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It’s not March Madness…not even close.  But over the next few days we’re supposed to act as though the conference championship football games are the equal of the days leading up to Selection Sunday.  Even though conference winners will not be rewarded with automatic playoff berths.  And even though an Alabama loss would not knock the Crimson Tide out of the final four.  Instead we get to see another aspect of Selection Sundays gone by- watching teams finish under .500 in their league yet still get rewarded with postseason play.  Thank you, bloated bowl system that has one foot steeped in 1980’s tradition and another knee deep in ESPN programming demands.

Just as there was no 4-team playoff in 1973 when Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan all went unbeaten…there’s no 8-team bracket that rewards an Oklahoma that caught fire after two early non-conference stumbles.  Sadly for a 12-0 Western Michigan there isn’t a 16-team field (as you’ll see, FCS has a 24 team bracket yet somehow survives).  Thank goodness there’s a 12-member committee to decide four spots that have largely been determined entering this weekend.

How can the logistics be worked out…you might say?  Move the conference championships to the weekend after Thanksgiving.  It helps attendance at the non-high leverage matchups (Maryland would have drawn at least 35,000 instead of 30,220 for the Rutgers game) and would put the spotlight on the key games during a busy holiday week.  Play the quarterfinals two or three weeks into December (17th this year) and have the semis plus the finals at the regular time.

AAC Championship-

Navy (9-2, 7-1 AAC) vs Temple, noon, ABC.  The Midshipmen are reportedly holding the Bowl system hostage because they play Army next week…and heaven forbid if they win the conference title and lose to the Black Knights, giving the Cotton Bowl a 10-3 team instead of an 11-2 club.  Never mind that teams back in the day would lose games after accepting bowl berths in Mid-November.  To be in consideration for Cotton, the high-octane Midshipmen (11th in FBS scoring) have to find a way to score against an Owls defense that allowed just 10 points in November.  Senior Will Worth has been the catalyst this fall…and will need to be one more time.
Midshipmen edge the Owls, 28-23.

FCS Second Round-hold on, are you saying that 24 schools can coordinate travel and play more than one game in late November-early December?  In the words of Ralph Wiggum, “Me fail English? Unpossible!”

James Madison (10-1) vs New Hampshire (8-4), 2 p.m., ESPN3.  The Dukes outdueled the Wildcats 42-39 in Durham during the regular season-despite allowing 4 fourth quarter touchdowns.  Two concerns for JMU stem from that game:  UNH held their vaunted running game under 200 yards and the Dukes’ defense coughed up 512 yards passing.  One thinks that in Harrisonburg the #1 running game will find its rhythm…and they’ll have more rest than rust after the first-round bye.

Dukes do it again, 34-24.

Richmond (9-3) at North Dakota (9-2), 6 p.m., ESPN3.  This is where the FCS Playoffs becomes cruel.  Nobody should have to go to the Dakotas for any reason other than to visit Mount Rushmore–and that’s in South Dakota.  Even though you need to go north by northwest to get there.  Kyle Lauletta threw for 315 yards in the first round win over North Carolina A&T…but how will his throws fare in windy Big Sky country?  The Fighting Hawks have won nine straight after beginning the year with one-possession losses to Stony Brook and Bowling Green;  due to a scheduling quirk Richmond is the first one-name school they will face this fall.

Home field dooms the Spiders in a 31-27 loss.

ACC Championship-

Virginia Tech (9-3, 7-1) vs Clemson (11-1, 7-1), 8 p.m., ABC.  The Tigers look to return to the playoff while the Hokies try to play the spoiler…even though I believe if they win and bounce Dabo Swinney’s team out of the Final Four they’d cost their league big $$$.  It’s easy here to say that the Tigers are ripe for upset–as their six one-possession games were a little too much for a top five team (for the record on the other one-loss teams:  Ohio St had five one-score games and Washington had two).  But since their one-point loss to Pitt, Clemson has pounded a pair of bowl eligible teams by the combined score of 91-20.  The Hokies haven’t beaten a school with a winning record since October.

