Archives for category: college basketball

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Four days until Selection Sunday. Five more bids were claimed last night bringing the number of teams in the field to 11:  No. 2 Gonzaga, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, Northern Kentucky, and Hofstra.  The Pride’s 70-61 win over Northeastern in the CAA Championship Game was its first in four Finals appearances, and punched the school’s first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since they competed in the America East Conference as the “Flying Dutchmen”.  Their win wrapped up four days at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC; the first of three years the CAA will be coming to Washington.

Meanwhile, a pair of locals played last night with their seasons on the line as neither Virginia Tech nor Howard had a legitimate shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

The Hokies (16-16) lost to North Carolina in the ACC First Round 78-56 after shooting 29% while getting outrebounded by 15.  Who knows if the future is bright, but it’s most certainly on campus in Blacksburg: freshmen Hunter Cattoor (14 points), Jalen Cone (11 points) and Landers Nolley II (10 points) scored 64% of the Hokies’ points.  Unfortunately the rest of the team shot 6-for-29 (21%).  How will Coach Mike Young build off of that nucleus with his first complete recruiting cycle?  In an ACC that was in flux much of the winter, we’re a few years away from learning which direction this program that is going after watching its consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances streak end at three.  Never an easy night, winter, or year in the ACC.

Howard (4-28), however, showed how mad March can be sometimes.  The Bison somehow shocked South Carolina State in the First Round of the MEAC 70-63.  Let’s put this in perspective:  HU went 0-9 in November, 2-3 in December, 0-8 in January and 0-7 in February.  But they’re 2-1 in March, and more importantly they live to play another day thanks to Charles Williams (24 points), Kyle Foster (18 points), and team defense that held the Bulldogs to 2-19 shooting from three-point range.  Next up? Second seed North Carolina A&T; the Aggies went 12-4 in league play and beat the Bison by four in February.  So HU can still dream.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange ended the regular season with a loss at Miami, dropping the team to 10-10 in a soft ACC and 17-14 overall.  The team finished 1-1 in overtime games and 3-5 in regulation games decided by five points or fewer.  The 14 regular season losses is the most for the program since 1969, Roy Danforth’s first year and the last time the Orange posted a losing record (9-16).  And they face a North Carolina team that rolled them on Senior Day in the ACC Second Round.  It’s technically the “9 p.m. game”, but anybody who knows anything about the ACC realizes that the nightcap will not begin much before 10 p.m.  Buddy Update: his 12 points against Miami give the sophomore 474 for the season and 691 for his career, putting him 54 points shy of his father Jim’s career total.  If he scores his regular season average of 15.3 per game, the Orange will need to win at least two games (meaning he’ll play in four) in the ACC/NIT for Buddy to pass the other guy who once wore No. 35.

Ballot Battles- I caught heat this week from a San Diego State fan for dropping the Aztecs all the way from sixth to 15th after their loss to Utah State.  For the record they were probably overvalued while still staying unbeaten, and there is a bit of a market correction for mid-major schools losing games this late.  Power five schools may get a pass because in some leagues (Big Ten, Big East) most of the conference schedule is against potential NCAA Tournament teams; not so in the Mountain West or West Coast Conference (sorry, BYU).  Biggest differences between my ballot and the composite poll?  Oregon (I’ve got the 13th ranked Ducks 7th), Virginia (I’ve got the 17th rated Cavaliers 11th), and Creighton (I have the 7th ranked Bluejays 15th).  Small school shout-outs go to Stephen F. Austin (28-3, first place in the Southland and that win over Duke) East Tennessee State (30-4 and making me look smart with their roll through the Southern), and New Mexico State (the Aggies have won 19 in a row).

Bids up for Grabs:  just one on Wednesday, with Colgate hosting Boston University for the Patriot League Championship.  Since joining the conference for the 2013-14 season, the Terriers are 5-6 while the Raiders are 7-5 with last year’s title in their trophy case.  They also won both regular season games between the two schools and are led by facilitator Jordan Burns (15 points and 5 assists per game).  I’ll be watching wondering how AU can get back there.

 

Tipping off Today/Tonight:

The Atlantic 10, Big Ten and Big East begin their tournaments in Brooklyn, Indianapolis and New York City.  Meanwhile, the MEAC continues in Norfolk as does the ACC in Greensboro (without Virginia Tech).

