Archives for category: college basketball

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Who’s ready for college basketball?  Opening days and weeks are kind of tricky.  Major League Baseball has it easy–the end of winter has everyone chomping at bit to get outside, and football signals the natural end of summer even though Labor Day weekend technically isn’t during the Autumnal Equinox.  But the winter sports provide a challenge:  the NHL and NBA begin their marathons in October when many minds (myself included this year) are still on baseball’s playoffs.  College hoops has been inching closer over the last couple of decades:  Georgetown and Maryland tipped off their seasons November 17th and 20th, respectively, while this year they will have played two games by November 9th.

Let the record show I love college basketball;  I’ve enjoyed covering Men’s Elite Eights and Women’s Final Fours and even wrote lyrics to the “CBS College Basketball” theme that plays throughout March.  I bask in the wall to wall basketball that is Conference Tournament week, and enjoy February as a month where schools get in position to be in position.  Nothing fills the football void better than conference play in January where you discover how good your team really is or was it a byproduct of a soft schedule.  I’m even all-in on December’s inter-sectional and non-conference affairs, as well as the holiday tournaments.  But early November is where I just have to say, “please”.

Have you ever eaten an Eggs Benedict?  Savored the poached eggs with hollandaise and ham (or, if you’re adventurous, try the Eggs Norwegian with smoked salmon instead)?  Imagine you’re eating one with incredibly crispy home fries.  And then somebody hands you a cheeseburger.  For those of us who cover, follow and love college football, that’s what these early men’s and women’s college basketball games are like.  It’s not that we don’t love college hoops–we do–but give us a chance to enjoy football’s most meaningful month of the regular season (some schools have four games-a third of their regular season-remaining) before giving us double helpings of early-season basketball.  They just released the first College Football Playoff rankings this week!  It’s akin to college football starting its regular season in February.  Is it too much to ask for a little synergy between college athletics’ two biggest sports?

November basketball at its best is rather nebulous.  Many matchups are tune-ups for conference play as well as stocking stuffers, and there’s nothing wrong with Georgetown-Central Arkansas or Maryland-Oakland.  Other showdowns receive the natural spotlight, but you know in March everyone will be saying how the “November” Michigan State team that lost to Kentucky is nothing like the Spartans they’re trying to seed higher than those same Wildcats on Selection Sunday.

That said, I’m watching.  I’m figuring out Maryland’s rookie rotation and wondering if Georgetown’s commitment to defense is practical or still in theory. I’m curious to see how Virginia performs now that “next year” happened last spring and what sort of buzz a Buzz Williams-less Virginia Tech will generate.  Will the George’s be relevant in the Atlantic 10 Race and will VCU/Richmond become the showdown to spotlight?  Can American or Navy contend in the Patriot League?  And will Howard’s streak of non-winning seasons continue (if their loss to Washington Adventist tells us anything, another season of discontent has already begun for the Bison).  In the immortal lyrics of yours truly, “CBS College Basketball–who do you think will win? Let’s tip off!”

Cruising the Commonwealth- Virginia defends its National Championship with a different cast, as Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter have moved on to the NBA. But even without their top three scorers from last year the Cavaliers are ranked No. 11 to start the new season.  The question will be can Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key make the transition from supporting roles to lead players.  They’ll have help in the form of highly-touted freshman Casey Morsell.  Virginia Tech began the post-Buzz Williams era Tuesday with a win at Clemson (I’m assuming the Tiger faithful were more focused on being No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings), a game where freshman Landers Nolley II scored 30 points.  As a guy who never really got behind the “conference games in December” theory, you can only imagine how I feel about league play in November.

The Two Georges- George Mason enters its fifth year under head coach Dave Paulsen, and the Patriots have slowly moved up the Atlantic 10 ladder in his tenure (from 12th to 7th to tied for 5th to sole possession of 5th).  Otis Livingston II is gone, but sophomore Jamal Hartwell II keeps the suffix tradition alive in Fairfax.  He also scored 12 points in the season-opening win against Navy.  George Washington has a new coach in Jamion Christian, who led Mount St. Mary’s to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths over six seasons at the school before spending last winter coaching Siena.  When the Colonials are good, there’s no better place to catch a game inside the beltway than the tightly packed bandbox that is GW’s Smith Center.  Hopefully those days will come sooner rather than later.

The True Commonwealth Clash- say what you will about Virginia-Virginia Tech, they have nothing on VCU-Richmond.  Two schools that share a city as well as plenty of disregard.  The Rams begin the year ranked 25th nationally and return just about everybody from last year’s 25-win team that made the NCAA Tournament, while the Spiders are dealing with consecutive 20-loss seasons.  Winchester, VA’s Grant Golden was the bright spot last winter and the junior looks to be the primary weapon again this season.

Patriot League Primer- American and Navy began both of their seasons on the road this week, with the hopes a little higher in DC than Annapolis.  The Eagles were picked to finish third in the Patriot League while the Midshipmen are projected to finish ninth.  AU also boasts the Preseason Conference Player of the Year in Sa’eed Nelson (19 points and 5 assists per game last winter) while also enjoying the addition of Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris (20 points in the season-opening loss at Siena).  The Mids are two years removed from a 20-win season but need to replace two starters from last year, including leading scorer George Kiernan.  But no matter where one stands in November, come January everyone will be chasing preseason Patriot League favorite and defending conference champ Colgate.

