The first month of college basketball’s conference season is a nice cleanse for the non-conference campaign where most of the bigtime teams roll up gaudy records that might not be the best indicator of exactly how good they might be…and for schools that play more guarantee games in November/December, January’s a chance to show the lessons learned on the big boys’ home courts.  Who is strong–and who is soft?  The first couple weeks brings more than a few rude awakenings and pleasant surprises…

Georgetown (11-4, 3-1 Big East)– the Hoyas bounced back from a double digit loss at Providence to beat Butler in overtime 70-67 Saturday evening.  The Hoyas defense held the Bulldogs to under 10% from three point range… although that might be as much of a reflection of a Butler team now 0-4 in conference play.  D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is averaging 20 points per game in conference play… and they’ll need his productivity as the Hoyas wrap up their longest road trip in conference play Wednesday at Xavier (a battle for third place in the  league).

Alma Mater Update– the Orange continue to put together uneven efforts (falling behind 10-4 at home to UNC, trailing at Boston College 50-44) while putting together wins (17-0, 4-0 in the ACC).  CJ Fair’s steady presence (17ppg) is helped by Trevor Cooney (14ppg, 42% from 3pt range) making the leap. Sign of the Whale is steadying itself for a busy few months…as I await the annual unveiling of the 44 Wing Salute.   A fight for first place Saturday against Pitt looms…

Maryland (10-7, 2-2 ACC)– so much for that 2-0 start in conference play… consecutive road losses of 20+ points bringing the Terps crashing down to earth.  Seth Allen’s comeback tour finally hit a snag in Tallahassee (0-8FG)…and the difference in making and allowing threes (11-43 vs 22-34) during the slide is enough to derail any momentum.  Welcome to the expanding underbelly of the ACC… with six of the fifteen schools currently 1-2.  Including Notre Dame and NC State, the Terps’ next two opponents.

Cruising the Commonwealth– Virginia (12-5, 3-1 ACC) was a ridiculous three -pointer away from starting 4-0 in conference play for the first time since 1994-95.  That year is key because it’s the last time the Cavaliers reached Saturday in the ACC Tournament…and the second weekend of the NCAA’s.  Jeff Jones never got back there…while Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao could never get there.  Tony Bennett has this program “in position to be in position”.  The next three for UVa are at home– but against Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.  We could just as easily be talking 3-4 as 6-1 a week from Saturday.  Virginia Tech (8-7, 1-2) showed us where the floor is on this team in a 3 point loss at home to a BAAAAD Boston College team (5-12  with one win over a major conference team). NINE missed free throws hurt the Hokies and BC made Jarell Eddie’s day uncomfortable (3-14 and 1-6 from 3 pt range).  Now VT plays 5 of their next 8 on the road…will they be over .500 at the end of this gauntlet?

George Washington (14-3, 2-1 Atlantic 10)– talk about a signature victory… the Colonials topped VCU 76-66.  It was feast or famine for GW:  56% shooting while committing 21 turnovers.  Kevin Larsen (a career high 22 points) and Isaiah Armwood (11pts and 14reb) provided a dominant duo inside– and sophomore Argentine Patricio Garino (a career high 25 points) gave the needed spark off the bench (he’s averaging 18ppg on 67% shooting in conference play) that gives coach Mike Lonergan the needed third option.  They get their chance to avenge their only league loss January 29th when LaSalle drops by the Smith Center.

George Mason (7-9, 0-2 A10)– the Patriots are still searching for their first win in a new league.  Saturday’s 84-80 loss to St. Joes saw the Hawks hit 59% of their shots…while the Patriots hit the wall in the 2nd half by going from 7:25 (leading 66-63) to 0:36 (trailing 80-72) without a field goal.  GMU’s also dropped 9 of 12…losing altitude since Thanksgiving.  Can they bounce back against #16 UMass?  Is it too late to go back to the CAA?

Maryland Womens Minute– the Terps (14-1, 2-0 ACC) are #6 for the second straight week…and after dusting Wake Forest play a pair of schools on the fringe of the top 25:  new to the ACC Syracuse and Georgia Tech (always a tough matchup for the Terps).  With Duke’s Chelsea Gray now done for the year with a knee injury…the path to the top of the ACC may be a little easier-although #2 Notre Dame looms large on the schedule.

American (8-7, 4-0 Patriot League)– while some teams easy non-conference schedule makes it difficult to see their weaknesses…some school’s tough non-league slate makes it a challenge to identify their strengths.  AU’s looked like a different team once the calendar turned to January and league play– as the Eagles are in a three-way tie for first.  Transfer Darius Gardner (Stephen F. Austin) has been on fire since Patriot League action began (21 points and 7 rebounds in the rally against Colgate)…and the team has shot well all season (7th in the nation at 49.9% from the field).

Howard (3-15, 1-2 MEAC)– speaking of rankings…sometimes it’s too early in a season to give them validity:  if a player makes one of two three-pointers in game one, that doesn’t necessarily make them a 50% shooter from outside the arc.  But for the Bison… the stats have had 18 games to simmer on the stove.  Out of 351 Division I schools, they rank 345th in points per game…346th in field goal percentage and 347th in assists per game.  Obviously they’re spending too much time on their rebounding (262nd nationally).  A missed shot with six seconds left cost them in a two point loss to Savannah State…but help is on the way:  only three of Howard’s remaining games are against teams with winning records.  So there are possibilities.