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John Thompson III’s firing on paper almost makes sense.  Consecutive losing seasons for a school that once ruled the Big East.  A ninth-place finish this year in a conference that only has ten schools (and a home loss to lowly DePaul to boot).  A 69-62 mark over the last four years…with first weekend losses in the NCAA Tournament (Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio) the rule and not the exception since their Final Four run ten years ago.  You could even make the case that JT3’s Final Four team was built with his predecessor Craig Esherick recruits (Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert).  Forget about those who were shouting “Fire Thompson!” at Verizon Center…think about the 5,158 who actually showed up to watch the Hoyas host St. John’s.  But we don’t exist in a vacuum…and Georgetown’s heart and soul will have to find itself over the next few months as the parting with the son of Big John will need a while to take hold.

Think about where the program was when John Thompson, Jr. took over in 1972.  A private, catholic university that was near the White House but far from relevant.  A paltry postseason history that included one NCAA Tournament berth plus a pair of trips to the NIT.  Fresh off a 3-23 season.  Enter a 31-year old high school coach with a couple of NBA Championship rings.  Sounds like a bad sitcom on the CW, right?  But Big John turned around a program that was fighting for fourth place inside the beltway behind Maryland, George Washington and American (remember, this was during the Kermit Washington era) into a national power.  The 1980’s Georgetown teams ran through a newly created Big East conference and more often than not were cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden each March.  Unforgettable stars ranging from slippery guards like Sleepy Floyd and Allen Iverson to giants ranging from Patrick Ewing to Alonzo Mourning.  Fantastic supporting players from Victor Page to Jaren Jackson.  Under Big John, Georgetown became a Big Deal locally and nationally.

Thompson was more than just successful on the court- the first African American coach to win a national title was also a vocal supporter of student-athletes, once walking off the court before a 1989 game to protest the NCAA’s Proposition 42 that took scholarships away from academic non-qualifiers.  Thompson also went toe-to-toe with a D.C. area drug dealer to stay away from his players.  Big John provided a lifeline for many underprivileged young men…all while winning six Big East Tournament titles and a National Championship.  He’s still around the program to this day…sitting on the baseline near the home bench at Verizon Center.  And even seated, John Thompson, Jr. will always cast a shadow.

The transfer from the elder Thompson to longtime assistant (and former player) Craig Esherick in the late 1990’s was less than smooth.  One trip to the NCAA’s in his five full seasons…and no Big East finals appearances.  When John Thompson III came over from Princeton (with two NCAA appearances and an NIT berth) to succeed the fired Esherick in 2004, it felt natural to move from one heir apparent to the namesake.  And for a while it was amazing.  DePaul never got to the Final Four under Joey Meyer…and Sean Sutton was quickly disposed of at Oklahoma State.  Pat Knight?  A sub-500 record at Texas Tech.  JT3 won (albeit with Esherick recruits) and did so by staying true to his Princeton offense roots.  People recall the first round flameouts and recent winters of discontent, but I’m going to remember the John Wallace-Jeff Green-Roy Hibbert team that upset Ohio State in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen, advanced to the Final four in 2007 and ran into a hot-shooting Steph Curry and Davidson the following March.  Little did we know that would be the peak of the JT3’s thirteen-year tenure.

I always dreaded “Parent Observation Day” in elementary and middle school.  Tough to be “cool-at-school-Dave” when your parents are sitting in the back row.  And that was for two hours once a year.  John Thompson III has enjoyed the wisdom and guidance of his Hall of Fame father, but has also had his dad in the classroom with him for most of the last thirteen years.  Big John is not shy when sitting in the back row at press conferences, from calling out referees for sloppy efficiency or kissing former conference rival Syracuse goodbye after a 61-39 thumping at Verizon Center.  He’s also protective of his son, having sent someone to pipe down students chanting “Fire Thompson!” at a recent game. One can imagine despite however beneficial-how uncomfortable it was for JT3 trying to become a successful coach in his own right under a legend he couldn’t hope to match let alone eclipse.

Off the air with WTOP’s digital sports editor Noah Frank this week I mentioned how “it’s always easier to perform the autopsy than the diagnosis”.  There will be post-mortems on Thompson-the-Younger’s success and failures.  And reasons why recruiting wasn’t as successful the last few years.  There will be discussions about how the Hoyas play in a half-full NBA arena instead of a Cameron 2.0.  There will be short lists of who’s next, from Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley (not to be confused with brother Bobby) to current Charlotte associate coach Patrick Ewing (if you’ve read this far, you might have heard of him).  There will be a search led by Athletic Director Lee Reed and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.  But until one hears what John Thompson, Jr. has to say, the final word has yet to be spoken.