Hokies come up short, 35-17.

 

Last Week: 4-0!  Plenty to be thankful for…

Overall: 83-33.

 

Over the river and through the woods…to Jerry’s new house they went.  The Redskins came home on the short end of a 31-26 score.  Instead of scoreboard-watching regarding the Cowboys and New York Giants in a nip-and-tuck NFC East race, the Skins will spend the next month attempting to secure a wildcard berth (a Dallas win plus a Redskin loss over the last five weeks eliminates Washington from division title contention).  Lets get rid of the leftovers before they go bad….

First, the timing- yeah.  The Skins had to play Sunday night and then fly to Dallas for a Thursday afternoon game?  Beyond the acceptable mode of the NFL not really caring about its product here.  The biggest scheduling hose job I have ever seen in a sport that tries to maintain competitive balance whenever possible.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys played at 1pm ET–meaning they had roughly an 8-hour head-start on the Skins minus any flying because they didn’t have to travel.  Calling shenanigans.  The league could have just as easily slated major market Chicago and the New York Giants into the slot if they were worried about eyeballs.

Here Comes the Sun- what was with the glare at AT&T Stadium?  How did this slip past the attention of the architects and contractors and inspectors and the team and the league?  I can only imagine how Dustin Hopkins dealt with the glare trying to make a 55-yard kick.  At a stadium where no expense was spared, how did this glaring oversight take place?

Captain Kirk- the face of the franchise went warp speed, throwing for 449 yards and three touchdowns.  There were the usual misfires on third down, but that was one sweet dial up of the deep ball on 3rd and 2 that resulted in a 67-yard TD pass to DeSean Jackson.  Nine receivers caught passes and four finished with over 65 yards receiving.  The other guy just was able to produce more points.  Star Trek Episode Equivalent:  “The Menagerie”, a 2-parter where Kirk’s former Captain Christopher Pike is kidnapped by Spock so unused footage from the series pilot can see the light of day.  One of the best shows, even if Kirk got a little upstaged.

Running Aground- just a few days after erupting for 137 yards and 3 touchdowns, Robert Kelley came back to earth with a 37 yard performance on 14 carries.  While one doesn’t expect the Packers game every week, 50-60 yards from your lead back would be nice.  If you pass 53 times and run just 19 times against the Cowboys, odds are you might come up short.

Receiver Rotation- this time it was DeSean Jackson’s turn to be the deep threat, grabbing 4 catches for 118 yards.  Jordan Reed tallied 10 more grabs while Jamison Crowder, Vernon Davis and Pierre Garcon each made contributions.  As disappointing a day that it was for the ground game, the air attack was in gear bigtime.

Third and Mixed- the team moved the chains on 8 of 15 third downs…with Kirk Cousins completing 9 of 12 throws for 5 conversions.  Believe it or not, they ran the ball on 3 of 6 third and shorts…and converted on each running play!  The top target was a tie between Jordan Reed (3 with 2 catches and 2 conversions) and Jamison Crowder (3 with 2 receptions) while “short-left” was the #1 area of exploitation (6 targets, 3 catches and 1 conversion).  Yardage breakdown:  5-6 on third and short, 1-2 on third and medium, 2-7 on third and long.  That two of the non-conversions came inside the Dallas 10-yard line leaves the red zone offense once again a little red-faced.

The Defense Rests after being really accommodating-  we know the Skins D will not become the 2000 Ravens even if we click our ruby purple slippers three times.  And they held the Cowboys at bay for much of the day.  But when they needed a stop down 17-12 in the fourth quarter they allowed Dallas to drive 75 yards on 7 plays and keep the game at arm’s reach.  They allowed Dak Prescott to complete over 70% of his passes while sacking the rookie just once…and coughed up over five yards per carry.  After 11 weeks, this defense has the distinction of ranking 25th against the run, 25th against the pass and 25th overall.