1 p.m. – George Mason (16-15 overall, 6-12 A-10) vs. St. Joseph’s (6-25, 2-16). What a difference a few months and a key injury makes.  The Patriots began the season 11-1 even with Justin Kier’s early injury issues but when the senior re-injured his foot the team went into a tailspin (that will happen when you lose the previous season’s leading scorer).  Coach Dave Paulsen’s team has lost five of seven, with the two wins coming against tied-for-last Fordham and St. Joe’s.  Mason’s 62-55 win over the Hawks saw Javon Greene score 20 points; the St. Joseph’s player to watch is junior guard Ryan Daly who leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He’s slacking in the blocked shots department (fourth).

3:30 p.m. – George Washington (12-19, 6-12 A-10) vs. Fordham (8-22, 2-16).  Newsflash: teams that play in the “dreaded first round” are not hot entering March.  The Colonials have lost five straight, with one of those defeats coming to the Rams.  Actually GW is the only A-10 team Fordham has been able to beat this winter, so the last-place Rams have the bracket right where they want it.  It’s also a matchup of the two lowest-scoring teams in the conference:  while GW’s 65.6 points per game ranks 313th the Rams’ 58.1 is 349th.  Somehow Fordham also found a way to post November wins against UConn (now 19-12) and Bradley (MVC Tournament winner).

7 p.m. – Georgetown (15-16, 5-13 Big East) vs. St. John’s (16-15, 5-13), 7 p.m.  If this feels familiar, it’s because this is the third meeting in the eight-nine game between the Hoyas and Red Storm in the last four years.  Since the revamping of the “New Big East”, the old powers have had it rather rough:  this is the fifth straight March the Johnnies have played in the first round while Gtown is making its sixth appearance in seven years on the first night at MSG.  The Hoyas swept the regular season series, rallying from 17 points down at the Garden on Super Bowl Sunday.  They’ve won just twice since, while St. John’s won two of three to end their regular season.

8:30 p.m. – Howard (4-28) vs. North Carolina A& T (16-15, 12-4 MEAC).  Can the Bison keep the dream and its season alive?  As impressive as last night’s upset of South Carolina may be, HU has not won consecutive games all season.  NC A&T won four of five to conclude the regular season, with the only loss coming to regular season champ North Carolina Central.  The Aggies are led by senior forward Ronald Jackson, who tallied 18 points with 10 rebounds against the Bison last month and averages a double-double.  Howard senior Charles Williams may be averaging 25 points over his last three games, but the guard shot 4-11 and 0-2 from three point range against the Aggies last month.

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Five days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up, with Belmont, Utah State, Bradley, Winthrop, Liberty, and East Tennessee State punching their tickets by taking their respective conference tournaments.  With the Ivy League cancelling its four-team tournament due to Coronavirus concerns, regular season champion Yale picks up the sixth bid.  Meanwhile, the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired with Indiana coach Archie Miller (whose Hoosiers are 9-11 in the Big Ten) comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”.  Which reminds me; I finally recognize Archie as “Andy who eats candy” from the 80’s Sesame Street sketch “Captain Vegetable”.  You’ve come a long way, kid.  With only one projected at-large school (San Diego State) losing last weekend, there’s minimal bumping for bubble teams.  Meanwhile, one local school already has a banner on order.

Bids for Grabs- five automatic NCAA Tournament berths are awarded this evening, although No. 2 Gonzaga is in the field even if they lose to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Championship Game.  The 26-7 Gaels are also projected to reach the field, but stranger things have happened to hopeful at-large schools in the tide of Conference Championship week:  many an undertow has dragged a 26-8 school into the NIT.  The Northeast Conference (Robert Morris hosts St. Francis (PA) after the Colonials beat the Red Flash ten days ago to earn home court advantage), Summit (North Dakota-North Dakota State), Horizon (UIC-Northern Kentucky), and CAA (Hofstra-Northeastern) are your classic Big Dance or Bust situations.