 

Regional Roundup- Thursday gave us three nailbiters and a blowout…not bad for the second weekend when your viewing options are fewer than the first two rounds.  And even the Kansas-Purdue game was competitive for 24 minutes…at least until the Jayhawks turned a 53-51 game upside-down by going on a 45-15 closing run.  They’ll meet an Oregon team that held Michigan scoreless for the final 2:04 as the Wolverines’ season ends with just three shots (all misses) in the last two minutes of their season.  Finishing droughts wasn’t the exception, as West Virginia didn’t score for the final 1:48 and miss 5 shots plus 2 free throws in that span in their loss to Gonzaga.  Arizona?  Nothing to show for the final 2:40 as Wildcats coach Sean Miller won’t have the chance to experience heartbreak in the Elite Eight this year.  The Musketeers move on to their first Regional Final since 2008–when Sean Miller was their coach.

Tonight’s Games- in Memphis it’s the bluebloods plus a team that wears blue.  Butler meets North Carolina in the early tipoff (try to tell the Tar Heels they’re the warmup act) while UCLA meets Kentucky (19 NCAA titles combined) in the nightcap.  Madison Square Garden is still recovering from losing both the Big East and ACC Tournament winners last weekend:  minus Villanova and Duke, the South Carolina-Baylor and Wisconsin-Florida matchups have a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl feel about them.

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Some Marches become memorable because your school steals a game it had no business winning…while others are made by incredible tournament runs that keep the season alive for another weekend.  The select few seasons end with your team playing for it all during the first weekend of April…with the chance to bring home hardware.  This was not one of those years for the area schools…as even George Washington fell Monday night in the College Basketball Invitational (also known as CBI) to UIC (previously known as Illinois-Chicago) in the Quarterfinals (I feel like I should continue the trend and call it the QF).

As the dust clears from a wild weekend–what happened?  If you went into the tournament recognizing Mount St. Mary’s would be overmatched with Villanova, each of the other locals (Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech and VCU) had potential red flags.  And each red flag was flown high.  And while the answer opening weekend was less than ideal for each school, as the offseasons begin there will only be more questions until next October 15th.

Maryland (24-9) had issues beginning with its January 1st loss to Nebraska where they did not score for the final six minutes of regulation.  Minus a proven post presence the Terps were reduced to a jump-shooting/drive-and-kick team this winter…and when they were hitting it was great.  But they had too many stretches of wandering in the offensive wilderness-against Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern-and losing Michal Cekovsky to injury limited their options inside further.  The Terps’ 76-65 loss to Xavier saw another one of those extended scoreless stretches (six minutes in the second half)…along with getting hammered on the boards by ten.  As Damonte Dodd graduates and L.G. Gill wraps up his one year with the program as a graduate transfer, all eyes are on Melo Trimble.  Will the 22-year old now projected to land in the middle of the second round by nbadraft.net return for his senior season?  Even if the junior departs, there’s a solid base in College Park with the freshman trio of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson.  Not to mention redshirt Micah Thomas. Will six-foot-ten center Bruno Fernando be the inside answer?  Come back next winter.  

I didn’t know the Musketeers were that loaded- Xavier is the only double-digit team to survive the first weekend, and Chris Mack’s team did so after entering the tournament on a 4-7 lurch where three of those wins came against lowly DePaul (I have yet to check with the NCAA office, but I believe until further review one has to refer to the Blue Demons as “lowly DePaul”).  They hadn’t been the same since losing point guard Edmond Sumner and the NCAA Tournament is a guard’s game, right?  While the victory over Maryland wasn’t a complete shock their dismembering (91-66) of #3 Florida State was.  Along with fellow Big East newbie, Xavier is flying the conference banner in the regional round.

Virginia (23-11) gained the reputation as “London Perrantes plus four guys from the Y” during a stretch where they lost six of eight…and had trouble shaking that status no matter how many good games Kyle Guy and Marial Shayok produced.  Perrantes was the only Cavalier on the roster in March averaging in double figures (transfer Austin Nichols was dismissed in November after scoring 11 points in his only game for UVa)…and Saturday in the 65-39 loss to Florida the rest of the team shot 14 of 42 (33%).  Perrantes leaves Charlottesville having been the pulse of the team that averaged 28 wins and brought home the school’s second-ever ACC Tournament title.  He leaves a roster of players who need to develop over the next offseason…from Shayok and Guy to Jack Salt (the New Zealander had a season-high 10 rebounds against the Gators) and Isaiah Wilkins (limited by illness in the NCAA’s).  The only commit so far is shooting guard Marco Anthony, so the next floor general will have to come from within the ranks.  Darius Thompson, we presume?