Howard’s End- somehow these previews always end with the sad-sack, perpetually struggling Bison.  The program hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, and twice finished right at .500 during head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s nine-year tenure.  They had the nation’s leading scorer in James Daniel III on campus and still found a way to lose 20 games.  Nickelberry’s final team finished with a flourish, winning its last four regular season games, and needed to win once in the MEAC Tournament to secure a winning mark. Which they did.  Only to accept a bid in the CBI Tournament and lose at Coastal Carolina to wrap up the year 17-17.  Former DeMatha Catholic star and Duke captain Kenny Blakeney takes over a program that lost leading scorer R.J. Cole to transfer, but there is talent in the form of senior Charles Williams.  The forward scored a team-high 19 points in Wednesday’s loss to NAIA Division II Washington Adventist.  The long road to March is just underway in more ways than one.

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Great expectations can be both a blessing and a curse in men’s college basketball. During the Mark Turgeon era, high hopes have more often than not led to misery in March for Maryland:  twice before they’ve been ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, and each time at the end of the season the Terps have finished below those November expectations (from third to 18th in the 2015-16 season, from 25th to unranked the following year).  This year they’re seventh in the AP;  time will tell if the AP stands for “Accurately Projected” or “Another Problem” for these Terps.

Unlike last November, head coach Mark Turgeon returns most of his talent:  seven of the eight players who averaged 10+ minutes per game last year are back, including four of his five starters.  That gives the coach a little bit of a luxury when it comes to working his talented freshman class into the mix.  “We have so much depth some guys are going to learn by sitting,” Turgeon said. “Last year we had to play guys through mistakes, turnovers, there really wasn’t an answer.  I think we’ll get better because of that.  Guys will correct things quicker because of that.”

The biggest piece added to the Terrapin puzzle is 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial; the big man comes to College Park from South Sudan through Compass Prep in Arizona.  He’s also going to have the most-delayed impact after having surgeries to correct stress fractures in both of his legs this past September.  Marial is expected to be on the shelf at least until December.  “He feels good but still has a little bit of swelling in the knees.  He’s lifting, he’s shooting, he’s doing some things on the floor,” Turgeon said. “We’ll do another appointment on November 25th. We’re hoping on that day he gets clearance.” Fans won’t have to wait long to see the other four freshmen:  6-foot-10 twin big men Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Washington D.C. plus the Philadelphia pair of swingman Donta Scott and guard Hakim Hart are already making an impression in practice.  “Very talented (group), very physical and a good feel for the game,” Turgeon said. “They’ve fit in well-our guys really like them. What they do give us is some physicality.  Our practices are much more physical, and they need to be for us to play at the highest level.”

While freshmen contributing to a top-25 team is nothing new in 2019, a four-year senior starter is.  But look for yourself:  Anthony Cowan Jr. is back for one more winter.  And it’s not just to pursue his Masters of Professional Studies in Technology Entrepreneurship (Anthony earned his degree in Communication this past summer).  “Anthony came back to win. Anthony’s done a lot with scoring points and assists,” Turgeon said. “He wants his legacy to be winning and winning at a high level. He knows he’ll be remembered more if our team wins at a high level.”  That means not just winning 20+ games during the regular season but also making things happen in March.  Cowan’s led the team in scoring and assists the last two years;  what he hasn’t done is led them to Saturday (and the Semifinals) of the Big Ten Tournament or the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

While Bruno Fernando moves on to the NBA, the Terps cupboard inside is far from bare.  Jalen Smith is back for his sophomore season after ranking third on the team in scoring and second in rebounds and blocked shots.  Turgeon acknowledges that the Baltimore, Maryland product has bulked up, jokingly referring to the player commonly known as “Sticks” as “Logs”.  In all seriousness, they’ve looked to bulk up 6-foot-10 forward’s offensive game. “We really worked hard on him to score in a lot of different ways. He’s (already a) pretty good on the right block, a catch and shoot the three guy,” Turgeon said.  “We tried to a lot of different areas on the floor, played a ton of one on one since the season ended.”  There’s also the anticipation and the expectation of improvement on the other side of the floor. “His perimeter defense got so much better as the year went on last year it was all new to him— now I’m very confident in his perimeter defense and what he can do,” Turgeon said. “Post defensively he struggled when he had to guard a five last year. Hopefully the weight helps, hopefully the experience helps.”

With returning starters Eric Ayala Jr. and Darryl Morsell back in the fold along with role-players Aaron Wiggins, Serrell Smith Jr., and Ricky Lindo Jr.; the proverbial ceiling is high.  But if there’s anything his previous eight winters in College Park have taught Mark Turgeon, it’s that November is more than four months away from March–those two months are a lifetime apart for a team, no matter how talented.  Can this team be special?  “We’ll see. If they continue to be coachable and selfless. Those two things are really important,” Turgeon said. “Talent-wise and depth wise, yeah we got a chance, but if they’re coachable and they’re selfless then we’ll continue to get better and do some great things.”

 

 

 

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The Maryland Women’s basketball team is on a mission.  After six straight trips to the Sweet Sixteen that included a pair of Final Four berths, the Terps are looking to shake off consecutive first-weekend NCAA Tournament exits.  Brenda Frese’s bunch gritted its way to last winter’s Big Ten Regular Season title before flaming out in March, and all five starters return to be joined by a top-five recruiting class. The result?  A Preseason No. 4 ranking for the Big Ten favorites. “Big thing I’ll say about this team is that they’re a team of competitors,” Frese said. “Their practices in between the summer and going into the fall have been some of the most competitive practices I’ve seen in a while.”