While the Colonial Athletic Association isn’t as transient as the Southern Conference (34 former members), there has been quite a bit of turnover since the league formed in 1979 and took the Colonial name in 1985.  It’s eleven ex-members include George Mason, Richmond, and VCU who went to the Atlantic Ten as well as American and Navy who left for the Patriot League.  Even Catholic was a member before deciding to go Division III while Baltimore dropped athletics entirely.  Unfortunately area schools still in the CAA like James Madison, Delaware, Towson, and William & Mary all fell short of tonight’s final.

Tournaments tipping off: we start with the ACC, where Virginia Tech (16-15, 7-13 ACC) faces last place North Carolina (13-18, 6-14 ACC) in the dreaded first round.  Thank goodness once again a conference school ran afoul of the NCAA and removed itself from postseason play; Georgia Tech joins Syracuse (2015) and Louisville (2016) and their loss is our gain as we only have to sit through two of these games (the 10 vs. 15 game is almost as bad as the old 9 vs. 16 game in the days of the bloated Big East).  I write “last place North Carolina” with a major caveat, as the Tar Heels have won three of four (the loss came to No. 10 Duke) and six of their fourteen losses were by one possession. Don’t be surprised if UNC bounces a Hokies team that is 2-9 since beating the Heels in January.  They’d then draw Syracuse, and the Orange still have plenty of enemies off the court in Greensboro.

Also getting underway is the MEAC, and in Norfolk both the men and women hold their conference tournaments during the same week.  As fate would have it the Howard men and women both play South Carolina State in Tuesday’s first round; the Bison men (3-28, 1-15) face a Bulldogs team that has lost five straight and nine of eleven.  They also played well in a 101-95 loss during the regular season. Stranger things have happened in March.  The Howard women (15-14, 7-9 MEAC) have lost five of six to drop under .500 in league play, but SC St. hasn’t won a game since January 20.

 

Six days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up (Belmont & Utah State Saturday; Bradley, Winthrop & Liberty Sunday) while the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired (Indiana coach Archie Miller comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”).  While bubble schools cross their fingers for minimal upsets this week and ranked teams try to project their seeding, one local school gets to hang a banner in its arena.

Maryland hasn’t won or shared a regular season conference title in ten years, or since they were in the ACC.  It looked like the Terps couldn’t overcome issues on the road earlier this winter (starting 0-3 away from Xfinity Center in Big Ten play) and then it appeared as though their traditional second half of conference play slide (three losses in four games from February 23 to March 3) was going to derail a promising run.  But instead, the Terps led Michigan for most of Sunday afternoon’s 83-70 victory thanks to their two constants:  senior Anthony Cowan Jr. tallied 20 points with 8 assists while sophomore Jalen Smith added 18 points with 11 rebounds.  Cowan came back for his senior year because he wanted to be remembered as a winner; and he helps deliver a share of the regular season Big Ten Championship.  There are still the unfriendly waters of the Big Ten Tournament (they’re 2-5 with their last win coming in 2016) and the treacherous seas of the NCAA Tournament (one trip to the second week since 2003), but Cowan and coach Mark Turgeon will always have a banner at Xfinity Center they can look up to that will say “2020 Big Ten Regular Season Champions”.  And while March may be fickle, a banner is forever.

Wow of the Week- Howard avoided a winless conference season by beating Maryland-Eastern Shore last Monday.  And while the Bison dropped their season finale to Delaware State, at least they don’t have to deal with the offseason stigma that befalls Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun), The Citadel (Southern) and Chicago State (WAC).  The Bison are building under coach Kenneth Blakeney, and last Monday was the first of many steps.

Player Spotlight- Jagan Mosely was recruited to Georgetown by John Thompson III and had hoped to turn around what appeared to be a hiccup in the program.  Instead, the Hoyas posted a second straight losing season and JT3 was shown the door.  In came Patrick Ewing and a different system, along with the growing pains of a rebuild.  Mosely was all set to lead the Hoyas back to the NCAA Tournament (the school’s last trip to the big dance was in 2015) this March, but defections (four transfers in December) and injuries (Mac McClung’s foot and Omer Yurtseven’s knee) have hijacked all hopes.  Six straight losses have dropped the Hoyas to 15-16, meaning that reaching the NIT would be a major stretch.  But through it all Mosely has been a standout player for Ewing’s program, leading the Big East with 38.4 minutes played in conference games.  The Marlboro, New Jersey native deserved much better.  But just think how bad things would have been without the team’s backbone this winter.