ACC stands for Annoying Conference Collapse- nine schools made the field of 68…and one by one each went down over the weekend.  While nobody had Wake Forest or Miami making the Final Four, Louisville and Notre Dame had each been in the top ten during the regular season.  And both were gone by the end of the weekend.  Same with Florida State and…Duke?  Granted-they lost to South Carolina in Greenville, SC-but the way the Blue Devils had been playing down the stretch their faithful were confident in (and their detractors were fearful of) a Final Four run.  Only North Carolina somehow pulling victory not only out of the jaws but out of the esophagus of defeat against Arkansas kept the league from going 100% sour before the Sweet Sixteen.

Virginia Tech (22-11) ranked last in the ACC in rebounding…and that was before losing top rebounder Chris Clarke to a season-ending ACL injury.  So it was no surprise that the Hokies got crushed on the glass in their 84-74 defeat against Wisconsin…especially when the Badgers blew up everyone’s bracket by bouncing defending national champ Villanova two days later.  But let’s sit back for a second…Virginia Tech made the tournament for the first time in ten years.  And despite a rapidly thinning bench, coach Buzz Williams’ team entered selection Sunday having won six of nine.  While Zach LeDay and Seth Allen have played their final games in maroon and orange, there’s a solid nucleus that has plenty of starting experience (truth be told, LeDay and Allen were coming off the bench by the end of the season).  Another recruiting class for the energetic Williams comes to Blacksburg…and next winter they try to post the school’s third straight winning conference record for the firs time since 1986 (three moves ago, or when they called the Metro home).  Even with a loss to the Badgers, the Hokies’ glass is more than half-full.

From Much-Maligned to Sweet Revenge- the Big Ten was undervalued early and often this winter, culminating with a Selection Sunday slap in the face to multiple teams.  How’d they respond?  Purdue fought back the ghosts of brackets past with two solid wins (including a great punch-counterpunch victory over Iowa State) and their first Regional trip since 2010.  Michigan continued its great play that started well before its 4-0 sweep through the Big Ten Tournament (6-2 in final eight regular season games)…and bounced Oklahoma State before upsetting Louisville.  Wisconsin?  The conference runnerup after being given a #8 seed found a way to eliminate defending champ and overall number one seed Villanova.  Instead of misery this March is filled with magic for the Big Ten-as the league’s three teams alive are tied with the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.  Maybe it was because their tournament was held in DC…

VCU (26-9) had issues shooting the three all season…tying for 248th in Division I.  Against an underseeded St. Mary’s (the Gaels were a #7 despite finishing the regular season 22nd in the writer’s rankings) in Salt Lake City the Rams were held to 2-of-13 from outside the arc in an 85-77 loss.  One wonders what sort of seed they would have received if VCU had managed to hold off Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals.  One doesn’t wonder about the force of nature that was JeQuan Lewis:  the senior went down shooting in his final game, leading the Rams with 30 points.  While the Rams return juniors Justin Tillman (2nd in the A-10 in rebounding) and Jonathan Williams (2nd on the team in assists), coach Will Wade won’t as the 34-year old wunderkind gets swept away to rebuild LSU.  Caveat Emptor:  the power conferences are littered with former VCU coaches, from Anthony Grant at Alabama to Jeff Capel at Oklahoma.  And Shaka Smart just went through an 11-22 campaign at Texas.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange finished the season 19-15 much like their inconsistent play mandated:  tipping off an 11am Saturday NIT game.  While Tyler Lydon is off to the NBA, longtime #1 assistant and “coach in waiting” Mike Hopkins is headed to Washington as the Huskies’ head coach.  This allows Jim Boeheim to stay after the 2017-18 season that was originally agreed upon as his retirement date (you know, after the probation that stripped the school of over 100 wins and 2 Big East Tournament titles).  Betty White applauds…

Bracket Busted- my CBSSports.com bracket did not lose a game the first weekend–because the computer site froze between 11:30am and 12:30pm. Epic fail, kids…but let that be a lesson to procrastinators worldwide. Get it done early…and watch suckers like me freak out at the last moment.

Conference Carousel- the ACC’s flameout (especially after last year’s incredible success) in the Big Dance this year reminds me of the Big East in the 1980’s.  1985 saw the league send three schools to the Final Four and post an 18-5 record, before going 4-4 the following March while getting shut out in the Sweet Sixteen.  The Big East bounced back in 1987 with a 14-5 record, two Final Four teams and a third that reached Regional Final.  So  2018 is on notice…

Sunday Night Special- I understand that TNT, TBS and TRU own the first Sunday of the tournament and thus are putting their games on at night for the biggest audience.  But could we move the 9:40 game to 4:40?  The 8:40 game (Duke-South Carolina) was the perfect cherry on Sunday’s games–making UCLA-Cincinnati seem like the cherry’s stem. It’s there but you don’t want to look at it…especially for those of us who have consumed 47 games over 48 hours of watching over four days.