The Terps will be led once again by Kaila Charles.  The senior has started all 103 games in her career, and has led the team in scoring the last two seasons.  “The last couple years-as she goes, we go,” Frese said. “Nothing really changes at the top. She’ll do a great job leading this talented and really young team.”  The Preseason First Team All-American  has played bigger than her 6-foot-1 frame since coming to campus, and hopes to shore up the one area where she hasn’t shined:  three point-shooting.  She’s made 7 of 25 in her career (and was just 1 for 14 last year), but vows this season will be different.  “I’ve been working on it all summer; I’ve been working on it all three years.” Charles said. “I just think it’s my mentality. I just need to shoot it. I don’t need to think ‘is it gonna go in?'”

If Charles isn’t able to improve her perimeter play, fear not.  Because sophomore sharpshooter Taylor Mikesell is back after claiming Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last winter when she made 41% of her threes.  As the case with most who come through Brenda Frese’s program, Mikesell has become more than just an offensive force.  “She already has made a huge jump on the defensive end.  That was areas last year that would pull her off the floor,” Frese said. “This year is actually going to be easier for her-I anticipate she won’t see the box-and-one and the face-guards. She’s gonna have a lot more freedom to just shoot the ball.”

Mikesell isn’t the only sophomore who’s expected to make a pronounced leap from first-year supporting player to primary contributor.  Six-foot-five center Shakira Austin came off the bench in the early season before eventually becoming a starter as a freshman, eventually earning Honorable Mention and All-Defensive Big Ten honors.  While her skills in the post were obvious (she averaged 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game), Austin worked hard at improving her offensive skills (she hit 43% of her shots last year) in the offseason.  “I just feel like I should be able to dominate this year in the post,” Austin said. “Last year I felt I lost a lot of confidence–I wasn’t able to go up strong.”  Coach Brenda Frese has noticed a marked difference. “She is stronger, she can finish through contact,” Frese said. “She is making plays in the low post that we were hoping is where she was going to get to.”

That trio, in addition to defensive dynamo Blair Watson and point guard Channise Lewis, will be bolstered by a recruiting class ranked third in the nation by prospectsnation.com and hoopgurlz on espnW. “I think the thing you’ll see with our team first and foremost is our size. We have tremendous length both on the perimeter, point guard positions, wings, inside,” Frese said. “The talent level has really increased. We have depth at every single position.”  Even with the loss of five-star guard Zoe Young to a torn ACL for the season, the new class has made an impression. “They’re incredible-they want to work and they want to win,” Taylor Mikesell said. “So it’s just great to have them. We have four really good freshmen here.”

While the future is on campus, the team got a chance to see the past as well as their potential futures earlier this fall when the Washington Mystics won the WNBA championship.  While the Mystics boasted three Maryland graduates plus two players who transferred out of the Terps program, the Connecticut Sun had two more former Terps on its roster. “Our current players currently have those dreams that now our alums are living out,” Frese said. “It’s a tremendous example for them:  if you work hard, if you come in the gym, you’re here early, you stay late-these are the things that you can possibly have if that pro career is something a goal of yours.”

The season offers up the usual tests, with one early indicator of how far this team has come and how much further they have to go.  Sunday, November 10 brings No. 8 South Carolina to Xfinity Center.  Their other big pre-conference test will be at No. 14 NC State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. League play starts December 28 against No. 25 Michigan.  But at Maryland once again, it’s March that matters.

 

Who’s ready for Opening Day!?!  In March???  It’s the price of doing business playing 162 reguarl season games with 3+ rounds of playoffs while not holding the World Series in November.  For better or worse.  I know-I get this feeling twice every year.  It happens in early November, when we’re halfway through the NFL season and just into college football’s closing month when suddenly we’re supposed to care about Maryland-Hofstra.  The men’s college basketball season concludes over the next few weeks, so it’s only fitting some of the NCAA Tournament thunder is robbed by baseball’s pomp and circumstance.  Usually opening week in baseball overlaps with the Final Four;  this year the Nationals will have played nine games (weather permitting) by the time the nets are cut down in Minneapolis.

That said, the calendar waits for no one. The Washington Nationals attempt to bounce back from an 82-80 season as well as the offseason loss of Bryce Harper.  But this team will be bolstered by offseason additions like Patrick Corbin as well as the catching duo of Yan Gomes/Kurt Suzuki.  The Nats were built to handle Harper’s departure as good as they could be, with prime prospect Victor Robles joining last year’s breakout rookie Juan Soto in the “future is now” category.  If only Adam Eaton can play 140 games in rightfield while leading off;  the veteran has been limited by injuries to just 118 games over the last two years.  Other questions involve the health of mainstays Ryan Zimmerman (85 games played last year) and Stephen Strasburg (22 starts).  Also, will manager Davey Martinez return for year two armed with lessons learned in 2018?  Unlike the NFL, baseball is not a snapshot season.  Over 162 games a team’s players and manager rise or fall to their actual level a lot more than pro football-or even the NHL and NBA.  Let’s get this season underway.

