Archives for category: college basketball

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Maryland received a rude awakening in December when they lost again at Penn State. Now the eastern wing of the Big Ten neighborhood could be even dicier.  I said it here last week in this space, and I’m going to say it again. Rutgers is actually good this year.  The Scarlet Knights are 14-4 and are currently ranked by the AP for the first time since 1979: when the Top 25 was a Top 20, the shot clock was years away from being used in the college game, and the three-pointer wasn’t even used in the NBA. The Big East hadn’t even been formed and the NCAA Tournament was going from 32 to 40 schools, with the Final Four broadcast on NBC and ESPN not even created yet to broadcast the first two days.  The ensuing 40-plus years have not been kind to a school that’s logged time in five different conferences, as they’ve not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 (that was three leagues ago when they were an Atlantic 10 member).  But coach Steve Pikiell in his fourth year at the helm as built the Scarlet Knights into a defensive dynamo: they allow a Big Ten-low 58.7 points per game while ranking second in steals and fourth in rebounding margin.  We’ll know how far they’ve come Wednesday night when they visit No. 19 Iowa.

 

Alma Mater Update- back to back to back wins for the Orange have SU over .500 in the ACC for the first time all winter.  Saturday’s 71-69 win at Virginia Tech avenged a loss from the week before in the Dome as Buddy Boeheim tied a career high with 26 points.  The Buddy Watch has the sophomore at 511 career points with 13 games remaining; if he keeps up his current average of 16.2 points per game he’ll enter the ACC Tournament with 721.  His dad scored 745 career points before going on to win over 1,000 games with his alma mater.

 

Wow of the Week- Richmond (14-4, 4-1 Atlantic 10) has already surpassed last winter’s win total, and the Spiders did so by triumphing twice on the road.  Wagner transfer Blake Francis has settled in to spearhead the offense (18 points per game), allowing big man Grant Golden to focus inside and guard Jacob Gilyard to worry more about running the offense.  Coach Chris Mooney is in his 15th season at the helm, and after consecutive 20-loss campaigns appears to have the Spiders set back on a familiar course that will have them contending in the A-10.

 

Player to Watch- Virginia gave us four years of the unintentional comedy that was big man Jack Salt:  the six-foot-ten center from New Zealand, despite shooting 59% from the field during his career, notched more personal fouls than made baskets in each of his four seasons with the Cavaliers.  Salt’s exit means more run for seven-foot-one Jay Huff, who after averaging under ten minutes per game in his first two seasons has turned into a major force this winter.  He’s averaging 24.5 minutes and recorded 17 points with 8 rebounds in a win against Georgia Tech that ended a three game slide.  But Huff was back to single digits in Monday’s loss to NC State, and UVa finds itself at .500 in league play.

 

League Look- one game separates the top five teams in the Patriot League as preseason favorite Colgate (14-5, 5-1) is being chased by American and Navy, along with Boston University and Bucknell.  The Raiders won at Navy earlier this month; Jordan Burns and company visit AU Saturday.

 

Ballot Battles- this week I moved Baylor into the top spot after two more wins; I very well could have moved them there last week after the win over Kansas but I try to be less knee-jerk when it comes to number one.  This week I received grief for having Colorado in the top 20 while keeping Arizona out despite the Wildcats win over the Buffaloes at home Saturday.

 

This Week’s Starting Five (games of local interest)-

Tuesday: No. 17 Maryland at Northwestern. The Terps may be 0-3 on the road in the Big Ten, but that’s the rule as opposed to the exception in the conference this winter.  Home teams are 40-7 so far this season, but the last-place Wildcats have two of those defeats.  If the Terrapins want to stay in the top half of a very good Big Ten (ten schools in Ken Pomeroy’s top 40), they need every road win they can get.

Wednesday:  Georgetown at Xavier.  The Hoyas are also 0-3 on the road in Big East play, but home court dominance isn’t as great in a conference where road teams are 11-17 this winter.  Both teams find themselves in the bottom half of that league, with the Musketeers coming off of three straight double digit defeats.  They also have trouble scoring (seventh in shooting and ninth from three point range), making things a little easier on the Hoyas who allow the most points per game in conference.

Also Wednesday: George Washington at Fordham.  The Colonials have won consecutive Atlantic 10 games for the first time since February 2018.  Armel Potter was a big reason why, as the senior guard averaged 24 points with 6 assists in those victories.  The run can continue for first-year coach Jamion Christian, as they play their next two games against schools winless in the A-10.  First is a Rams team that ranks 345th in the nation in shooting and 348th in scoring.

Saturday: Navy vs. Army.  It’s not the football spectacular, but this Patriot League matinee is not without relevance.  The Midshipmen have won three of four while the Black Knights have won two straight.  Army also is led in scoring by Tommy Funk, which on name value has to count for something.