While you’re watching the Turner guys try to one-up each other on how much they know, follow and care about the NCAA Tournament…

 

LOCAL profiles-

Maryland (24-8)- which Terrapins team will we get?  The one that started a program-best 20-2 and ripped off road win after road win while repeatedly stealing victory from the jaws of defeat (Georgeton, Richmond, Michigan State)?  Or the one that had issues rebounding and saw its offense go extended stretches without scoring (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue)?  Junior Melo Trimble was arguably the best player on this team from the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman, but during the preseason coach Mark Turgeon said that for the first time this was “his team”.  He can’t have turnover-filled games like he did in the Big Ten Tournament…while Trimble also needs help from the freshman trio of Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson.  A decent effort inside from Damonte Dodd wouldn’t hurt either.

 

Best Case- playing one game over a 13-day span recharges this team’s batteries and focus…and they find a way to put a slumping Xavier (4-7 finish with 3 wins over DePaul) out of its misery before shocking Florida State.  Back to back Sweet Sixteens? Even sweeter.  Worst Case- the “freshman trio has hit the wall” becomes more than just a theory while Dodd gets into foul trouble against a Musketeers team that ranked 1st in the Big East in rebounding.  Trevon Bluiett turns the Terps inside out and Maryland heads home without being able to visit nearby Disneyworld.

 

 

Virginia (22-10)- the Cavaliers can defend.  We’re talking #1 in the nation. Back to back efforts where they held ACC foes to under 50 points (and that’s with a shot-clock, four-corners devotees).  Unfortunately, there are two ends of the court and offensively UVa has been lacking as of late.  London Perrantes is a fantastic initiator, but the lack of a consistent secondary scorer means coach Tony Bennett has to find the hot hand in his rotation before feeding it.  The lack of a productive post-presence (6-foot-11 sophomore Jack Salt went scoreless with three fouls over 12 minutes in the loss to Notre Dame) puts way too much pressure on the perimeter.  On the bright side, they don’t have recent nemesis Michigan State (losses to the Spartans in 2014 and 15) in their region and last year’s kryptonite (Syracuse) is in the NIT.

 

Best Case- somehow Perrantes carries the Cavaliers past UNC-Wilmington and Florida with just enough help form Isaiah Wilkins, Devonte Hall and Marial Shayock.  Jack Salt makes more than two baskets for the first time in a game since December.  And somehow they avenge their January loss to defending champ Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen.

Worst Case- UNC-Wilmington (10th highest scoring team in D-I) runs them out of the gym Thursday afternoon.  Perrantes gets no help offensively and Jack Salt finds a way to foul out before the first TV timeout.  Once arriving home they tune in to watch Virginia Tech upset Villanova two days later (for shame!).

 

 

 

Virginia Tech (22-10)- the Hokies arrive a year early by hitting their stride late;  coach Buzz Williams team for the second straight year won six of nine down the stretch.  Last year it meant an NIT bid while this year it means Virginia Tech’s first trip to the big dance since 2007.  While Zach LeDay in the post (26 points and 11 rebounds a game this month) provides plenty of problems, the Hokies boast the best three-point shooting team in the ACC (#10 in Division I).  But defense and rebounding travel in the tournament, and the Hokies were last in the ACC in rebounding margin before losing top rebounder Chris Clarke to a season-ending knee injury.  And first round foe Wisconsin likes to board.

Best Case- the threes fall against Wisconsin as the Badgers crawl back into their late-season hibernation that lost five of six.  Villanova gets its scouting report mixed up and spends too much time guarding Justin Robinson from three and Justin Bibbs to penetrate…and the Hokies somehow reach the Sweet Sixteen as tournament darlings.

Worst Case– the rotation shortened to seven men due to injuries gets into foul trouble early against the Badger bigs, allowing Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes to have the Hokies for lunch inside.  The threes don’t fall and coach Buzz Williams sweats profusely throughout the second half of a 20-point blowout.

 

 

 

VCU (26-8)- the Rams are the most recent “local” school to reach the Final Four.  Despite more wins than the Terps, Cavaliers or Hokies the Atlantic 10 runners-up find themselves with the lowest seed…and in the 7-10 game for the third straight year.  Senior JeQuan Lewis is the catalyst on both ends of the floor (4th in the A-10 in assists and steals) while junior Justin Tillman has posted nine double-doubles in his most recent 12 games.  They draw fellow mid-major Saint Mary’s in the first round…and have the longest to travel (Salt Lake City) of the area schools in the tournament.  But that’s nothing new, as they’ve also been sent to San Diego and Portland, Oregon in recent years.  I’m sure there are plenty of direct flights from Richmond…

 

Best Case- the Rams get past the Gaels after holding 6-foot-11 center Jock Landale (17 points and 9 rebounds per game this season) in check.  Their havoc defense wears down an Arizona team that peaked last weekend in the Pac-12 Tournament and the former Cinderellas are able to wear the glass slipper once again en route to the second weekend.