Bids for Grabs- Just one on Monday.  The Southern Conference was created in 1921, but in the years since schools like Alabama and Auburn left to create the SEC while North Carolina and Maryland departed to form the ACC.  Another generation of schools like George Washington and Richmond marked their time before winding up in the Atlantic Ten, Marshall and East Carolina used the Southern as a stepping-stone to Conference USA and the AAC, and most recently Elon and Charleston have passed through on their way to the CAA.  All told-the Southern Conference has 34 former schools (aka Spinal Tap) with two even dropping down to Divsion III (Sewanee as well as Washington & Lee).  Tonight, regular season champ East Tennessee State (29-4) plays upstart Wofford (7th seed) for the league’s likely lone bid.  Hopefully both schools will stay a while after their title game appearance.

Locals in the Mix- the CAA Tournament comes to the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC, but the schools closest to Washington went home Sunday evening as Towson tumbled to Northeastern while William & Mary lost to Elon.  The Tribe’s loss ends the schools drive for its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.  Their first big dance banner will have to wait at least one more year.

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As March begins, Maryland and Georgetown fans can take solace in knowing that they’re members of arguably the two best conferences in the country.  Beware the Big Ten and Big East.  Both leagues are playing at a high level as we enter college basketball’s “closing month”.  Most bracket models have 10 Big Ten schools (71% of its membership) reaching the NCAA Tournament, while seven Big East schools are in the mix for the field of 68 (7/10 makes for easier math).  The Big Ten is enjoying a ridiculous run right now, with eight schools in the most recent Associated Press Top 25.  What is this, SEC football?  “The Big Ten’s always really good; it’s just unusual to have this sort of quality depth where the league performed at such a high level in the non-conference, and then seemingly everybody at least early on protected their home courts like you don’t see very often.” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said before last Saturday’s Maryland-Michigan State game. “I’m not sure that the Big Ten 1-2-3 at the top is significantly better than the ACC or the SEC.  But one through ten, I don’t think it’s a close call.  It’s the best league top to bottom and by far the most competitive.”

In a 21st century college hoops landscape where third-year juniors are a rarity and fourth-year starters are virtually extinct (Maryland’s Anthony Cowan is the exception that proves the rule),  the man wearing the suit (not always with a tie these days) becomes all the more important. “Continuity in coaches-the coaches have been there for a long time,” Bilas said.  And they have:  seven have been at their current jobs at least since 2013, with Purdue’s Matt Painter (15 seasons) and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (25 years) the longest tenured.  That leads to programs on solid footing:  with Penn State, Rutgers, and Illinois likely making this year’s NCAA field, Nebraska (2014) would be the only program not making the Tournament in the last five years.

The Big East may not have the Big Ten’s depth, but they do have what they don’t: National Championships.  Since the Big Ten won its last in 2000, the Big East has boasted six titlists (from an accounting standpoint, we count the 2013 vacated Louisville team but don’t recognize UConn in 2014 as the Huskies were in the AAC).  And this year the league has seven likely participants.  They also have the all-important continuity with six having five-plus years at their respective schools.  “Everybody’s recruiting at a very, very, very high level,” Xavier second-year coach Travis Steele said. “Every time we get a young man committed, I always tell our guys, ‘Hey-don’t forget, Georgetown’s getting the same thing. So is Marquette, so is Villanova, so’s Providence’. Everybody’s good.”  Bad news for a Georgetown that’s on the underbelly of the bubble with four straight losses, and minimal comfort for a Maryland that may lead its conference but has dropped two of three.

Alma Mater Update: the Orange played their home finale Saturday by saluting John Wallace and enabling Jimmy Fallon.  Wasn’t it neat to see Fallon pal around with Tom Brady and Julian Edelman courtside before directing the Sour Citrus Society?  Yeah, right.  Meanwhile, SU lost to North Carolina and slipped to 16-13 on the season and 9-9 in the ACC.  They still need to beat Boston College or Miami to secure that 17th victory and a winning season.  A berth in the NIT is no lock, by the way.  On the Buddy Watch:  the younger Boeheim is averaging 15.2 points per game, putting him on pace for 471 this season which would give him for 688 in his career.  Or 57 shy of his father entering the ACC Tournament.