Sunday: Virginia at Wake Forest.  The defending national champs knew they’d have growing pains with the bulk of last year’s producers departing, but the Cavaliers have lost four of five and are slowly slipping towards the NCAA Tournament bubble.  The Demon Deacons are to the ACC what Rutgers used to be to the Big Ten:  a school with distant Final Four history and often a tough out but a team you need to beat if you want to stay in contention.

Hindsight is 20/20, unless you’re former Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier (the ol’ ball coach said it was “50-50”, only adding to his legend while here).  As 2020 begins there’s plenty of hindsight, foresight, long and short sight regarding the local college basketball teams.

I don’t think anybody expected that Maryland’s high-profile recruits, the Mitchell twins, would be gone by New Year’s Eve.  And I hazard a guess that few would have thought that Georgetown would win six straight after losing James Akinjo and three other players.  Just like nobody saw Stephen F. Austin-Duke or Evansville-Kentucky ending the way they did; Gonzaga became the sixth school to reach number one this season during Christmas week and the Bulldogs remain atop both polls.

Alma Mater Update- after spending the last few winters on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Orange need to get hot this month just to play their way onto the bubble. At 8-6 and 1-2 in the ACC, they’ve lost games against every quality non-conference foe and Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame was a great opportunity missed.  SU plays Virginia Tech and Virginia this week; two more losses and they’ll be on a different bubble. As in the one that has the bottom six ACC teams playing the first day of the Tournament.

Ballot Battles- this is the second winter I’ve voted in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.  For the most part fans are cool even though the website collegepolltracker.com leaves me open for emails from San Diego State fans for not having the unbeaten Aztecs ranked higher.  Each week there are questions as one puts together the top 25, and this week’s deal was how the bottom third (my 16th through 25th ranked teams) didn’t lose.  It’s tough to break a new team in, although I did so with VCU.  The Rams have been in and out of my Top 25 all season.

Roster Rotations- Georgetown (10-5) may have wrapped up non-conference play with six consecutive wins, but the Hoyas are 0-2 to start Big East play not because of the December defections but Mac McClung’s eye injury suffered against American December 28.  The sophomore missed the loss at Providence and shot 7-20 from the field in the defeat at Seton Hall.  On the bright side, three of their next four games are at home.  No. 12 Maryland (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) plays four of its next six games on the road, and the Terps are still getting adjusted to the absence of twin towers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell.  Even though the duo averaged a combined 16 minutes per game, their absence means more time in the pivot for sophomore Jalen Smith.  At least until seven-footer Chol Mariol gets in gear.

Wow of the Week- VCU (12-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) played solid basketball in the pre-conference slate, losing games to schools (Purdue, Tennessee, Wichita State) that have all been ranked at some time this season.  The Rams made a major statement in the first week of A-10 play, with the exclamation point a 72-59 win at George Mason (11-3, 0-1) where they held the Patriots scoreless for the game’s first 4:20.  Marcus Santos-Silva scored a career-high 26 points for the Rams while Mason received a wake-up call as to what play will be like in a league where five other schools won at least ten non-conference games.

Player Spotlight- American University’s Sa’eed Nelson was the preseason pick for Patriot League Player of the Year, and the senior has not disappointed in averaging 16 points with 5 assists per game for the Eagles.  Nelson’s 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists helped AU pull past Boston University 67-63 for their first conference win of the winter. He’ll need the supporting cast to step up this week with games at Army and Lehigh.

 

Starting Five- as in games involving local schools I will keep my eyes on this week:

Tuesday at 7 p.m.- No. 12 Maryland (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) plays No. 11 Ohio State (11-3,   1-2).  Both teams have been in the top five at times this season; each have suffered tough losses as well.  Buckeyes big man Kaleb Wesson has held to 3-12 FG last winter, but that was with Bruno Fernando on his back.  This year Jalen Smith draws that assignment.

Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.- Georgetown (10-5, 0-2 Big East) plays St. John’s (11-4, 0-2).  We can’t even play this up as the coaching matchup of legends Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin; Mike Anderson has guided the Red Storm to wins over Arizona and West Virginia, but they’ve dropped their two league games by a combined ten points.  Neither school can start 0-3 in the conference if they want to keep the dream of playing in March alive.

Thursday at 6 p.m.- Towson (7-9, 1-3 CAA) meets Drexel (9-7, 2-1).  The Tigers have looked good in spots (a victory over Tulane) and less than ideal on other nights (45 points in a loss to Northeastern).  Do they have a chance to make their way back up the league standings?  Senior Brian Fobbs is averaging 14 points in two games since being held to a combined 15 the previous two.

Saturday at 2 p.m.- George Mason (11-3, 0-1 Atlantic 10) visits La Salle (10-4, 1-1).  The Patriots go on the road for the first time in league play.   The Explorers have already matched last season’s win total.

