PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM—

If you’re reading this, you either have finished all of your holiday shopping or are procrastinating because who wants to go to the mall when it’s this crowded?  Or if you’re online shopping perhaps you got tired of watching videos on youtube.  Perfect time to take another break and fire up some hot chocolate (marshmallows optional)…

The eight area Division I schools take brief breaks after playing 10-13 pre-conference games, some of which are actual gifts (Maryland-Georgetown, Virginia-West Virginia) while others are simply stocking-stuffers (Maryland-St. Peter’s, Georgetown-Elon).   What has been nice this November and December is we’ve seen more than a few local matchups, giving us a better idea about what might be on the respective schools’ wish-lists.  ONLY SIX (make that five) shopping days until Christmas…

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are 6-4 after a 78-71 loss to Georgetown.  Bad free throw shooting (14-25), poor offensive choices (outside of Tyler Lydon the team shot 29.5% from the field) and even worse rebounding (beaten on the boards 41-30) contributed to coming up short the day they honored Dwayne “Pearl” Washington.  The 2016 Final Four seems like a distant memory and one is dreading for the start of ACC play.  What isn’t horrible is the Big Country Breakfast one gets at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern- the SU Alumni Club gamewatching spot.  It’s not the Sign of the Whale “44 Wing Salute”, but it’ll have to do…

Maryland (11-1 entering Tuesday’s game against Charlotte in Baltimore) has somehow pieced together a major rebuild in the aftermath of losing four starters to the pros.  The one who stayed has made the transition a lot easier, as Melo Trimble is tied for fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (17.7 points per game).  Gifts Already Opened- the play of freshmen Justin Jackson (6.1 rebounds per game, 46% from 3-point range) and Anthony Cowan (leads team in assists while rebounding far above his size).  Coach Mark Turgeon only adds to his recruiting reputation.  Still on the List- the Terps still have to find their way against zone defenses, as opponents will re-watch their 10-for-36 from 3-point range performance against Pitt.  They’ve also begun more than a few games flat-footed, and while you can catch a Towson or a Howard the Wisconsins and Indianas of the Big Ten are another matter entirely.

Georgetown (7-4 entering Thursday’s game with UNC-Greensboro) looked like it was bound for another March on the Island of Misfit Toys, blowing leads like a Charlie-in-the-Box while running an offense that looked like a Cowboy riding an Ostrich.  But five straight wins that include Saturday’s 78-71 victory at Syracuse give coach John Thompson III cause for confidence.  Gifts Already Opened- Rodney Pryor was expected to contribute after transferring from Robert Morris, but nobody expected the senior to score 20 points per game while shooting 52% from 3-point range.  Still on the List-taking care of the basketball has been a major issue, from their meltdown in the final minute against Maryland to watching a halftime lead dissolve against Oregon.  The Hoyas average a Big East-high 14.8 turnovers per game, something opposing coaches will look to exploit come conference play.

Virginia (9-1 entering Wednesday’s game at Cal) looks like a greatest hits-version of previous editions coached by Tony Bennett, defending dynamically and being clinically efficient on offense.  Even the dismissal of transfer Austin Nichols did little to disrupt the fine-tuned Cavaliers as they prepare for another tough winter inside the ACC.  Gifts Already Opened- senior London Perrantes leads the team in scoring and assists, while more importantly leading this team in the locker room and off the court.  UVa ranks second  in the conference in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio while pacing the ACC in scoring defense (46.7 points allowed per game) and opponent’s field goal percentage (34%).  Still on the List- there’s no real number one scoring option on this team, especially inside.  Scoring by committee in the post is nice, but will it hold up come conference time?

Virginia Tech (9-1 entering Tuesday’s game against Charleston Southern) shocked a lot of people by winning 10 ACC games last winter, and Buzz Williams’ bunch has beaten a few big-name schools (Nebraska, Michigan and Mississippi) already this year.  Gifts Already Opened- evidently they recieved that “GI Joe Long-Range Bomber”, because the Hokies lead the ACC in three-point shooting (41% from outside the arc) with Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs and Seth Allen each emerging as perimeter threats.  Senior forward Zach LeDay hasn’t changed from being the pesky post presence he was last season, either.  Still on the List- six players average 25+ minutes per game…in the ticky-tack foul world that is the ACC how will depth hold up against the big boys?  They begin conference play December 31st against Duke, a team that may have benefited by a call or two over the years.

George Washington (8-4 entering Thursday’s game at Miami) has already dealt with the offseason firing of coach Mike Lonergan, an injury to junior forward Yuta Watanabe and a three-game losing streak.  Cue up Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas”.  Gifts Already Opened- senior forward Tyler Cavanaugh currently leads the Colonials in scoring, rebounding and assists (17.1, 7.6 and 2.9) and only one other healthy player is scoring in double figures after 12 games.  Still on the List- we could focus on how they need to shoot better (13th in the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage) while their 175 turnovers are the most in the conference, but GW’s list is clear:  find and hire the right coach who will be a good fit for the school and program.

George Mason (9-3 entering Thursday’s game with Prairie View A&M) has a chance to equal last season’s 11 wins by the end of this calendar year.  Coach Dave Paulsen’s Patriots also have a big road win under their belt, blasting Penn State by 19 in Happy Valley.  Gifts Already Opened- no team is better in the Atlantic 10 on the glass, and senior Marquise Moore (18 points and 10 rebounds per game) dominates the boards despite being just 6-foot-2.  Still on the List- freshmen Ian Boyd and Justin Kier have shown flashes in November and December.  Will that translate to consistency once conference play begins?

American (3-7 entering Wednesday’s game at #1 Villanova) began their season with the double-whammy of road games at Maryland and Texas A&M.  Sadly they were unable to continue the “Mark Turgeon Tour” and didn’t have Wichita State or Jacksonville State on the schedule.  Gifts Already Opened- the freshman duo of 6-foot-10 forward Mark Gasperini inside (14 points opening night against the Terps) and guard Sa’eed Nelson outside (17 points per game, second best in the Patriot League) has given coach Mike Brennan plenty to work with.  Still on the List- can anybody hit a 3-pointer?  AU’s 28% from outside the arc is last in the conference.  Ball movement (Eagles are 10th in the Patriot league in assists per game) is another area for improvement.

Howard (3-8 entering Thursday’s game at Old Dominion) could actually be writing this piece, as the Bison went through a stretch where they played Georgetown, American, Maryland and George Washington.  Gifts Already Opened- what is it with freshmen inside the Beltway this winter?  Charles Williams has fit into coach Kevin Nickelberry’s offense perfectly, scoring 27 points in the loss at George Washington while scoring 29 in the win over Shenandoah.  Still on the List- is there a doctor in the house?  Division I’s returning leading scorer James Daniel III has been sidelined with injury all season, while James Miller and Marcel Boyd have missed time as well with bumps and bruises.  If Howard gets healthy by New Year’s Day, watch out MEAC.  If they don’t, watch out Bison.

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