Special Situations- Dustin Hopkins made 2 of 4 field goals…missing from 43 and 55 yards.  After making 15 of 16 to start the season, he’s converted 10 of 15 over the last five weeks.  And while I haven’t lost confidence in the kicker, one never knows what goes through a placekicker’s mind.

Flying Flags- what is this?  A season-low 3 penalties for 30 yards?  Both offensive infractions were against Ty Nsekhe (hold, false start) and the defensive whistle came against Donte Whitner (unnecessary roughness).  About those false starts- the Skins now have 19 on the season, or second most in the league.  The most costly flag?  In the second quarter when Nsekhe was whistled for the hold on 2nd and 13…turning a 3rd and 13 into a 2nd and 23.  Dustin Hopkins would miss a 43-yard field goal attempt a few plays later.

Dissecting the Division- Dallas (10-1) not only owns the top spot in the NFC East, but also has a two and a half game lead for the #1 seed in the conference.  The New York Giants 27-13 win over Cleveland makes them the least-inspiring 8-3 team ever, but one that holds down second place in the division but the first wildcard.  The Redskins at 6-4-1 are in third place and are clinging to the final playoff spot by half a game over Tampa Bay and Minnesota.  Philadelphia?  After losing on Monday night to Green Bay the Eagles are 5-6 and in last place of the NFC East…and 11th place in the conference.

The NFC Beast- Philly’s loss to the Packers robs the division of a 30-13-1 record through 11 weeks, which would have simply been awesome.  But 29-15-1 isn’t too bad either, just a little better than the AFC West’s 29-15.  The AFC North remains the dumpster fire of divisions with a 13-27-1 mark…as now Cincinnati (three straight losses since their bye week) is doing their best to keep Cleveland (even worse than their 0-12 mark would suggest) company.  The Browns didn’t give up their #1 for Griffin, did they?

 

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November is for Closers in college football.  You can have a great coming out party Labor Day weekend and dazzle the world for two months…but in order to reach one’s goals you have to produce in the money month.  For Ohio State, that means turning a fortunate spot into an overtime victory.  For Louisville, that means watching a storybook season turn sour the last two weeks with disappointing defeats.  Lessons were learned down the stretch by the area schools as well:  Maryland survived its November nightmare to punch a ticket to the postseason, Virginia Tech returned to making travel plans to a pair of postseason games, Navy staked its claim on a January appearance and Virginia learned it has a way to go before becoming competitive.  Closing Month is in the books.  Bring on “I can’t believe there are this many bowl games” month…

Presto’s Pipe Dream Playoff- Yes, I know that there’s just a four team playoff.  But in the world where Ted’s wife didn’t die in the final episode of “How I Met Your Mother”, eight schools advance to December’s Dance.  We send the five major conference winners plus three wildcards (sorry, Western Michigan- you make the 16-team field that only exists in the world where George Lazenby does more than one James Bond film).  So with a five automatic bids to be decided this weekend here is where we stand…:

#1 Alabama and #2 Ohio State would appear to be safe…as even a loss by the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game would be bad enough to drop them below the Buckeyes or a 2-loss team for one of the wildcards.  Same case with the idle 11-1 Buckeyes. The Big Ten and Pac 12 title tilts as well as the Big 12 matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are virtual elimination games as well.  All the while #5 Michigan sits, waits and watches to see if they fall any further (for example, Virginia Tech or Florida upset wins would certainly result in Alabama or Clemson getting a wildcard over the non-division winning Wolverines)…and there’s a disaster scenario that may bounce the Tigers.  Isn’t this what we want…high-leverage football games in December determining who plays on and who stays home?  At the very worst, you could bump the championship games to Thanksgiving Weekend and move the rest of the schedule up one week-I’m sure the 30,220 who attended Maryland-Rutgers wouldn’t mind getting that game out of the way a week earlier to concentrate on hoops.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange lost 64-50 and 76-61 Saturday…and the latter score was the football result.  Props to Amba Etta-Tawo for enjoying a fantastic senior season for SU…and hopefully the defense will get better between now and next fall.  A lot better as the 4-8 Orange deal with an early hibernation.