Saturday at 2 p.m.- Virginia Tech (10-4, 1-2 ACC) hosts NC State (10-4, 1-2).  The Hokies and first-year coach Mike Young are enjoying a stellar freshman season from Landers Nolley II, but the 6-foot-7 guard could use some help as he scored 18 of the team’s 39 points in their loss at Virginia.  The Wolfpack know exactly what it’s like being the “other” state school in the conference.

 

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Thanksgiving dinner always provides that moment when everyone is full turkey and stuffing when someone decides to start the “let’s go around the table and say what we’re thankful for” chain.  For the record you should go to Thanksgiving dinner with three things (one generic and two specific) in case you’re late in the rotation; nobody likes a copycat.  What I’m thankful for is college football rivalries.

At the highest level it’s Alabama watching its probable playoff hopes go down the drain thanks to missed field goals and pick-sixes at Auburn (although for the record at 10-2 I’m sure the Crimson Tide can still find their way back into the picture).  It’s Michigan losing to Ohio State for a record eighth straight year.  It’s Ole Miss rallying for a last-minute touchdown against Mississippi State, only to miss an extra point after receiving a personal foul penalty because the player who scored the touchdown pretended to urinate in the end zone like a dog (one cannot make this up).  And it’s Virginia putting to bed a generation of mishaps and anguish to bed at long last on a Friday afternoon in Charlottesville.  Fifteen years of woe traded for “Wahoowa!”.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange ended their autumn of discontent with a 39-30 overtime win against Wake Forest.  The 5-7 finish will have those looking closer at what could have happened at NC State or against Pitt.  At least thinking about those losses is better than wondering what is up with men’s basketball; a 21-point loss to Penn State ranks with last winter’s loss to Buffalo as a “huh?”.

 

Virginia (9-3, 6-2 ACC) alums may be taking Monday and Tuesday off this week as they’re probably still celebrating after 15 years of close calls and anguish with a 39-30 win over Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3).  The nine-point margin of victory was the fifth time in eight years the Commonwealth Cup was decided by single digits, and instead of going the Hokies way as has been the case this decade it was the Cavaliers who made the plays down the stretch this year.

Cavalier Congrats: the cape fit once again for Bryce Perkins, who passed for 311 yards and a touchdown while running for 164 yards and a score.  His top target was Hasise Dubois, who made four catches for 139 yards.  The defense posted six sacks, including the one that led to the game-sealing fumble recovery in the Hokies’ end zone.  Noah Taylor tallied a pair of interceptions while Aaron Faumui made 2.5 sacks.  Brian Delaney made game-tying and go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter.

Cavalier Concerns: Delaney missed his first extra point attempt of the day, and the special teams failed to generate any major returns.  Seven penalties for 62 yards might not hurt you against the Hokies, but they will against Clemson.  And the defense once again was accommodating;  they’ve allowed 29 points per game in November.

Hokie Highlights: Hendon Hooker also threw for 311 yards and a touchdown, and while the sophomore didn’t pass the century mark on the ground he did rush for a TD.  Tre Turner caught seven passes for 134 yards and a score.  Divine Dablo tallied 11 tackles to pace the defense.  Oscar Bradburn averaged 45.8 yards per punt while Tayvion Robinson had a 35 yard punt return while Keshawn King recorded a 43 yard kickoff return.

Hokie Humblings:  the game was theirs in the second half to lose, and the defense that had notched consecutive shutouts allowed the Cavaliers to score on their final four possessions of the day.  The offense that had done a great job taking care of the ball since the 2-2 start turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter, and the offensive line was ravaged for six sacks by the UVa pass rush.

Next:  for Virginia, it’s a trip to Charlotte for their first-ever ACC Championship Game.  They’ll face defending national champion Clemson at 7:30 p.m.  Virginia Tech plays the waiting game.  The Hokies could potentially appear in the Camping World or Citrus Bowl.

 

Maryland (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten) rallied on the road but came up short in its season finale, falling at Michigan State 19-16.  Head coach Mike Locksley has meetings scheduled with players and coaches over the next few days.  In any program rebuild there’s usually change after the first season, even if it’s considered by the coach as “Year Zero”.

Terrapin Triumphs: Anthony McFarland rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown (a 63-yard scamper that gave Maryland a fourth quarter lead) while also returning a kickoff 40 yards.  Dontay Demus caught seven passes for 96 yards and a 44-yard touchdown.  Fa’Najae Gotay led the defense with 15 tackles, and the unit intercepted Spartans senior quarterback Brian Lewerke twice.  Colton Spangler averaged 47 yards per punt.