 

Regional Roundup: fourteen of the top sixteen seeds advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, with three glaring losses by David over the first weekend.  Thursday, Belmont was a tipped pass away from beating Maryland and New Mexico State missed two of three free throws against Auburn when three makes would have upset the Tigers and two would have forced overtime.  But both of those losses paled in comparison to UCF leading Duke late but being unable to hold off the overall number one seed in the final minute.  So instead of Cinderellas, we get a #5 seed Auburn and a #12 seed Oregon as the only Regional outliers.

 

Sweet Sixteen Showdowns–

South-

 #1 Virginia vs. #12 Oregon.  While the Cavaliers avenged last year’s First Round loss to UMBC by rallying past Gardner-Webb and moved past 2017’s Second Round loss to Florida, the “Ghosts of Regionals Past” are just as haunting.  UVa has won just one Regional Semifinal game this century…while the Ducks have reached the Final Four as recently as 2017.  They also boast the 12th ranked defense in Division I-UVa allowing the fewest points per game again this season.  Coach Dana Altman’s team is the only double-digit seed still in the tournament thanks to ten straight wins.

#2 Tennessee vs. #3 Purdue. Rick Barnes previously led Clemson and Texas to the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s no different with his third straight orange-clad school.  One would think that if things don’t work out longterm in Tallahassee, he’ll head to Illinois.  The Boilermakers were a Lucas Haas injury away from doing major damage last March;  guard Carsen Edwards led the Big Ten in scoring this past winter and is averaging 34 points a game in the NCAA Tournament.

 

West-

#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 Florida State. The Bulldogs have lost to ACC schools in four straight NCAA Tournaments, and the Seminoles are one of the more athletic teams in the bracket.  It’s also amazing how somehow FSU coach Leonard Hamilton looks younger than he did 20 years ago.

#2 Michigan vs. #3 Texas Tech.  Two of the top three defensive teams (UVa being #1) battle with the Wolverines looking to make a return trip to the Elite Eight.  The Red Raiders reached the Regional Final last year as well before falling to Villanova.

 

East-

#1 Duke vs. #4 Virginia Tech.  An ACC matchup takes place one round earlier than it should; I’m still flummoxed that the committee was cool with putting three Big Ten schools in the lower half of the East bracket.  The Hokies beat the Blue Devils when Zion Williamson was hurt, but so was VT guard Justin Robinson. Tech is 17-3 with the senior in the lineup; 7-5 without.

#2 Michigan State vs. #3 LSU.  One coach is being flogged for freaking out during a game, while the other is in the land of limbo. Will Wade hasn’t coached since the Tigers’ penultimatet regular season game…but LSU finds itself in DC along with Tom Izzo, who might be persuaded to drink more decaf this weekend.

 

Midwest-

#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Auburn. Another strong regional has the Tigers as an outlier–although coach Bruce Pearl’s team was in the top 25 for a big chunk of the season and they did win four games in four days at the SEC Tournament.  The Tar Heels are the best team nobody’s talking about, and senior Luke Maye feels like he’s in his 8th year at the school.  Both teams can score in bunches.

#2 Kentucky vs. Houston. They want Wildcats-Heels in the Regional Finals, right?  PJ Washington remains a question mark with his foot injury- and at best will play 15-20 minutes against a Cougars team that is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1984- when Akeem Olajuwon led the team to the Final Four and a loss to Georgetown in the National Championship game.

 

 

 

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The NCAA Tournament begins Tuesday night with the First Four.  If you’ve filled out a sheet or two already you’re probably trying to figure out how to better your workplace rivals.  First things first–

1–Do not be the person who tells everyone what the standings are Thursday afternoon after each result.  Odds are they know–and if say they pick a Georgia Tech to go to the Final Four and they lose the first day of the tournament don’t want to to be told.  And if they didn’t, to be notified after every result is a water torture nobody wants to experience.

2–You don’t have to share your picks.  Honestly, win or lose.  You had Houston beating Michigan and the Wolverines hit a last-second shot?  Sorry to hear…as in I’m sorry you felt as though you had to tell someone.  Everybody’s pool takes hits with each upset–and we don’t want to know how you’d be winning the office pool if only Virginia had beaten UMBC.

3–“Almost picking” is not the same as picking. So if your Final Four picks flame out the first weekend, don’t tell us which schools you thought about taking but didn’t.

4–Don’t discuss your “other sheet”.  Oh yes, the famous “other sheet” that you filled at your other job or with other friends.  The sheet that has all of the winners, even though the sheet you’re playing with your friends has no Final Four teams remaining.  The “other sheet”.  Right…

 

It’s time for our Bold, Fold and Gold picks for 2019…

Bold- which sleepers might bust a bracket or two?

Fold- which teams are likely to make in early exit?

Gold- who advances to the Final Four?

 

East Regional- Duke is the team to beat after entering the NCAA Tournament ranked number one in the nation for the first time since…2006.  For all of their success this decade one would have thought they’d have been atop the rankings at least once. Perhaps they’re making up for lost time this winter.  I thought Michigan State should have gotten the last number one seed, but instead the Spartans are on the other side of the Blue Devils’ regional.

Bold- Minnesota boasts the Big Ten’s leading rebounder in Jordan Murphy, and the Golden Gophers play Louisville- who just happened to fire Rick Pitino two years ago.  Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino, who happens to be Rick’s son.  They already have plenty of tape and a scouting report on the likely second round foe Michigan State.

