will just sweeten the deal.
Virginia doesn’t have to beat Miami tonight. They just need to show enough to keep their name in the discussion.