 

Maryland (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) became bowl-eligible with a 31-13 rout of Rutgers.  The Terps scored on their second play from scrimmage and never trailed…sending the Scarlet Knights to the first 0-9 Big Ten season since Indiana in 1984.

Terrapin Triumphs: Ty Johnson rushed for 168 yards…while the team tallied 318 yards on the ground (at 7.1 yards per carry).  The defense sacked Giovanni Rescigno seven times.  Jermaine Carter Jr. tallied 15 tackles, 2 sacks and a recovered a fumble he forced inside the 10-yard line.  The return game was a difference-maker early, as D.J. Moore’s 35-yard return of the opening kickoff set up the first score and Teldrick Morgan’s 83-yard punt return gave the Terps more points in the first quarter than they had in their three previous games combined.

Terrapin Troubles:  As good as the offensive line was in opening holes for the running game, they had issues protecting the passer at Perry Hills was sacked four times.  One of the reasons why the offense converted just 4 of 13 third down attempts.  Adam Greene missed two field goal attempts (46 and 34-yarders) before Mike Shinsky replaced him and nailed a 41-yarder.  Nine penalties for 60 yards helped keep this one closer than it should have been.

Next:  It’s wait and see as the Big Ten could get one or two teams in the playoff…affecting the pecking order of which school goes to which bowl.  SB Nation has the Terps tangling with Georgia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl…while CBS’ Jerry Palm has them facing Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl.

 

#19 Virginia Tech (9-3, 6-2 ACC) had already clinched the Coastal Division when it took to the field against Virginia (2-10, 1-7 ACC) Saturday, thanks to North Carolina’s loss to NC State.  It didn’t look like the Hokies were playing just for pride in the 52-10 thumping of the Cavaliers-the 13th straight win in the series by the boys from Blacksburg.

Hokie Highlights:  Senior fullback Sam Rogers rushed for a career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns.  Jerod Evans threw for two scores and ran for a third while breaking Logan Thomas’ school record for total yardage in a season.  Andrew Motuapuaka tallied six tackles, an interception and returned a fumble 70 yards for a touchdown.

Hokie Humblings: Tough to find any in a 42-point thumping of an in-state rival, but Joey Slye missed a 45-yard field goal attempt and Mitch Ludwig averaged under 35 yards per punt.

Next:  Saturday in Orlando at 8 p.m. against #3 Clemson (11-1, 7-1) in the ACC Championship Game.

Cavalier Congrats:  Taquan Mizzell concluded his career with 113 yards rushing, finishing just 60 yards shy of 1,000 for the season.  Micah Kiser notched 14 tackles while Quinton Blanding added 12 stops with a fumble recovery.  Nicholas Conte averaged 42.3 yards over his ten punts (10!).

Cavalier Concerns: the quarterback carousel from the Mike London Magic Eight Ball days returned, with neither Matt Johns nor Kurt Benkert able to move the offense until the second half (3 for 16 on third down).

Next:  A full offseason of evaluating and a new recruiting class.

 

#20 Navy (9-2, 7-1 AAC) perhaps did some location scouting before and after its 75-31 win over SMU…as the Mids could very well wind up in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl.  They still have to win their conference championship game to solidify a spot…and then there’s that Army game the following week.

Midshipman Medals:  How about 600 yards of total offense?  Will Worth shined again with 107 yards and three touchdowns rushing (he also passed for a TD).  They did not punt at all…again (Virginia’s Nicholas Conte must be shaking his head at that fact).  The defense tightened up and allowed just 7 points in the second half while intercepting the Mustangs twice after intermission.  Micah Thomas tallied 10 tackles and Nnamdi Uzoma notched two sacks.

Midshipman Miscues: Even with a great second half, it’s tough to ignore the 31 points put on the board by SMU.  They also went 12-19 on third down.  The Mids are fortunate they won’t have to face South Florida (the Bulls put 52 points on the board last month in Tampa) next weekend.

Next:  Saturday at noon against Temple (9-3, 7-1) in the AAC Championship Game.

