John Gasaway, ESPN Insider 10d

Bubble Watch 2023: Brace yourself for NCAA tournament drama

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For those who track the bubble and ponder which men's basketball teams will hear their names called on Selection Sunday, the ACC has been at the center of the action in 2023.

NC State and Pittsburgh have both been on Joe Lunardi's "last four in" list since losing in the ACC quarterfinals. Clemson, the team that defeated the Wolf Pack, rose to "first four out" status in Lunardi's eyes. The Tigers have stayed there since losing to Virginia in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, on Lunardi's "next four out" list, there's still another ACC team, one that reached the 2022 national title game. Perhaps the committee will surprise us all and we'll learn the league was even more bubbly than anyone suspected.

In any event, the ACC is the only league with three teams this close to the projected cut line. The SEC can claim Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, and no other conference has more than one. Indeed, the Big East and Big Ten in particular give the appearance of more or less having sorted everything out already. (Though, to be sure, discussion does continue with regard to Rutgers.)

That will be for the committee to decide, naturally, but the ACC does look like the conference with the most on the line Sunday. The Wolfpack and the Panthers were viewed as relatively safe late in the regular season. Now both teams might be tracking as potential bid thieves more closely than they had anticipated.

Clemson has followed a different path. Despite joining Pitt in posting an impressive 14-6 ACC record, the Tigers received a cool reception from mock brackets. (So did the Panthers.) Part of the reason was said to be a "down" year for the ACC itself.

The league is indeed ranked below the Mountain West and clocks in at No. 7 at KenPom this season. Observers of the ACC are quick to point out, however, that the conference did win the 2022 ACC-Big Ten Challenge in November. Not to mention any dip in the top-to-bottom statistical strength hasn't prevented the top of the ACC from thriving of late.

Duke, Virginia and Miami joined Clemson in the ACC tournament semifinals. The Blue Devils, Cavaliers and Hurricanes are all projected as Nos. 4, 5 or 6 seeds. All three have looked better than those seeds for the past few weeks.

Possibly the ACC was in fact down in 2023 compared to its lofty historical average. Maybe this state of affairs has colored perceptions of both its best teams and its bubble teams.

ACC fans believe the next three weeks will show that a league can be both bubbly and mighty. The first part of that description definitely fits the ACC. It's conceivable we'll look back someday and say the second part was accurate too.

Here is our current projection of the bubble:

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