Tech’s home losses to Georgia State and Mercer to start the season are its albatross.
Had the Jackets not lost those two games and were 9-3 instead of 7-5, they would be included in bracket projections, Palm said. Tech might be in even if it had lost only one of those games, he added.
“9-3 with no bad losses is very different than 7-5,” he said.
ACC Network analyst and former Louisville star Luke Hancock shared the opinion.
“If we’re sitting here and they’re 9-3, and their only losses are Florida State, UVA and Duke, we’re starting to think, Man, if they can find a way to win one of these big games and just take care of business down the stretch, they’ll be fine,” Hancock said.
Palm didn’t think that coach Josh Pastner’s decision to limit contact practices in the preseason to prevent against the possibility of a positive COVID-19 test sidelining the entire roster because of quarantining and contact tracing – a decision that could reasonably be considered a significant factor in the losses – would sway the NCAA tournament selection committee to regard the losses any differently.
“That’s not a thing,” Palm said. “It’s not the committee’s job to bail out a coach for a bad decision.”
COVID-19 protocols also cost Tech a chance to play a winnable game at Alabama-Birmingham in December. The Jackets also had league games postponed against Notre Dame, Louisville, Pittsburgh and N.C. State at a point when they were playing well. (The Louisville game will be made up Monday.)
“More than any other team in this conference, I think they have been beat up by the pandemic,” Hancock said.
However, while not on the radar as a bubble team, Tech has plenty of opportunity to make up ground quickly, starting with its game against the Seminoles, who were ranked No. 18 in NET after Thursday’s games. They beat the Jackets 74-61 in December in Tallahassee.
As of Friday’s rankings, it’s the first of five remaining “Quad 1” games. (The selection committee breaks up games into four tiers based on the opponent’s NET ranking and where the game was played – home, neutral site or road.) There’s two Quad-2 games and four Quad-3 games.
Palm projected that Tech would need to finish the regular season at least four games above .500. With 11 games remaining if no more additional postponed games are rescheduled, that would mean a 14-9 record.
“And even then, it’s going to depend on who you beat to get to that point,” Palm said.
A 14-9 record would mean playing the next 11 games at 7-4, which won’t be easy, but seems doable.
“We’re right there,” Pastner said. “We’re good enough to beat anyone in this league, and that’s not always been the case.”
One path to it would be to win the four Quad-3 games – home games against Notre Dame, Boston College and Duke and on the road against Miami – and then go 3-4 in the seven Quad-1 and Quad-2 games.
Quad 1: Home against Florida State and Virginia and at Louisville, No. 20 Clemson and No. 16 Virginia Tech.
Quad 2: Home against Syracuse, at Wake Forest.
Said Pastner, “It’s really what you do in Quad 1 and Quad 2. So you’ve got to try to win your fair share in those two areas.”
Obviously, the better Tech does against this group and in general, the more likely it is it can make it into the tournament.
“They’ve got to get a marquee win,” Hancock said. “They’ve got to get a win they can kind of hang their hat on.”
Of course, there is plenty in motion. Teams’ NET rankings will change, shifting a Quad-2 win or loss to Quad 3 and vice versa. Tech may have more games added back to the schedule. Pastner said Friday that, after the Jackets’ game Monday at Louisville, he’s open to playing another one Wednesday or Thursday before their Feb. 6 game against Notre Dame, if the opportunity presents itself.
Tech presumably will have the chance to build on its resumé in the ACC tournament, although there has been chatter that teams could opt out if they believe they are locks for the NCAA tournament in an attempt to preserve their health.
Also, any plan that banks on Tech beating Duke, even at home, is precarious. The Blue Devils’ 75-68 win in Durham on Tuesday was their 14th in a row over their Jackets.
But, Hancock, for one, believes the Jackets are capable.
“Every time I see them play, they go through stretches where I’m thinking, ‘Man, these guys should be a top-four team in this league, not just trying to be outside of the bottom half,’” he said.
It was how, for instance, the Jackets surged to an 11-point second-half lead against the Cavaliers on Saturday. But Hancock went on to say that Tech needs to be more consistent.
“It’s about maximizing every play because, as good as they can look at times, they can also look disinterested,” he said.
On Friday, forward and All-ACC candidate Moses Wright gave credence to Hancock’s assertions. He said that Tech didn’t play with the same energy against Duke that it had in last week’s win over Clemson and even in the loss to Virginia.
“We can’t have a Duke game again, against a team that we know that we’re better than,” Wright said. “We can’t, like, fold under pressure, or whatever it was that day that we had going on. We just can’t come out and play like that.”
It starts with Florida State on Saturday.
“It’s like, handle the games that are right in front of you, and then the bigger picture will show even brighter,” Wright said.