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Even though it’s for a potential playoff berth instead of a place in the Rose Bowl, Michigan-Ohio State is the game that will define this upcoming weekend.  Even though it’s played at noon instead of in prime time, this is the showdown that will have everyone watching and then rehashing.  It’s a defacto elimination game as while the winner is not assured of a playoff berth (or in Ohio State’s case even a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game), the loser gets to practice their “no, playing in the (insert bowl’s name here) Bowl is not a letdown at all” speech.  But Ohio State-Michigan is a lot more than that.  College football is at its best when its premiere programs are producing and even better when it’s major rivalries meet in high-stakes showdowns.  While the era of 1968-80 (when either the Buckeyes or the Wolverines went to Pasadena) is long gone, these two teams are still the class of the conference (at witnessed by Maryland getting outscored 121-6 over a two-week span by the duo).  Even if Penn State winds up playing Wisconsin for the actual Big Ten title.  Because you can win a tie-breaker in the standings, but you can’t upstage the horseshoe.  And when you look at the Buckeyes’ home field in Columbus, you see Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines along with Hall of Fame coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.  You see JT Barrett and Jabrill Peppers…but you also recall the exploits of Heisman Trophy winners Archie Griffin and Desmond Howard.  You hear “Hang On Sloopy” and “Hail to the Victors”…while seeing the dotting of the I.  You look at the field in Columbus and are reminded that even when this game isn’t technically a big game, it’s a huge matchup.  You wish your school had a rival you loved beating and hated losing to even 10% as much as this one.

 

Alma Mater Update- Year I of the Dino Babers Era ends mercifully Saturday against a Pitt team that upset Clemson on the road earlier this month…and boasts a running back named James Conner who not only destroys opposing defenses (1700+ yrads rushing as a sophomore) but also beat Hodgkin’s Lymphona.  Meanwhile, men’s and women’s basketball are both off to strong starts.  So a potential Pinstripe Bowl countdown will continue next fall…while one sweats out Orange hoops and lacrosse in the interim.  Go Orange…

 

Maryland (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs Rutgers (2-9, 0-8), 12 p.m., ESPNews.  As bad as things have been for the Terps during their four game slide, the Scarlet Knights have been shut out four times in conference play-losing games 39-0, 49-0, 58-0 and 78-0.  Quarterback Perry Hills and his shoulder remain in the land of limbo…but Rutgers is exactly the team you’d be okay with a backup QB facing:  13th in the Big Ten in yards and points allowed…13th in sacks and 13th in defensive passing efficiency.  And their offense is worse.

Terrapins Triumph, 30-18.

 

Virginia (2-9, 1-6 ACC) at Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2), 12 p.m., ESPN2.  Have we mentioned that the Hokies have won this matchup 12 straight years?  Last fall they clinched bowl eligibility with a victory in Charlottesville…and this year they can wrap up the ACC Coastal Division with a win or a North Carolina loss to NC State.  It’s easy to call this matchup a tale of two quarterbacks;  but while Jerod Evans has had the season for Tech that UVa hoped Kurt Benkert would have its more of a difference of defenses.  Under longtime coordinator Bud Foster the Hokies haven’t missed a beat-and some could say the defense has been better this fall.  Bronco Mendenhall’s D in Charlottesville is earning one…near the bottom in the ACC at just about every category.  At the end of another season where the wins were rare but the great Virginia wine was plentiful, Kippy & Buffy go out in style: enjoying a Chateau O’Brien 2011 Limited Reserve Tannat:  “full bodied, dense & concentrated – with black fruit flavors & a silky smooth finish.”  Break out the garlic dill jack on club crackers.

Hokies make it a lucky 13 straight, beating the Cavaliers 28-10.

 

Richmond (8-3) vs North Carolina A&T (9-2), 2 p.m., ESPN3.  While many schools are focused on finishing their regular seasons, the Spiders begin their postseason run with a home game against the Bulldogs.  It’s a contrast of strengths:  Richmond has made its money through the air this fall while the NC A&T has dominated on the ground (ranking in the top 20 of FCS in both rushing offense and defense).  In November that takes a higher priority…and Richmond is also coming off a bad loss to William & Mary.  But Kyle Lauletta has at least one more great game in him this year.