Wow of the Week: Once again the wow comes from Charlottesville.  Virginia continues its surge up the standings in the ACC with two more wins.  Saturday’s 52-50 triumph over then-No. 7 Duke saw the Cavaliers get a career-defining game from Jay Huff (15 points, 9 rebounds and 10 blocks) as they once again win a nail biter: six of their wins in the current 9-1 stretch have come by one possession.  They’ve already locked up a double-bye in the ACC Tournament and could take third with two wins or a one victory plus help.

Player Spotlight: Sa’eed Nelson earned our first player spotlight at the beginning of January, and as we enter March the spotlight comes full circle.  The senior became American University’s all-time leading scorer last Wednesday, passing Russell “Boo” Bowers.  The guard was also named Patriot League Player of the Year as he helped power AU to a second-place finish, their highest since 2014 when they advanced to the NCAA’s.

League Look:  the Patriot League gets a jump on everyone else with their tournament beginning Tuesday evening.  And unlike most other conferences, games are on campus sites.  Defending champ Colgate repeated as regular season titlist and enters as the No. 1 seed; the conference’s highest-scoring offense (76 points per game) is also the most dangerous from three-point range (36%).  They also have the conference’s top rebounder in Will Rayman (8.9 boards per game).  Perennial favorite Bucknell is conspicuous by its absence from the top of the standings.  This is the first time since 2014 the Bison haven’t finished with a share of the league’s best record, and their history of dominance with six tournament titles and 13 regular season crowns and two of the league’s three NCAA Tournament victories.  Instead, they’re playing in Tuesday’s First Round against last-place Holy Cross knowing that a win sends them to Bender Arena and a date with American on Thursday.

Ballot Battles:  Maryland was oh so close to finding its way into this week’s top five once again, but a loss to Michigan State holds the Terps back.  This week’s movers include UCLA (the Bruins suddenly atop the Pac-12) and Creighton (I’ve got the Bluejays 20th as opposed to the 11th they’re at this week), with small school shout-outs going to Stephen F. Austin, East Tennessee State, and Northern Iowa.  The biggest heat I’m getting?  BYU fans after I dropped the Cougars from 20th to 21st (they’re 15th overall) on my ballot.  While the West Coast Conference’s second place team has won nine in a row, I moved Michigan State and Ohio State over them based on quality wins by the Spartans and Buckeyes over the last eight days.

 

Starting Five:

Friday- Richmond at Duquesne.  The Spiders have won seven of eight to move onto the NCAA Tournament bubble; unfortunately most of those wins have not been of the marquee variety and most bracket models still have Richmond on the outside looking in.  The Dukes are likely the best team U of R has faced since falling to now-No. 7 Dayton in late January.  While a win won’t bolster their at-large consideration, a loss will definitely go towards deflating it.

Saturday- Georgetown vs. Villanova. Patrick Ewing is officially using paper clips and duct tape to hold his roster and rotation together, with Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven joined on the hobbled list by Malcolm Wilson.  Who’s that?  A 6-foot-11 big hoping to redshirt in peace-and he couldn’t even do that, suffering an injury in Saturday’s practice.  The Wildcats are playing for seeding in the Big East as well as NCAA Tournament and won the game up in Philly by 14 when Sadiq Bey sunk eight threes on his way to 33 points.

Also Saturday- No. 22 Virginia vs. Louisville.  The last team to beat the surging Cavaliers? The Cardinals in an 80-73 affair that saw UVa break the 70-point barrier for the first time all season.  Jordan Nwora notched 22 points and 7 rebounds that day, and containing the junior forward is key:  since the start of February he’s averaging 19 points with 9 rebounds (shooting 41% FG and 38% from three) in Louisville’s six wins, 5 points with 7 rebounds (shooting 24% FG and 13% from three) in their three losses.

Also Saturday- George Washington at No. 3 Dayton.  The Colonials try to play spoiler on Senior Day for the Flyers, who are attempting to zero in on the conference’s first number one seed since Saint Josephs in 2004.  Celebrations aside, all eyes will be on a certain sophomore.  Forward Obi Toppin leads the A-10 in shooting (63%), ranks second in scoring (19.8) and is seventh in rebounding (7.8).  GW doesn’t have the firepower to match:  the Colonials rank 13th in the conference in scoring and are also second to last in turnover margin.