Worst Case- Landale and 6-foot-10 big man Evan Fitzner are too much inside and the Saint Mary’s defense that ranks 2nd in the nation causes too many bad possessions.  The Rams learn you can’t press of misses and turnovers…and come up short.

 

 

 

ODDS AND ENDS—

Biggest Snub—

Illinois State (27-6). Two losses since Christmas Day-both to a 30-win Wichita State.  Meanwhile, middling major conference schools like Vanderbilt (first 15-loss team to make the field as an at-large) from a so-so SEC makes the field.  The other pretenders (Iowa, Cal, Syracuse, Richmond) had enough holes in their resume to justify their exclusion of a bracket that rewards quality seasons.

 

Most Overseeded—

South Carolina.  The Gamecocks finished 22-10 and tied for third in an underwhelming SEC while entering Selection Sunday with five losses in their last seven games…yet they get a #7 seed in Greenville, SC?  Honorable mention goes to Minnesota scoring the second-highest seed (#5) from the Big Ten despite finishing fourth in the league and getting swept by Wisconsin (a #8).

 

Most Underseeded—

Wichita State.  The 19th ranked Shockers were certainly shocked to get a #10 seed after going 30-4.  While their major-conference foes (LSU, Oklahoma) wins game against teams that wound up underperforming, they’ve lost once since Christmas.  And they get to play Dayton in Indianapolis…with a potential second round showdown against Kentucky.  Honorable mention goes to SMU, who gets a #6 seed and won’t know their foe until Wednesday night’s game between USC and Providence.  Perhaps the committee has a thing against 30-4 teams…?

 

 

Local team everybody bandwagons on-

Can we include West Virginia?  No?  In that case Maryland will play in the Sweet Sixteen after disposing of Xavier and Florida State.  Melo gets one more weekend as a Terp before going pro…

 

 

Sleeper Pick-

Wake Forest played their way into the field as the young nucleus gathered by coach Danny Manning won seven of its last eleven.  Forward John Collins is the type of player the Demon Deacons can ride into the second weekend, and Wake has prevailed recently when foes have zeroed in on him.  Honorable mention goes to Rhode Island…who got hot late en route to an Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and faces a Creighton team that hasn’t been the same since losing Maurice Watson, Jr. to injury.

 

 

Favorite to Win-

North Carolina despite losing in the ACC Semifinals is a #1 seed and begins tournament play in Greenville, South Carolina.  The Tar Heels are talented and when focused their ceiling is better than anyone elses.  For all the grief Roy Williams gets, he has as many National Championships (2) as Dean Smith has…and in half the tenure of his late mentor.  UNC won’t need an errant pass or late time-out to give him a third.

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Selection Sunday comes and goes with the usual joy (Northwestern is going dancing!), customary disappointment (so you’re telling me a Syracuse team that went 2-11 on the road and lost to sub-500 Georgetown and St. John’s at home belongs?) and hair-splitting (Duke beats UNC twice and doesn’t get the #1 seed??).  Not to mention storylines waiting as we begin a new countdown to Thursday.

Finally, the First Four is just that.  That’s right- no more referring to the first weekend as the second and third rounds!  I conscientiously objected over the years and called them the “round of 64” and “round of 32”.  And yes, I skipped the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders in the “new countdown” because that is how the NCAA treats these eight schools that make the field. Mount St. Mary’s, New Orleans, North Carolina Central and Cal-Davis:  welcome to the kiddie table.  Please make room for Providence, USC, Kansas State and Wake Forest.  I know Dayton sells these games out and goes the extra mile to make the schools feel special, but it’s kind of lame that a school/fan base has to fly to Dayton only to turn around and go to Buffalo, Tulsa and Sacramento for a game that takes place less than 48 hours later.  Have the First Four schools play at those eventual sites on Tuesday/Wednesday;  if anything you’re just cutting travel costs and letting them experience the true tournament.

No such worries for Maryland (24-8) regarding a Dayton destination, although there was a little more suspension this March than on the previous two Selection Sundays.  In 2015 and 2016 the Terps were listed among the first matchups in the bracket; this year they were the second to last school to read its name on TV.  Coach Mark Turgeon said, “I don’t know what their (his players’) reaction was because I was going crazy.  I got up so fast I almost fainted.”  Maryland gets a #6 seed in the West Region and a first round date with Xavier (21-13) Thursday in Orlando.  The Musketeers enter the tournament minus offensive catalyst Edmond Sumner (torn ACL in January) and are 4-7 since February 5th.  Three of those four wins came against lowly DePaul.  6:50 tipoff Thursday.