Fold- LSU was in the top ten before coach Will Wade was served a subpeona by the federal government and a suspension by his school regarding the recent FBI investigation.  The Tigers then wilted in the SEC Tournament.  While they have the clear edge talent-wise over Yale, the circumstances surrounding the program aren’t the recipe for a deep tournament run.

Gold- Duke has the best player in Zion Williamson and the best coach in Mike Krzyzewski. They’ll find their way to Washington DC for a coronation next weekend after disposing of their alphabet soup (NCC, NDSU, VCU, UCF) in nearby Columbia, SC.  A likely avenging of a February loss (Virginia Tech) looms.  The question is, how did three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Maryland, Minnesota) wind up in the bottom half of that regional?  I thought the Selection Committee’s long lunches were put in place to prevent that.

 

South Regional- Virginia is a number one seed for the fourth time in six years.  We don’t need to discuss what happened last season.  Unfortunately March Brings Cinderellas to the forefront.  Condolences to Gardner-Webb.  Unless the Runnin’ Bulldogs somehow repeat the Terriers’ feat.  Then it’s going to be another summer of discontent in Charlottesville.

Bold- Cincinnati is fresh off beating Houston to win the AAC Tournament…and the Bearcats are also bound for Columbus, which happens to be the capital of the state that the city of Cincinnati resides.  Don’t be surprised to see the underseeded Bearcats make noise.

Fold- Villanova has been boom or bust recently, either advancing to the Final Four or saying adios the first weekend.  The Wildcats gritted their way to the Big East Tournament championship for a record third straight year, but wrapped up the regular season with five straight road losses.  Even though Hartford isn’t exactly San Jose, I’m feeling Jay Wright’s team has a short stay this March.

Gold- Virginia will be tested by a Tennessee that doesn’t have to travel far (Columbus & Louisville), but this year the Cavaliers have additional hitch to their giddy-up in an offense that might not be able to match their best in the nation defense (I think it’s Grandfathered in that UVa leads the nation in scoring D) but has the necessary firepower to pull away from foes. De’Andre Hunter’s wrist is intact, unlike last March, and so are the Cavaliers’ Final Four hopes.

 

Midwest Regional- North Carolina won neither the ACC regular season or tournament, but why recognize another league like the Big Ten or SEC at this time?  The Tar Heels head up the Blue Blood Bracket, with Kentucky and Kansas (sadly UCLA could not attend the NCAA Tournament this year) joined by a few schools who actually did win their conference tournaments in Auburn and Iowa State.

Bold– Seton Hall is fresh off losing the Big East Tournament championship and possesses the type of player (Myles Powell) who can make noise in the big dance.  They’ve also beaten Kentucky this season.

Fold- there’s always that one team that wins its league tournament that somehow feels like it spent a ton of energy doing so…and then can’t recreate the magic the following weekend.  Auburn took the SEC in an emotional day for Bruce Pearl, who lost an assistant coach not to another job but to prison (Chuck Person convicted in the FBI probe).  New Mexico State ranks 26th in the nation in scoring defense and won’t be a walkover.

Gold- why in the heaven am I taking another ACC team?  North Carolina has the talent, the experience, and the gosh-darnit-aw-shucks coach in Roy Williams on the sidelines to do just enough to infuriate the fan base that thinks the Heels should win every game by 50.  They won’t win every game by 50, and there’s going to be at least one win where UNC looks like they have no idea how to play basketball for 5-10 minutes but survive anyway.

 

West- Gonzaga is going to join the ACC as a provisional member so commissioner John Swofford can boast that for the first time all four seeds come from the same league.  Actually, if the Atlantic Coast Conference can have schools in Louisville and South Bend while the Big Ten can have 14 schools, this isn’t THAT much of a stretch.  The Bulldogs have been in the top five all season and begin another tournament run Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Bold- Syracuse plays that famed 2-3 zone and gets their best player back from injury in Tyus Battle.  The Orange lost late regular season games to North Carolina, Duke and Virginia after leading all three games at the half.  They won’t be star-struck by the Bulldogs, who have lost the last four years in the NCAA’s to an ACC school.

Fold- Marquette was once 23-4 and in conversations to not only win the Big East but secure a #2 seed.  But four losses to end the regular season plus a four-hour Big East Semifinal defeat to Seton Hall have exposed the Golden Eagles as another ordinary team.  Markus Howard is a dynamic point guard, but he won’t be enough to get this team out of its late-season skid.

Gold- or Maize.  Michigan began the year 18-0 and has lost just three times since Valentine’s Day-each loss coming to Michigan State who happens to be in a different region.  Coach John Beilein always gets the best out of his teams in March and this year won’t be an exception.  Ann Arbor’s not too far from South Bend…perhaps the ACC could reach out to the Wolverines.

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The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament tips off tomorrow with the Infamous “First Four”.  Before you dismiss the dealings in Dayton, take note that in the eight years they’ve had the last four at-large teams face off a “First Four” team has won a First Round game every year.  Four times one of these schools has reached the Regional round and we will always have the initial First Four Graduate VCU’s Final Four run as an example.

 

East- the road to the Final Four goes through Washington, DC with overall number one seed Duke and Zion Williamson expected to find their way to Capital One Arena.  Their First Round matchup may very well be a Durham City Championship Game, as North Carolina Central faces North Dakota State in the First Four Wednesday.