Sunday- No. 9 Maryland vs. No. 25 Michigan.  The Terps begin the week one win away from a share of their first conference regular season title since 2010, and they remain in the driver’s seat to secure their first outright regular season crown since the National Championship season of 2002.  The Wolverines have yo-yoed their way through the season, going from starting the season unranked with first-time head coach Juwan Howard to making its Top 25 debut in December at No. 4.  They’ve won five straight and have lost four in a row during conference play and find themselves at .500 with two games left in the regular season.  It’s another tough test for the Terps on the perimeter; Xavier Simpson averages a conference-best 7.9 assists per game.

 

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The final week of February brings two phrases back to the college basketball scene:  “seeding line” and “the bubble”.  Even with their 79-72 loss at Ohio State Sunday, Maryland is competing for a top-three seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament.  Why is three a magic number?  Because as a top-four seed they’d be protected and sent closer to the Terps natural region (likely New York City and Madison Square Garden for the East Regional), but they wouldn’t have to face the region’s top seed until the round of eight.  Right now the Terps (22-5, 12-4 Big Ten) are projected to be a No. 2 seed by the “Bracketologists”; with regions varying from South (ESPN), Midwest (CBS Sports), East (USA Today), and Midwest (NBC Sports).  But three of the four have Maryland going to Greensboro (USA Today the outlier with Tampa as their first weekend destination) to begin the tournament.  Virginia (19-7, 11-5 ACC) is a potential second-round foe for the Terps according to ESPN and CBS, as the Cavaliers are a No. 7 and No. 10 seed in those models (UVa is No. 9 seed according to USA Today and NBC).  On the other side of the seeding coin is the bubble:  right now Georgetown (15-12, 5-9 Big East) is squarely on the underbelly thanks to consecutive losses with USA Today listing the Hoyas as one of the “first four teams out” while ESPN and CBS have them in the “next four out”.  Richmond (20-7, 10-4 Atlantic 10) is also on the bubble, with CBS having the Spiders playing in the First Four while the other three models have them in the “first four out”.  Meaning Coach Chris Mooney’s team can ill afford another misstep between now and the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Alma Mater Update: SU rallied to beat Georgia Tech Saturday, which returns the Orange to 8-8 in a soft ACC and returns them to three games over .500 with four dates remaining.  Three are on the road and the fourth is against a North Carolina team that can’t be this bad…right?  Actually, all four schools are currently under .500 in league play so an 18-win campaign isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  Sound familiar?  Since Syracuse’s first winter in the ACC, they’ve finished the regular season with either 18 (twice) or 19 wins (three times).  Not ideal for a program that was accustomed to winning a lot over a long time.  Buddy Watch: the recent rough patch (38 points over his last four games) drops the sophomore’s average to 15.5 points per game, putting him on a pace of 481 for the regular season which would have this No. 35 at 698 for his career entering the ACC Tournament. Or 47 points shy of his father.

Wow of the Week: defending National Champion Virginia owns the longest winning streak in the ACC; four straight victories have moved the Cavaliers off of the bubble and into the NCAA field.  Coach Tony Bennett’s grinders actually enjoyed a breather when they beat Boston College; the 78-65 triumph was just their second double-digit win since January 1.  While offense can leave for the NBA early (Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome) but the rock that this program has been built upon is defense; and the Cavaliers lead the NCAA in scoring defense while ranking second in defensive field goal percentage.  But the schedule ratchets up over the final two weeks with a pair of road games along with home matchups against teams currently in the top ten.

Player Spotlight:  Maryland sophomore Aaron Wiggins led the Terps with 20 points in Sunday’s loss at Ohio State while making 6 of 13 from three-point range.  In his five other games this month, the guard is averaging seven points with four boards and two assists while shooting 36% and 5-23 from outside the arc.  For the Terrapins to shine in March and get to Saturday’s Semifinals in the Big Ten Tournament and the second week of the NCAA’s, they need more than Jalen Smith inside and Anthony Cowan outside.  With Eric Ayala (26% from three after making 41% as a freshman) still looking for his shot, that may fall to Wiggins in the coming weeks.