Virginia (22-10) also is headed to Orlando…but as the #5 seed in the East Region and a First Round showdown with UNC-Wilmington.  The 29-5 Seahawks bring a potent offense (10th nationally at 85.1 points per game) as well as a seven game winning streak.  UVa has won three straight round of 64 games under coach Tony Bennett; the stickler might be the fact that if they win the Cavaliers would likely face Florida.  I’ve been told by multiple sources that the University of Florida happens to reside in the same state as the city of Orlando, although many will tell you that the Magic Kingdom technically has jurisdiction. 12:40 gametime Thursday.

Virginia Tech (22-10) is in the same half of the East Bracket, getting the #9 seed and a First Round date with Wisconsin in Buffalo.  Having seen the Badgers’ big men Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ during the Big Ten Tournament (they lost to Michigan in the championship game), one’s going to wonder how the Hokies will hide the worst rebounding margin in the ACC.  Don’t worry-likely awaiting Buzz Williams on Saturday will be overall number one seed and defending National Champ Villanova.  9:40 start Thursday.

VCU (26-8) heads West as the #7 seed and goes to Salt Lake City for a Thursday evening game with St. Mary’s.  Yes, the Gaels who were actually ranked entering Selection Sunday will be the lower seed.  Three of their four losses were to top seed Gonzaga…and coach Randy Bennett’s team allows the second-fewest points per game in Division I.  Was the committee that miffed that they’d have to include Rhode Island in the field that they elected to punish the Rams in this manner?  7:20 tipoff Thursday.

Mount St. Mary’s (19-15 and not to be confused with Mt. Saint Mary’s) gets the Big Spin before the Big Dance and a date in Dayton with New Orleans Tuesday…although many fans and alums would much rather have a date with Dayton in New Orleans.  The Privateers boast a 20-11 record and a big man by the name of Erik Thomas;  the six-foot-five senior averages 19 points and 8 rebounds while making 59 percent of his shots.  The Mountaineers will have their hands full on the glass, as they rank 341st in the nation in rebounding margin while UNO is 63rd.  The winner gets to go from Dayton to Buffalo to face Villanova Thursday.  6:40 start Tuesday.

 

Missing the Field-

Alma Mater Update- the Orange went 18-14 en route to a #1 seed in the NIT.  Ironically the lack of wins away from the Carrier Dome ensures that they will play up to three more games in that building.  And it’s not just the NCAA that has a sense of irony:  less than one week after coach Jim Boeheim proposed moving the ACC Tournament from Greensboro, NC because it had no value SU draws UNC-Greensboro in the First Round.

Richmond (20-12) will play at Alabama in the NIT Tuesday.  The Spiders were unable to hold off a late charge by VCU in Saturday’s Atlantic 10 Semifinal and lost in overtime to the Rams-the third time they’ve been bounced by their neighbors in the A-10 tourney since VCU joined the league.  It’s always intriguing to see how a power conference team approaches the NIT after missing the NCAA cut; the Crimson Tide are in the “other tournament” for the third straight year and have lost on the road the previous two seasons.  It’s a good thing spring football practice doesn’t begin until next week.

George Mason (20-12) and George Washington (19-14) are headed to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) after Friday night losses to their Commonwealth Capital brethren in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals.  Wednesday at 7 the Patriots host Loyola of Maryland (15-16 with six losses in their last eight games) while the Colonials will entertain Toledo (17-16 with a 4-7 record away from home) at the same time.  It’s the second CBI for both schools:  George Mason was the 2013 runner-up while George Washington fell in the 2010 First Round.

One day until Selection Sunday has 14-count’em, 14!-bids up for grabs today.  While some are mere formalities (Duke/Notre Dame in the ACC), Vermont needed to take the America East to make the Big Dance.  Who’s ready for even more hoops?

Planting Seeds-

Maryland (24-8) is a #6 according to USA Today and CBS, and a #7 in ESPN’s model. That model would send them to Greenville, NC to face Vanderbilt-with Duke waiting in the wings.  The Terps were once 20-2 and crashed in their conference quarterfinals Friday night against Northwestern when they had issues running their offense as well as defending in a 72-64 loss.  Two ugly stretches saw the Wildcats rip off 20-4 and 20-2 runs…something we’ve seen all too often.  Moving forward, they need refs who will call more contact and opponents that don’t have size.

Virginia (22-10) is a #5 in the ESPN and USA Today models and CBS has them a 7th seed…one that sends them to Indianapolis and a matchup with Oklahoma State (Kentucky looms in the other half of their pod).  At least it’s not Michigan State…

Virginia Tech (22-10) is a #10 in the USA today model, an 8 by ESPN and a #7 by CBS.  The 7th seed gives them 30-4 Wichita State in the first round.  Wow, thanks.