Spiders advance, 36-24.

 

Navy (8-2, 6-1  AAC) at SMU (5-6, 3-4), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU.  The Midshipmen have already locked up a berth in the AAC Championship Game…but a win against the Mustangs will further their ambitions of potentially playing in a New Year’s Day bowl. Actually, the New Year’s Day Bowls will be played on January 2nd this year because the NFL’s regular season wraps up on Sunday the 1st.  Could anything derail the Mids?  Actually, SMU can pass the ball (4th in the AAC) and Navy ranks last in the conference in defensive passing efficiency.  But since October, only Air Force has held the runaway option to under 28 points.  SMU won’t be the second.

Mids make it happen, 35-20.

 

Last Week: 8-2.

Overall: 77-33.

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Brenda Frese enters her 15th season at the helm in College Park.  She’s built a program that’s won ACC and Big Ten titles…while becoming a fixture in the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four.  This fall she welcomes the number one recruiting class-and if there’s anyone who can successfully maximize six freshmen and a transfer into a 31-win team, it’s Frese. “For me, this is my favorite part,” Frese said, “blending the pieces…figuring out who goes where…what their strengths are and forming your team.”  She has a history of making things work:  the 2006 National Championship team featured two freshmen starters and Frese’s 2014 Final Four team received major contributions from multiple freshmen.

The freshmen from the 2014 Final Four team are now seniors.  Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had a breakout junior campaign, averaging 20 points and 6 rebounds per game while leading the team in blocked shots and finishing second in steals.  Each season the Aliquippa, PA product has come back with extra wrinkles to her game.  What is Shatori looking to add this fall?  “Be that puzzle piece…or that flexible, that versatile player coach needs me to be,” Walker-Kimbrough said, “if she needs me to rebound or strictly defend, be that player.”  Brionna Jones is the other senior on this roster…and the low-post fixture averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds as a junior with the highlight reel of a 24 point performance against #1 UConn.  Both Walker-Kimbrough and Jones are more than just productive on the floor. “What I’ve been most impressed from them with has been the leadership piece- of blending these six freshmen and our new players,” Frese said, “we are definitely playing for these two seniors this season.”

 

The Terps incoming freshman class boasts both quantity and quality:  the six-player class is headlined by Meridian, Idaho’s Destiny Slocum.  “Her motor is just incredible,” junior guard Kristen Confroy said,”she just runs all over the place. And her talent as a basketball player is largely due to her openness to learning-she’s always asking questions.  I’m really excited to play with her.”  Slocum’s one of three five-star recruits in the six-player class:  six-foot-five Jenna Staiti will provide depth down low while wing players Blair Watson and Kaila Charles will add perimeter presence on both ends of the floor.

In the Terps’ two preseason games, both Slocum and Charles started while all six saw extensive time on the floor.  What also helped the blending of the incoming talent to an already stacked roster was the team’s summer trip to Italy.  “It just really helped because we really got some game feel,” Slocum said, “and just being in an uncomfortable area and a place we didn’t know.  Which is an important part of bonding-on and off the floor.”  With upperclassmen Kiara Leslie and Aja Ellison redshirting due to injuries, it’s that much more important for the new kids to contribute.

Different year, similar expectations.  The Maryland women’s basketball team starts the 2016-17 season as Big Ten favorites and in the top ten nationally (#6 in the writers’ rankings, #5 in the coaches’ poll).  “We really don’t talk about rankings or preseason and where people select us,” Frese said,”because for us…obviously we want to be there at the end.  For us it’s just about getting better.”  The Big Ten boasts a new-found nemesis in Ohio State as the Buckeyes beat the Terps twice last year but finished behind Maryland in the standings and were upset in the conference tournament.  They begin the year ranked one spot behind the Terrapins in both national polls.  Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan are also expected to contend for NCAA Tournament berths.  Two non-conference games jump off the schedule:  a December 1st trip to #5 Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge…and a December 29th showdown in College Park against four-time defending champ UConn.

