Tonight's basketball game at Comcast Center matches two coaches, Maryland's Gary Williams and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton, who felt snubbed a year ago after their teams were excluded from the NCAA tournament despite winning at least half their conference games.

But with less than three weeks until Selection Sunday, both coaches face a decidedly different, and more favorable, possibility this season. An examination of the prospective tournament field shows the ACC in a position to earn perhaps twice as many bids as it did last season, when it got just four.

At this point last season, the ACC had only five schools in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical formula used by the selection committee to help determine bids. This season, the conference has nine in the top 50. No other conference has more than six among that group.

"I'm not saying to choose just with the RPI, but the RPI does try to tell you what a team has done for the whole year," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The RPI shows that the ACC is the most powerful conference and that it has nine teams that could be eligible for NCAA play."

Duke joins four other conference schools that are virtual locks to make the 65-team field. The group of four others that still have work to do to secure a slot includes Maryland, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, none of which has a winning conference record.

Florida State (17-10, 5-8) is in the most precarious situation because of four consecutive losses, three of which occurred without Toney Douglas in the lineup. The point guard remains out because of a broken right hand, but Hamilton hopes he can return before season's end.

Despite the recent slide, the Seminoles remain in contention for one of the 34 at-large bids because of a schedule that ranks 12th in the country and that included an early-season victory over defending national champion Florida.

"It seems to be a moving target," Hamilton said of the selection criteria. "Each year there is an emphasis placed on different areas that I'm not totally aware of and have a grasp on. I think we definitely have eight or nine teams that are more than qualified to play in the NCAA tournament. Whether or not that becomes a reality, who knows?"

Maryland, on the other hand, has solidified its tournament hopes with a three-game winning streak that propelled the Terrapins (20-7, 6-6) up to 18th in the RPI. No team with an RPI that strong has ever missed the NCAA tournament.

Williams attributed the RPI position in part to scheduling strong teams from smaller conferences, namely Winthrop, during nonconference play. The coaching staff made a concerted effort to target teams from smaller conferences after being left out of the field last year for the second straight season.

What also has benefited ACC schools is what Craig Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner and former selection committee member, calls the "vortex" effect, in which conference teams benefit from beating each other. The phenomenon was most evident with last season's unprecedented success of the Missouri Valley Conference, which Williams had accused of outsmarting the RPI.

In the Valley, Northern Iowa achieved an early-season RPI in the top 15 after impressive victories. Because the Panthers lost seven conference games, all the Valley schools that beat them received a significant RPI boost.

A similar effect occurred in this year's ACC, where Clemson, Duke and Florida State all obtained early-season RPI listings in the top 15 because of gaudy records and key nonconference victories. Since then, however, those three teams have lost a combined 21 conference games, which provided a surge in the RPI to those who beat them.

Conversely, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Virginia all had RPI numbers worse than 75 on Jan. 1. But all three have thrived in conference play. Of the trio's 19 victories against top 50 competition, 16 of them have come against ACC opponents, according to the Web site of Jerry Palm, an independent analyst who projects the tournament field.

As a result, almost every ACC game offers a team a chance to beat a top-50 opponent, a feat the selection committee looks upon favorably. Seven ACC teams are among the 13 nationally that have six or more wins against top 50 teams. And no school in the nation has played more games against top-50 competition than Florida State, which will play its 15th game tonight against a team in that group.

If the Seminoles win, they will still have a losing conference record late in February. But it will be a considerable step toward matching their nonconference credentials and giving the selection committee a reason to include them.

"You choose somebody because of what they have done for an entire year," Krzyzewski said. "For those who put emphasis on the last 10 games or just conference [play], that's wrong. We have as many as nine teams that, right now, that are NCAA qualified based on what they have done all year."