Favorites- the Blue Devils have lost just once this season while playing at full-strength, and their run through the ACC Tournament now that Zion Williamson puts the rest of the nation on notice.  Intriguing potential first weekend showdowns include the Durham City Championship in the First Round if North Carolina Central wins its First Four game (remember, the First Four Success doesn’t transfer to No. 16 seeds), or an alumni reunion against ninth-seeded UCF coached by former Blue Devils All-American and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins.  Flying under the radar on the other side of the bracket is Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Michigan State.

Best Matchup- No. 10 seed Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino.  The Golden Gophers draw No. 7 Louisville, who fired Pitino’s father Rick two years ago. Who said the Selection Committee doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Locals-

Maryland (22-10) is seeded sixth after its disappointing showing at the Big Ten Tournament.  In their last NCAA appearance the sixth-seeded Terps lost to Xavier by 11 in Melo Trimble’s final game.  Anthony Cowan Jr. shot 1-for-4 that night;  last week it was Bruno Fernando who shot 1-for-4 against the Cornhuskers.  The Terps need the sophomore big man to return to the form that made First Team All-Big Ten if they’re going to reach the weekend.  The Terps will face either Belmont or Temple Thursday–the Bruins are 0-7 all-time in the big dance and the Owls are 2-5 in the tourney under coach Fran Dunphy.

Virginia Tech (24-8) is seeded fourth as the Hokies make the NCAA’s for the third straight year (the first time that’s happened in program history).  The also get point guard Justin Robinson back in the lineup–since the senior went to the shelf with a foot injury the Hokies are 7-5, including a pair of overtime losses to red-hot Florida State.  They draw Atlantic Ten champ Saint Louis;  the Billikens won four games in four days while banishing Dayton and Davidson to the NIT.

VCU (25-7) is seeded eighth after their upset loss to Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals.  Thankfully URI is not in the tournament-as they’re the only team to have beaten the Rams since January 12.  Coach Mike Rhoades’ initial opponent is a UCF team that lost by 24 points in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament.

 

South- Virginia (29-3) gets a number one seed for the fourth time in six years…as the Cavaliers will not only face Gardner-Webb but will also confront the ghosts of last March.  UVa’s loss to UMBC in 2018 will be a scarlet L the program will wear for some time.  They’re a little older and a little wiser this year;  they’re also a lot healthier as De’Andre Hunter is 12 months removed from the broken wrist that hijacked his-and in effect the Cavaliers’-campaign last March.

Favorites- the Cavaliers’ toughest test may be Tennessee at the other end of the bracket, but the Volunteers have a potential Second Round showdown with AAC champ Cincinnati-in Columbus, Ohio.  Defending national champion Villanova is also in the region as the No. 6 seed, fresh from becoming the first school to win three straight Big East Tournaments.

Best Matchup- No. 12 seed Oregon has won eight straight, and they’ve done so minus 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol (son of the late Washington Bullets center Manute Bol), while Wisconsin is led by four-year starter Ethan Happ in the pivot.

Locals-

Virginia- the top seed enters the NCAA’s again with the best scoring defense in the nation, but this year’s team has a little more firepower with Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter providing scoring punch.  In addition to a Gardner-Webb team making its first-ever trip to the tournament, Ole Miss (five losses in seven games) and Oklahoma (a Big 12 Tournament loss to sub-500 West Virginia) stand in their way to the Regional in Louisville.  Break out the bourbon.

Old Dominion- former UVa and American University coach Jeff Jones is back in the NCAA Tournament after leading the 26-8 Monarchs to the Conference USA tournament championship.  ODU gets a No. 14 seed and plays Purdue;  the Boilermakers may be coming off of an upset loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Quarterfinals but have advanced to four regionals in ten appearances under coach Matt Painter and boast the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Carsen Edwards.  Jeff Jones’ team is led by B.J. Stith and his 16.9 points per game;  Stith is the son of Virginia’s all-time leading scorer Bryant Stith (who played his last two years at UVa under Jones).

 

Midwest- North Carolina gets the ACC’s third No. 1 seed- the first time one league has nabbed three top seeds since the Big East in 2009.  The Tar Heels head to nearby Columbia, SC where the local school refers to itself as “Carolina” and “USC” to the dismay of some and the amusement of others.  The Regional is in Kansas City-and if the seeds hold UNC will play Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.  I’ve been told that Kansas City is somewhat near the state of Kansas.

Favorites- in addition to the Tar Heels and Jayhawks, the bracket boasts blue blood Kentucky as well as AAC regular season champ Houston–not to mention SEC Tournament winner Auburn and Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State.  Buckle up.

Best Matchup- Cinderella Wofford played its way to a national ranking as well as the Southern Conference championship, while Seton Hall scraped its way to within two points of the Big East Tournament title.  Seven-ten matchups

 

West- Gonzaga has been in the top five of the national rankings all season, and even their loss in the WCC finals couldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the top seed.  They’ve also advanced to the second weekend four straight years, and this year’s obstacles include First Four winner Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M plus potential Second Round foes Baylor and Syracuse.

Favorites- at the other end of the bracket is last year’s national championship runner-up Michigan.  The second-seeded Wolverines began this season 18-0 and have lost only three times since Valentine’s Day-all to Michigan State.  No. 4 seed Florida State is coming off of an impressive ACC Tournament run that included a double-digit win over Virginia.

