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Recipe for March Madness: How do the Hoos Stay Off the Bubble?

For the first time in a long time, UVA fans have their eyes set on an NCAA Tournament run. Yes, it is true that, regardless of our past struggles, the eternal optimist in me counts on an ACC Tournament victory and NCAA autobid each year. But finally, this year's ACC run could be just gravy on top of a successful conference season. However, sitting at 5-3 at the schedule's halfway point, this team has some work to do to ensure an NCAA bid.

With so much uncertainty still existing about the remainder of the season, some may argue that any predictions about how UVA will perform the rest of the season and what will be good enough to make the tournament are just glorified guesswork. Those people are right, but I am glad to glorify it. I'll briefly lay out a general path to the NCAA Tournament then let you guys have your say.

First of all, I'll work under the following guidelines:

At 11-5 or better, all could agree that the Hoos are easily in the NCAAs and seeded highly.

At 10-6, UVA would probably be a lock for the tournament. With this record, predicts an RPI of 39. We would have our solid out-of-conference victories, as well as some nice ACC ones. Additionally, we would either lose to UNC twice and FSU again and have no more bad losses....or we would have beaten these guys for another couple really impressive wins. With tiebreakers clinched over NC State and Miami, UVA would likely be a 4 seed in the ACC Tournament and receive a first round bye. A second round win (likely over the Wolfpack or Hurricanes) would be a good one, and a loss wouldn't be looked down upon. With a 23-7 record, UVA will not miss the NCAAs.

At 9-7, things could become much more dicey. The team would likely need an ACC tournament win or two (and wouldn't be assured a first-round bye to work with); even then, we would be at the mercy of the Selection Committee. Our tough ACC schedule means 9-7 is not a deal-breaker. However, though our chances would depend on exactly which games we win or lose, finishing with a suddenly middling record, 4-4 finish, weak out of conference schedule, and corresponding unimpressive RPI, would not be comfortable on Selection Sunday.

At 8-8...we wouldn't be completely finished, but may need a run to the ACC finals to get back on the bubble.

Basically, the bar seems to be clearly set at finishing at 23-7 (10-6), meaning a 5-3 finish to the regular season, to be comfortable on Selection Sunday. (I have no interest in being uncomfortable on that day). Here's the "recipe" I see us needing to follow (or exceed) to get there. Obviously, forecasting individual games is an impossible exercise, and I am not trying to do that. Rather, this is just a way of thinking about the degree of difficulty in the remaining schedule, and how we should play to hit that (admittedly made-up) 10-6 mark.

The "Must-Wins" (Win 2 of 2): vs. Wake Forest (2/8), vs. Maryland (2/18)

We already experienced one home loss against inferior competition when Virginia Tech won 47-45 at JPJ. Two of these games remain, and the Hoos have to win both. Wake Forest is 2-7 in ACC play and 197th on KenPom. Maryland is more respectable, but at 3-5 ACC (and 135 on KenPom), they aren't a team that should be beating us at home. Obviously, we have been far from unstoppable at home lately, but it's important to take care of business in these.

Tough Road Games we "Should-Win" (Win 2 of 3) @Clemson (2/14), @VT (2/21), @Maryland (3/4)

These three are some of our more interesting remaining games. All three are against teams we are better than; however, all are far from being in the ACC cellar (of BC, GT, and Wake Forest) and are capable of beating us on any given night. Going on the road and sweeping these guys would be a pretty impressive stretch. That said, I think stealing two of them is a pretty reasonable expectation. (Just please, don't let that loss come to the Hokies). Playing on the road in the ACC is tough, but the Hoos have shown remarkable poise in doing so this season in close losses at Duke and FSU and an impressive win at NC State.

The Big "Could-Wins" (Win 1 of 2) vs. UNC (2/25), vs. FSU (3/1)

The Tar Heels and Seminoles have firmly entrenched themselves among the top of the ACC. Both have raced to 7-1 conference starts, and are ranked in anyone's top 20. Both have shown vulnerability; UNC lost by 33 in Talahassee, and FSU lost to Clemson (not to mention a couple Ivy League schools before New Years). If the Hoos want to be considered at the top of the ACC, they need show off at least a win against UNC, Duke, or FSU. These two huge, winnable chances at home are the best time to do so. Virginia could very well win both, but the best bet here is 1 of 2, I think.

Gravy @UNC (2/11)

No one expects us to win on the road against a top-5 team. If we lose it, oh well. Then again, Virginia's system produces close games, and, despite the unfavorable matchup, a statement win is within the realm of possibility. No one would possibility say that UVA "needs" this win...but Hoo knows?

The chances that these "predictions" are correct are slim, with the huge vulnerability in college basketball. But that's my path to 10-6 and an easy NCAA berth. For what it's worth (and it's worth much more than what I say), KenPom gives us a ~31% chance at a 10-6 finish, a ~27% at 11-5, and a ~20% shot at ending 9-7. Here's to sealing up those NCAA chances sooner, rather than later, and saving Wahoo fans any early March angst!