 

All Eyes on Pittsburgh-

The Atlantic 10 got pushed out the door by the ACC as that league wanted to play in Brooklyn the next two years…and well, they are the Atlantic Coast Conference and all.  But Friday in the A-10 there was pretty decent drama…starting with top seed Dayton going down to Davidson as Jack Gibbs (he’s finally a senior this year, we promise) torched the Flyers for 34 points.  Rhode Island held off an upset-minded St. Bonaventure in the other afternoon session as the Rams have now won six straight.  The evening session saw two decent duels: VCU puts George Mason away 71-60 despite 11 points and 17 rebounds by Marquise Moore and Richmond ends George Washington’s run with a 70-67 triumph (Tyler Cavanaugh tallies 23 points and 12 rebounds in defeat).

That means for the third time this winter the co-tenants of the Commonwealth’s capital will clash.  VCU won both of their regular season meetings with the Spiders (81-74 and 84-73)…but had trouble containing both TJ Cline (averaged 16 pts/8 reb/8 ast) and ShawnDre’ Jones (scored 30 and 20 against the Rams).  Justin Tillman was effective in the first game (18 points with 9 rebounds) but hampered by foul trouble in the second.  Have we mentioned that VCU has beaten Richmond twice in the A-10 Tournament since joining the league and has reached the finals every year the Rams have been a member? 3:30 tipoff.

 

Friday in Championship Week has the ACC and Big East playing semifinal games in New York…while the Big Ten and Atlantic 10 have their turn at the Quarterfinal Quadrupleheader.  There are also limited opportunities for bubble schools to bounce their way into Sunday’s bracket.  An Indiana at 18-14 thinks it can punch its at-large ticket with two more wins…and who’s to say a 20-15 IU team on a roll doesn’t merit consideration?

Old Guard/New Money-

The ACC is a league named after an ocean that now stretches to the shores of the Ohio and St. Joseph Rivers; but it’s always been about tobacco road.  So even though this week’s tourney is being played in Brooklyn (which for the record resides on the Atlantic coast), there’s a contrast on tap tonight.  The first semifinal pits bluebloods North Carolina and Duke-two schools that have combined to win 37 of the 63 ACC Tournaments.  The nightcap?  Florida State and Notre Dame- two programs that have cut down the nets this decade.

Tonight’s Games-

6 p.m.

Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals- George Mason (20-12) plays VCU (24-7), NBC Sports Network. The Rams took both regular season games…topping the Patriots last Saturday as well as in December.  Mason is coming off an overtime win against Fordham…one where Marquise Moore tallied 25 points and 19 rebounds.  His numbers against VCU this winter? 13.5 and 8.5.  The Rams boast JeQuan Lewis outside and Justin Tillman inside…and have a history of dominating the A-10 tourney in their short time in the league.

8 p.m.

MEAC Semifinals- Howard (10-23) meets Norfolk State, ESPN3.  The Bison lasting longer than Georgetown as well as Virginia and Virginia Tech has to be the major upset of Championship Week.  The Bison lost to the Spartans 73-65 February 25th…despite 28 points from freshman Charles Williams.

8:30 p.m.

Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals- George Washington (19-13) plays Richmond (19-11), NBC Sports Network.  Conference Player of the Year T.J. Cline dominated the Colonials during their regular season sweep of GW, averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds while notching 7 assists in the Smith Center game.  Tyler Cavanaugh’s fresh from scoring 9 points on 3-12 shooting in the Colonials’ win over Saint Louis…they’ll need more from the senior against the Rams.

9 p.m.

Big Ten Quarterfinals- #25 Maryland (24-7) faces Northwestern (22-10), Big Ten Network. The Terps took the regular season matchup in Evanston by ten…but the Wildcats were minus Scottie Lindsey (mononucleosis).  The junior guard scored 16 points last night in the win over Rutgers, a game punctuated by a 31-0 Northwestern run.  But not as bad as the Scarlet Knights allowing 160 straight games during the football season.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

The first few weeks of March always brings us back to fundamental questions.  What do you value in an at-large college basketball team?  Do great wins outshine bad losses?  And how many Shamrock Shakes can we knock down before McDonald’s stops offering the seasonal treat?  Thirty-six invitations will be extended in four days…and as always there are more than fifty schools who think they should be in the mix.  But what criteria should be used?

There is the school of thought that you want the 36 “best” teams in the tournament, meaning if two schools played ten times the one that would prevail more often should get the bid.  That’s similar to the “eye test” that allows analysts to say a “team is much better than their record” and takes into account playing in a tough conference.  These people would tell you that an ACC school finishing 9-9 or 8-10 is a better fit for the field than the runner-up of the MAC or MVC Tournament.  So the teams with talent and ten home games in November and December that couldn’t prove in January and February that they belonged in the big dance get another shot?