 

 

 

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After taking a break from their near-annual series last winter, American and Howard meet on Saturday, December 3rd.  One of the many dress rehearsals for two schools in one-bid leagues.  For AU and HU, RPI and SOS are simply excess filler in alphabet soup when the calendar turns to March–as the only way either school gets to the NCAAs is to win its respective league tournament.  American is just two years removed from taking on Wisconsin in the Round of 64, while Howard has its best chance in a quarter century to be playing in the big dance.

Yes, you read correctly.  It’s taken some time, but coach Kevin Nickelberry has Howard poised to make noise this winter-picked to finish first in the MEAC preseason poll.  A far cry for a school that not only hasn’t had a winning season since 2001-02, but had lost at least 20 games for eleven straight years.  Senior guard James Daniel III led Division I in scoring (27.1 points per game) last winter, but injuries (primarily to James Miller who was averaging 15 points per game before going down in December) butchered the Bison’s hopes of building off the previous campaign’s 16-16 mark.  Daniel and Miller  are just two of the top eight players in Howard’s rotation returning, so depth and experience should not be an issue.  Six-foot-ten Marcel Boyd (9.9 rebounds per game) and six-foot-seven Solomon Mangham (5.6 boards per contest) both enjoyed breakout junior seasons despite each missing time with injuries.  That’s a nice presence down low to let both Jameses go to work outside.

The schedule begins, ominously enough, in Ann Arbor Friday evening against NCAA Tournament hopeful Michigan.  The non-conference slate reads like a who’s who of area teams:  in addition to their home game against American, the Bison visit Georgetown, George Washington, Maryland, VCU and Old Dominion.  The MEAC schedule was kind this winter;  South Carolina State was picked to finish second and Hampton was ranked third in the preseason-and Howard only has to face each school once during the regular season.

American enters year four under coach Mike Brennan…and even though he didn’t recruit his current seniors, Brennan knows they’ve been instrumental to his success. “They bought into what we’ve been doing right away,” Brennan said, “having a group do that immediately and having them over the course of four years was just as helpful as being able to go out and recruit your own guys who’d fit with what you’d want to do.”  The Eagles have a major identity change with Jesse Reed, after exhausting opposing defenses throughout his career, has finally exhausted his eligibility.  One wouldn’t be surprised if the other Patriot League teams took a collection for Reed’s graduation present- the 6-foot-5 guard from Saltsburg, PA led AU in scoring each of his final three years and was the team’s top rebounder his last two seasons with the Eagles.

In theory, Delante Jones will have to step into the void but the sophomore from Chantilly will attract plenty of defensive attention.  “To be honest, I think he’ll have a tough year as people know about him and he’s our leading returning scorer,” Brennan said,”but he’s one of the hardest workers and one of the more coachable guys I’ve been around.  He’s made a lot of strides in the preseason.”  Serbian center Andrija Matic, George Washington transfer Matt Cimino and freshman Mark Gasperini each bring 6-foot-10 frames into the post.  Do they rebound by committee or does one of the bigs become the lead dog?

The schedule begins with a bang-an opening night date with #25 Maryland Friday, November 11th before they visit Texas A&M.  There’s also a December duel at defending National Champion Villanova.  “Those games usually sound better in recruiting in June…than they do two days before you’re going to play Maryland.” Brennan said, “it’s a great opportunity for those guys and they’re ready to compete.  You try to put together a schedule that prepares you for league play.”  American is picked to finish fifth in the Patriot League…a conference whose tournament they won in Brennan’s first year and whose title they played for in his second season at the school.  “It’s a great league-eveybody knows each other.  Obviously I think they got it right with the top four teams…those are the older teams this year.” Brennan said, “but the league has shown there’s not a big discrepancy between who finishes first and who finishes last.”  How well this team gels around Jones could determine where AU winds up…

 

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Life is tough at the mid-major level, even when you’re good. Just look down I-95 at VCU. Over the years, the Rams have made the NCAA Tournament on multiple occasions, even reaching the Final Four in 2011. But with every 20-win season, there’s always the thought that a school like Texas comes calling for Shaka Smart. Or Alabama nabs Anthony Grant.  Or Oklahoma hires away Jeff Capel. Or East Carolina swipes Mack McCarthy to lead the Pirates to greatness…really, Mack? ECU? You couldn’t dream any higher?