Best Matchup- No. 6 seed Buffalo awaits the First Four winner of St. John’s-Arizona State;  while an Empire State showdown (we have to wait for Albany-Buffalo for our Erie Canal clash) would be exciting the Sun Devils are in their second season under former Bulls coach Bobby Hurley.  For the record, the Selection Committee does not go out of its way to generate specific matchups.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange play the late game Thursday evening against Baylor, another team that has issues offensively.  But they’ll have Tyus Battle back in the lineup.  And an ACC team has eliminated Gonzaga in each of the last four years.  So there’s that.  More important is the drumstick to flat ratios.

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Conference Tournament week has the area schools scurrying to locations like Charlotte, Chicago, New York City, Brooklyn and Norfolk.  Even though conference expansion has changed these tourneys from tight three-day affairs to bloated five-day album cuts, the little dances before the Big Dance will provide plenty of thrills, chills, and spills leading up to Selection Sunday.

Tournaments with DC area schools:

ACC- Spectrum Center, Charlotte.  Sure the SEC had a tournament in the 1930’s and 40’s, but the Atlantic Coast Conference created the mold for league tourneys.  And sure, it’s a major hike to Blacksburg and Charlottesville–but there are plenty of alums who reside inside the beltway and either pop their collars or talk about turkey legs and a 15-year football streak.  Beware of the bluebloods:  Duke or North Carolina have won 13 of the 19 tournaments this century–and either the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels have played in the Finals every year since 1997 (the trivia answer would be Wake Forest-Georgia Tech).

#2 Virginia (28-2, 16-2 ACC)- the Cavaliers (10-3 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years) await the winner of Clemson-NC State in the #8 vs #9 game.  The Tigers-Wolfpack noon showdown will have the feel of an NCAA Play-in game, as both  schools are squarely on the bubble.  UVa routed Clemson 63-43 January 12th (holding the Tigers to 26% shooting and 3-19 from three-point range); they needed overtime to edge NC State 66-65 January 29th in their sloppiest game of the season (16 turnovers).  The Wolfpack beat the Tigers during their lone regular season matchup 69-67 and won three of five to wrap up the regular season;  but those three wins came against Boston College (2) and Wake Forest (1), who both lost in Tuesday’s bottom-of-barrel-scraping First Round.  UVa  meets the winner at noon Thursday.

#16 Virginia Tech (23-7, 12-6 ACC)- the Hokies (2-5 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years) face Miami at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Second Round, five days after beating the Hurricanes 84-70.  They also beat Miami 82-70 in their January meeting and in the sweep hit over 50% of their three-point shots against the Canes.  Primary offensive weapon Kerry Blackshear Jr. did not play well in either game: scoring 1 point in January, 8 last Friday, while shooting 4-for-20 over both games.  Hurricane to watch:  senior Anthony Lawrence II notched 20 points with 10 rebounds against Wake Forest and averaged a double-double against the Hokies this winter.  Achilles’ Heel to watch:  Miami ranked last in the ACC in rebounding margin.  A win sets up a rematch against #12 Florida State in the quarterfinals, a little over a week after blowing a double-digit lead in a loss at the Seminoles.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are a less than beautiful 19-12 after Saturday’s loss at Clemson…and even though most models have them “in” the NCAA Tournament, I won’t sleep unless they dispose of last-place Pitt in Wednesday’s Second Round.  A win means a third game this winter against Duke–and I’m not expecting any miracles.  Plus, coach Jim Boeheim is more of a Temptations fan than Smokey Robinson anyways.

 

Big Ten Tournament- United Center, Chicago.  After playing 2017 at Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center and 2018 at Madison Square Garden (a week early) in New York City, the league returns to its roots with a week in the Windy City.  Although to mix things up, this year for the first time the conference instituted a 20-game schedule (don’t worry, the ACC will follow suit next winter).  Sixth ranked Michigan State may enter as regular season champ, but #10 Michigan has won the last two Big Ten Tournaments and nobody is paying attention to #13 Purdue and the league’s leading scorer Carsen Edwards.

#21 Maryland (22-9, 13-7 Big Ten)- at 3 p.m Thursday the Terps (2-4 in the tournament since joining the conference) face the winner of  Rutgers and Nebraska (6:30 p.m Wednesday).  They beat both schools during the first week of January:  Jalen Smith’s last-second bucket gave Maryland a 74-72 win over the Cornhuskers in the kind of tight game they were getting the reputation of losing lately, and the road win at the Scarlet Knights (where they held Rutgers to 19 first-half points) showed that there would be no road woes this winter like last season.  Rutgers took the regular season matchup 76-69;  one game later Nebraska’s second-leading scorer and rebounder (and Georgetown transfer) Isaac Copeland Jr. went down with a torn ACL and the Huskers haven’t recovered. Rutgers remains Rutgers, however:  ranking 12th in the conference in points allowed, shooting and turnover margin; 13th in scoring and three-point shooting; and last in defending the three.  A Terps win Thursday would set up a rubber match with Wisconsin, the home team prevailing each time during the regular season.

 

Big East Tournament, Madison Square Garden, New York City.  The league nobody wants to win holds its postseason affair with plenty of possibilities.  Top seed Villanova lost its last five road games while Marquette dropped its last four games overall.  St. John’s moved from third to seventh place over the last week with three straight defeats.  Even Georgetown found a way to lose to DePaul by 32 (since the Blue Demons swept the Red Storm and bubble team Seton Hall along with that rout of the Hoyas, we’ve dropped the traditional “Lowly” prefix from their name).  Good luck figuring this one out.