The other viewpoint is that the NCAA Tournament should have a “representative field”, meaning that even though an Illinois State would probably lose to Michigan State more times than not, the Redbirds deserve to be in the field because they dominated their regular season.  Just as you will be told “there are no nights off in the Big Ten” (obviously nobody’s watched Rutgers this winter), the Missouri Valley Conference is loaded with schools whose sole purpose is to scout, prepare for and beat Illinois State.  And even though ISU failed their final (no shame in losing to #21 Wichita State), they aced the rest of their classwork.  MSU?  The Spartans struggled before Big Ten play (losing to Northeastern) and went 2-7 on the road in the league.  Of course everything changes if Tom Izzo is able to coax a run through the bracket in DC (and the Spartans are 12-2 in the last five Big Ten Tournaments). 

 

Alma Mater Update- Syracuse’s stay in the ACC Tournament was as short in Brooklyn as last year’s was in DC…a tough loss in the 8-9 game.  The Orange put down their blue-books as an 18-14 team that’s 2-11 in road/neutral games…and await the committee’s decision.  Coach Jim Boeheim in his press conference after teh 62-57 loss said that the ACC Tournament should be played in major markets like Brooklyn, Atlanta and Washington…as opposed to Greensboro, NC and thus earning the ire of the city.  While I agree with having the ACC rotate between top-ten markets, I would have waited until SU had actually won a game in the tournament before proposing to move it.

 

Automatic Berths Captured-

#4 Gonzaga wins the West Coast Conference title game over #19 St. Mary’s; it will be interesting to see where the committee seeds the Bulldogs and the Gaels given the “body of work” and “strength of conference schedule”.  South Dakota State captures the Summit League, Northern Kentucky wins the Horizon, and Mount St. Mary’s takes the Northeast Conference.  They’re still celebrating in Emmitsburg, MD, as the Mountaineers make their first trip to the big dance since 2008.

 

Bid on the line tonight-

Patriot League:  Lehigh at Bucknell, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network.  I’ve seen Tim Kempton terrorize the conference for four years, and even though he didn’t win a third straight player of the year award the senior still averaged a double-double this winter.  Bison big man Nana Foulland took the honor this March, and while the junior averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds in Bucknell’s two games against the Mountain Hawks this season-Kempton and Lehigh still came out on top twice.  The difference in those games was three-point shooting:  Lehigh shot 59% and 47% from outside the arc to 30% and 26% for Bucknell.

 

Tonight’s Games-

Big East First Round-Georgetown (14-17) vs St. John’s (13-18), 7 p.m. FS1.  There was once a time where the 8-9 game in the Big East was reserved for the likes of Seton Hall and Providence;  tonight the Hoyas and Red Storm are in that less than ideal place.  Which St. John’s team shows up tonight- the one that shot 5-for-25 in the second half of a loss in DC or the one that hit 54% from three-point range last month?  And which Georgetown team do we get- the one that outrebounded the Red Storm by 20 in January or the unit that turned the ball over 22 times at MSG?  And the reward for whichever one of these consistently uneven teams wins is a lunch date tomorrow at noon with regular season and defending national champ Villanova.

ACC Second Round-

Virginia Tech (21-9) vs Wake Forest (19-12), 7 p.m. ESPN2. The Demon Deacons held off a pesky Boston College team to keep its NCAA bubble hopes alive, while the Hokies still have the fresh memory of Wake coming to Blacksburg last Saturday and leaving with an 89-84 victory.  John Collins might merit most of the attention as the sophomore led the ACC in field goal percentage, was second in rebounding and third in scoring.  But Bryant Crawford was the one who scored a team-high 26 points at Cassell Coliseum;  and when BC doubled Collins early and often yesterday the sophomore from Silver Spring led WF with 20 and 6 assists.  Seth Allen scored 20 points in the regular season finale;  does the senior have one more week of miracles in his pocket?

Virginia (21-9) vs Pitt (16-16), 9:30pm ESPN2.  Another rematch from last weekend has the Cavaliers playing the Panthers for the third time this winter:  Pitt prevailed in the first game 88-76 (shooting 63% from three-point range while outrebounding the Cavs by 18)while UVa took the regular season finale 67-42 (holding Pitt to 20% from outside the arc and winning the battle of the boards by 7).  The Panthers are not your garden-variety ten games under .500 in the conference team:  Michael Young and Jamel Artis both finished in the top five in the ACC in scoring and they returned two other starters from last year’s NCAA squad.  The transition from Jamie Dixon to Kevin Stallings has been less than ideal…but they ended Georgia Tech’s bubble hopes last night in a 61-59 win over the Yellowjackets.  The Cavaliers are already in the field…but a loss here might knock them down from a 5 to a 6 seed.