Terrapin Troubles: the offense turned the ball on each of their first two possessions and a third quarter fumble jumpstarted the Spartans’ game-tying drive.  In between the Terps converted just 1-of-11 third downs.  The defense didn’t break but bent just enough to allow the game-tying and tie-breaking field goals in the fourth quarter.

Next: Saturday September 5, 2020 at home against Towson.

 

Navy (9-2, 7-1 ACC) wasn’t able to win the AAC West as No. 17 Memphis clinched the division on Friday with their win over No. 18 Cincinnati, but the Midshipmen enter their annual game with arch-rival Army on the high of a 56-41 win over Houston.

Midshipman Medals:  it takes a lot to upstage the play of Malcolm Perry.   But while the senior quarterback rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown while throwing for 107 more yards, runningback Jamale Carothers ran for 188 yards and five TD’s.  The defense intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble.  Kevin Brennan led the unit with seven tackles and one of the five interceptions.

Midshipman Miscues:  the defense allowed 41 points and 527 yards, allowing pass plays of 47, 52, and 67 yards.  Clayton Tune burned them for 393 yards after managing 425 yards over his three previous games in November.

Next: against Army in Philadelphia at 3 p.m. on December 14.

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What if?  It’s the saddest sentence in the English language that says so much yet nothing of substance at the same time.  Today is the 56th anniversary of the JFK assassination- if it were an actual person the assassination is now ten years older than the man was when he was killed.  Instead of wondering what the world would have been like had Kennedy lived, six ears ago I imagined a world with Lenny Bias living past that dark day of June 1986.

 

NOVEMBER 18, 2013—Len Bias turns 50.

 The University of Maryland honors its Basketball Hall of Famer with a star-studded evening…almost a “This is Your Life” at the Comcast Center (popularly called the “Driesell Dome”).

Lefty Driesell’s expected to make the trip up from Virginia Beach where he’s enjoyed retirement since stepping down in 2002.  After posting 696 wins over 32 seasons as Terps coach the longtime rival of Dean Smith left the game same time his constant nemesis did (Driesell joked that “Dean was done in ’97…but only stuck around so I wouldn’t have a crack at his record”).  Although Bias didn’t lead Lefty to the Final Four, he helped set the stage for the recruiting classes that finally did in 1991.  They’d lose to to Gary Williams’ Ohio State Buckeyes;  despite the disappointment it was something special to see Williams get the most out of top recruit Jimmy Jackson.  OSU would fall to Duke in the finals that year because the Blue Devils always got the calls then but the seeds were sown for an era of Terrapin dominance in the decade of the 90’s.  Lawrence Moten arrived on campus that fall and scored over 2,000 points (try imagine the unassuming guard with high socks pulling that act in the rough and tumble Big East)… and with Joe Smith dominating inside the Terps would reach the Final Four again in 1994 and ’95.  Smith and Moten would end their careers by beating UCLA for the championship in 1995.  This allowed Lefty to finally say that Maryland was in fact the “UCLA of the East”, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Larry Bird’s supposed to fly in from Indianapolis…his back that gave him issues in the late 80’s after the Celtics’ third championship in a row needed more surgery this past summer.  Remember Boston coach KC Jones trademarking “Boston Three Party” and making a mint off the merchandising?  Savvy move.  Kevin McHale will be in town as well;  how about when as a rookie Bias stepped into the starting lineup so McHale could fully recover from foot surgery for the playoffs?  That not only allowed the Celtics to repeat as champs in 1987 but also kept McHale in prime shape for the ’88 and ’91 title runs.  Robert Parish may bring down the house with his deadpan wit (“the closest I came to smiling was watching Lenny play”).

Michael Jordan will be on hand as well.  The duo’s rivalry defined the decade like Bird & Magic or Russell & Wilt.  Jordan’s Bulls ended the Bird era by bouncing the defending champs in 1992…and although it took a while for the “Bias Bunch” to reload they were able to keep key cogs like Rick Fox and Brian Shaw on the roster to let the new talent know what it meant to be a true Celtic.  Titles in 1996, 98 and 2000 bookended Bias’ first three championships.  The last one was especially sweet as the Celtics beat a new generation of Lakers in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant…especially with Larry Bird in the front office.  Bias probably kept Jordan from winning five or six rings.

And even though he coached a different sport, Bobby Ross will make an appearance…probably to bask in the 25th anniversary of the National Championship team that upset Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.  When Bias left College Park, Ross was fresh off guiding the Terps to a 9-3 season (with losses to eventual #2 Michigan, #3 Penn St. and #9 Miami)…and with a supportive Athletic Department Maryland was able to take things to the next level over the next decade.  Ross finally retired after the 2000 season, handing the program to Ralph Friedgen who promptly led the Terps to another ACC Title and an Orange Bowl in his first season.

What a celebration– and what a what-if.   It’s still too soon–over 33 years later.

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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.”

 

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

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.