Georgetown (19-12, 9-9 Big East)- the Hoyas play third seed Seton Hall Thursday in the last quarterfinal of the day, and while the schedule reads “9:30 p.m.”, both you and I know better (more like 9:45-9:50 start-if there’s no overtime).  Home court prevailed during the regular season, with the Pirates Myles Powell averaging 32.5 points against the Hoyas.  Jessie Govan scored 20 and 21 points against Seton Hall, but went scoreless in the first half at Capital One Arena before catching fire:  the senior scored all 11 Hoya points in double-overtime of the 77-71 win.  The freshman duo of Mac McClung and James Akinjo had rough nights in both games, shooting a combined 2-for-11 in the road loss and 9-for-28 in the home win.  The winner likely faces #23 Marquette in the semifinals, barring a continued collapse by the Golden Eagles (a distinct possibility).

 

Atlantic 10 Tournament, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.  I actually enjoyed having the A-10 in DC last March, and can’t wait for it to return in 2022.  It was a shame all four area schools had down years in 2018:  VCU, George Mason and Richmond each finished 9-9 in league play while George Washington played on the first day of the tournament.  This year, the Rams are on a roll with 12 straight wins and the Patriots are enjoying their best-ever conference season since leaving the CAA.  The Spiders and Colonials…not so much.

George Washington (8-23, 4-14 Atlantic 10)- the Colonials (5-5 since re-alignment in 2014)  play UMass in the first game of the tournament Wednesday at 1 p.m. GW took the regular season matchup 79-67 on February 20 as Maceo Jack scored 20 points;  that’s their only win since January.  The current five game losing streak involves four double-digit defeats.  UMass may have two wins in their last five games, but are winless away from Amherst against A-10 competition this winter.  They also have a hobbled leading scorer as Luwane Pipkins has played in just three of the team’s last nine games due to a hamstring injury.

George Mason (17-14, 11-7 Atlantic 10)- the Patriots (2-5 in the tournament over the last five years) play the winner of George Washington and UMass in Thursday’s Second Round (2:30 p.m.);  somehow this Patriots-Colonials-Minutemen sub-bracket is kind of amusing for history majors (though not as cool as the potential VCU-Rhode Island-Fordham Rams Regional would be).  Mason swept both teams during the regular season, with their  January 16 win at UMass (an 18-9 finish over the last 6:40 delivering a five-point margin) setting the tone for a 7-2 start in league play.  Freshman Jordan Miller could be an X-factor this week:  the Middleburg, VA native averaged 14 points (on 58% shooting) with 9.5 rebounds over his last four games.  The winner takes on St. Bonaventure in Friday’s Quarterfinals (2:30 p.m).

Richmond (12-19, 6-12 Atlantic 10)- the Spiders (4-5 with one tournament finals appearance since 2014) face Fordham in Wednesday’s other First Round game (3:30 p.m.).  It’s been a rough finish for both teams:  Richmond has lost four straight while the Rams have dropped five of six.  The Spiders took the lone regular season meeting 72-69 February 20;  Grant Golden scored 16 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds left.  Freshman Nick Honor paced the Rams with 23 points that day—a sign that the future is bright.  The present is another matter for the league’s last-place team.

VCU (25-6, 16-2 Atlantic 10)- the Rams are 13-5 in the A-10 Tournament since leaving the CAA, and with the exception of last March have advanced to the Finals every year.  Their run this year begins in the Quarterfinals Friday at noon against the winner or Rhode Island and La Salle.  While the Rams beat the Explorers 69-63 in early January, they fell 71-65 to Rhode Island on a night where they coughed up 50 second-half points, turned the ball over 18 times and shot 17% from three-point range.  Coach Mike Rhoades’ team hasn’t lost since.  URI beat La Salle in the regular season 78-67 thanks to 20 points from Fatts Russell.  Let the record show the A-10 has some sweet names this year, from the Explorers’ Pookie Powell to my favorite:  Duquesne guard Sincere Carry-who naturally just happens to lead the conference in assists.

 

MEAC Tournament, Norfolk Scope, Norfolk.  This league runs its men’s and women’s tournaments concurrently, meaning Monday’s First Round winners often next play Wednesday or Thursday.  While the #1 seed has won five titles in the last ten years, there have been upsets like last March when #6 seed North Carolina Central beat regular season champ Hampton in the Finals.

Howard (16-15, 10-6 MEAC) reached the Semifinals as a #11 seed two years ago;  the Bison have just two other wins in the tournament this decade.  The lead the league in scoring but play a defensive style that can sometimes be referred to as “matadorish”; but when you have the conference’s top two point producers in R.J. Cole and Charles Williams you take your chances.  Coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team is also riding a ridiculous 8-0 road record in conference play to Norfolk-where they wrapped up the regular season by beating top seed Norfolk State.  The #4 seed Bison battle Bethune-Cookman Thursday in the Quarterfinals at 8 p.m.;  the Wildcats boast the league’s best big man in Cletrell Pope (#1 in rebounding, #2 in shooting percentage and #3 in blocked shots).   The winner likely gets an angry Norfolk State in the Semifinals Friday.