Experts explain what Georgia Tech has to do to get in NCAA tournament

Georgia Tech has a chance at making the NCAA tournament, two bracketology experts said this week. It is a nearly unthinkable position for a team that was expected to be one of the weakest power-conference teams before the start of the season and is an accomplishment in itself.

CBS Sports' Jerry Palm rated coach Josh Pastner's team as "on the fence" in his updated bracket Friday. ESPN's Joe Lunardi had Tech among his "first four out" in his Friday bracket for the 68-team field. The question now is, what do the Yellow Jackets need to do to make their first NCAA tournament since the 2009-10 season?

Said Palm, “It’s an uphill climb.”

The case for Tech is obvious — home wins over North Carolina (RPI: No. 5 as of Friday), Florida State (No. 6) and Notre Dame (No. 27) and a road win over VCU (No. 26).

The case against — a weak road record (2-7), an especially weak non-conference schedule (Tech's non-conference strength of schedule was ranked 257th Friday, according to warrennolan.com) and simply too many losses (Tech is 14-10). The result was a No. 77 RPI ranking entering Friday's games. If Tech wins its remaining home games (Boston College, Syracuse, N.C. State and Pittsburgh) and loses its road games (Miami, Notre Dame and Syracuse), rpiwizard.com projects the Jackets' RPI would be 75.

“If we’ve seen anything the last couple of years, they count good wins more than anything else,” Lunardi said. “I still look at losses and overall things. Their profile is obviously very uneven because their schedule-strength numbers are so bad, and history still seems to hold that if you’re right on the cut line with bad schedule strength, you won’t make it.”

Last year, Syracuse made it in at 72, which was among the highest RPI rankings to ever make it into the tournament as an at-large team. The Jackets have a similarity with Syracuse last year, in that the Orange’s strongest résumé point was their number of big wins. Still, an RPI over 60 would be shaky territory.

“I know that when you talk to committee members, they’re going to say RPI’s just one of the things we use,” said Doug Fullerton, the retired commissioner of the Big Sky Conference and a former selection-committee member. “You’ve probably heard that. However, if you really go back and look at the analysis of what we’ve done in the past, RPI is a great predictor of whether you’re getting in or not.”

With a home sweep and one road win over Miami, Notre Dame or Syracuse, Tech’s projected RPI would improve to 58 and give the Jackets a major check mark with a second tough road win.

“I’m a great believer in looking hard at those road wins and neutral-site wins because they really tell you about a ballclub,” Fullerton said.

In the win out at home/lose out on the road scenario, the Jackets would go into the ACC tournament at 17-13 overall (not counting Tuesday’s win over Division II Tusculum, which the selection committee will ignore) and 9-9 in the ACC. Palm and Lunardi disagree on what that would mean for Tech.

“I’m just saying, I think .500 in the league should be the goal,” Lunardi said. “And then a win and a loss in the tournament, I think, certainly makes them very alive.”

Lunardi contends that Tech is helped this season in that there aren’t many bubble teams. In other years, he said, “they wouldn’t be hanging around this close.”

Palm said that a 17-13 finish is dangerous territory. In the 23 years that Palm has tracked tournament selections, he said that only seven teams have earned at-large bids with 14 losses, and none have made it with 15. At 17-13, barring the Jackets winning the ACC tournament — which would bring an automatic berth and render bubble talk moot — Tech would take a 14th loss in the conference tournament.

If Tech could make it to the end of the regular season at 18-12 rather than 17-13, the Jackets’ chances would be significantly better, Palm said.

“There’s some teams out there that need quality wins,” Palm said. “Georgia Tech needs quantity wins.”

Unfortunately for Tech, its case isn’t helped much by other notable metrics. Entering Friday’s games, the Jackets ranked 80th in KenPom, 104th in ESPN’s BPI and 80th in the Sagarin ratings.

Tech obviously can help itself more in the ACC tournament. Entering Saturday’s games, Tech is tied for ninth with Virginia Tech in the ACC. The Nos. 10-15 teams will play the opening day of the tournament, March 8-12 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fullerton doesn’t believe that the argument that Tech is a much better team now than it was in November will carry much weight with the selection committee. The committee has made a point of evaluating teams on their full body of work and rewarding them for scheduling competitively. Picking a team that gets hot late flies in the face of that.

“You tell these people, the coaches, that this is what they should do to make it in, and then when they do it, they should make it,” Fullerton said.

To that end, Tech’s home losses to Ohio (No. 133) and Georgia (No. 63, by 17 points) and its watered-down non-conference schedule will matter, just as the big wins will.

Can the Jackets do it?

It’s possible. The Jackets have been strong at home in ACC play (4-1) and Syracuse is the only remaining team that’s in the neighborhood of Florida State, North Carolina and Notre Dame, all of whom Tech has beaten. Of the road games — Miami, Notre Dame and Syracuse — it’s not unreasonable to think that the Jackets could pick off one of those games, although both the Fighting Irish and Orange will have open dates before playing the Jackets.

For now, bracket talk is not Pastner’s concern.

“Too early right now,” he said. “We’ve got too much work to do.”