 

That’s what makes the current situation at George Washington all the more difficult to stomach. It’s tough to sustain success when a Mike Jarvis bolts for the Big East, or when you name Tom Penders your coach a hire too late in his career. Mike Lonergan took over a struggling program five years ago and delivered 97 victories, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and this past March’s NIT Championship. When Pitt and Rutgers came inquiring this past offseason, the D.C. area native instead focused on taking his program to the next level. The only way Lonergan was going to leave GW would be if Bill Self departed Kansas, prompting Mark Turgeon to leave Maryland for his alma mater and creating a dream vacancy for the ex-Terps assistant.

But instead of basking in a 28-10 mark and the NIT title, Lonergan’s program came undone in the aftermath of a Washington Post report about verbal abuse towards his players and improper conduct towards school administrators. The firing came well after the usual job-hopping season in Division I…so for now GW is in the phantom zone with interim coach Maurice Joseph. Can the 31-year old impress the powers-that-be enough to be the long term solution?  “There’s really no time to dwell on what’s happened,” Joseph said. “Teams picked ahead or below us in the league don’t care about a coaching change. All we can focus on is moving forward.”

It would be a tough task for any team…even more so minus departing seniors Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald (three of the four leading scorers last winter). But six-foot-nine forward Tyler Cavanaugh returns for his senior season; the transfer from Wake Forest averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds in his first year with the Colonials. After a whirlwind summer, he’s just ready to play.  “It’s been great just to get on the court and play and move forward,” Cavanaugh said. “Everyone’s going to have to play a pivotal role for us. We’re going to be playing a good amount of guys.”  Junior guard Yuta Watanabe is the only other returnee who averaged even 10 minutes a game last season. With everything that’s happened, GW has been picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic 10. Before you freak out, there ARE 14 schools in the league.

George Mason went 11-21 during Dave Paulsen’s first season in Fairfax, and he might just feel like he’s starting all over again this fall.  “It took longer than I would have liked, but we really established some practice habits, work ethic, and attention to detail — I think that was the biggest thing,” Paulsen said. “We’re trying to re-establish it because we got five freshmen and 11 of our 13 players are freshmen and sophomores.”

Leading the youth movement is sophomore Otis Livingston II, after the 5-foot-11 guard from Linden, NJ, paced the Patriots in scoring and assists as a freshman.  “I think the thing he brings is unbelievable passion and focus every single day,” Paulsen said. “He’s not going to be outworked. I think that kind of rubs off on the rest of the team.”  Livingston isn’t alone; seniors Marquise Moore and Jalen Jenkins plus sophomore Deandre Abram logged major minutes for a team that posted four of its five A-10 wins after February 1 (including an upset of VCU).

Paulsen’s first true recruiting class brings a pair of three-star prospects to campus, but Lanham, MD power forward AJ Wilson and shooting guard Ian Boyd aren’t expected to make immediate contributions.  “Learning what to do and then learning how to do it at full speed against a guy who’s every bit as big and strong, if not bigger and stronger than you, is a challenge,” said Paulsen of his new talent.

After a non-conference slate that includes a trip to Penn State as well as home games with former CAA foes Towson and James Madison, Atlantic 10 play tips off with a December 30 duel against VCU. The Rams are picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10, and Will Wade’s team is one of four in the league to at least receive votes in the national preseason rankings.  “The top of our league is outstanding…but the bottom of our league is outstanding too,” Paulsen said. “There’s no nights off. Such diverse styles.”  Mason was picked to finish 12th — the exact spot they finished last year.