League Look:  the Big Ten has four schools ranked in the Top 25 with six others likely making the tournament field if today was Selection Sunday (and obviously it is not, but still…).  Two more are on the bubble, with Minnesota and Purdue needing to microwave their way down the stretch to get into the postseason conversation.  While Maryland owns a two game cushion with four to play, there’s a five way tie for second place at 10-6 and then one game separates seventh from tenth place.  Talk about fluid standings.

Ballot Battles:  Saturday saw three of the top four teams in the nation tumble; and that bled over to Sunday when then-No. 7 Maryland fell at Ohio State.  Kansas is the new No. 1 thanks to its victory at previously top-ranked Baylor.  Small school shout-outs this week welcome Liberty (26-3) to the party, with Stephen F. Austin, East Tennessee State, and Northern Iowa remaining in the mix.  Toughest decision was how far to drop the Terps–I slid them three spots after the defeat, behind Duke and San Diego State to the dismay of a few.  After last Monday when my Washington Post Sunday Magazine Crossword became twitter fodder, I’m happy to be roasted by fans from all offended schools this week.

 

Starting Five:

Wednesday- Virginia at Virginia Tech.  The Cavaliers took the January meeting by 26, and the Hokies have lost seven of eight to fall out of NCAA contention.  Freshman Landers Nolley II has officially hit the wall, also known as that time of the season when first-year players have logged more minutes and games than they did during their high school career.  The team’s leading scorer is averaging 9.3 points with 8 rebounds over his last three games while shooting 18% from the field and 1-for-17 from three point range.  He’s going to find scoring against the Cavaliers even more difficult.

Also Wednesday- No. 9 Maryland at Minnesota. Beware late February, Terrapin Nation.  How many times have we seen a highly-regarded Terps team go on the road and get shocked in Lincoln, State College, or Minneapolis?  The Golden Gophers may have lost five of seven and rank third-worst in the Big Ten in shooting, but still boast a big man to be reckoned with. Daniel Oturu’s 11.4 rebounds per game leads the conference and his 19.7 points per game is second-best behind Luka Garza. Jalen Smith, just a few days removed from dealing with Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, will have his hands full once again.

Also Wednesday- American vs. Lafayette.  The Eagles own a one-game lead in the race for third place in the Patriot League, but the Leopards currently own the tiebreaker thanks to their 12-point win in Easton at the beginning of the month.  It was a day where AU shot 15% from three-point range and couldn’t contain Justin Jaworski (32 points on 11-17 shooting).  Sa’eed Nelson is two points away from becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer; he’ll need help from his supporting cast after they shot 14-42 (33%) in Sunday’s loss at Boston University.

Saturday- George Washington at VCU.  It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Rams, who have lost four straight and five of six to light a match to their at-large hopes.  The coveted double-bye is also almost gone for Mike Rhoades team.  GW has won two of three to position itself away from the A-10’s dreaded first round for the first time in three years.

Sunday- Georgetown vs Xavier. Schools with 8-10 conference records have made the NCAA Tournament before, but four games under .500 is almost the at-large kiss of death.  That’s where the Hoyas are on track to land, unless they get things in gear quickly.  The Musketeers are on the top half of most bubbles.  They also lead the Big East in rebounding margin and defending the three; the Hoyas lead the conference in crucial injuries with Mac McClung (eight minutes played this month due to a foot injury) and Omer Yurtseven (five points and eight rebounds in the loss at DePaul after missing the previous two games with a sprained ankle) question marks moving forward.

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For 37 minutes Saturday afternoon the script went as it has for most of the Mark Turgeon era on a micro and macro level.  After coughing up a 15-point lead at Michigan State, the Terps trailed the Spartans 60-53 with 3:25 left.  Second half slides have been the rule as opposed to the exception over the last decade; just once in Turgeon’s tenure has the team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (the 2014-15 season saw the team start 6-3 in the Big Ten before finishing 8-1).  But instead of another February fade, the Terps turned the tables on the Spartans by holding them scoreless for the final 3:25.  Jalen Smith made a three-pointer and helped hold Michigan State to one shot by notching three late rebounds while Anthony Cowan finished the deal with back to back to back threes (he’d add two free throws with seven seconds left for the icing on the cake) as Maryland emerged with a 67-60 victory.  All of a sudden the team that couldn’t win on the road all season has won four straight away from home in the toughest conference.  And all of a sudden the Terrapins find themselves in position to capture their first regular season league title since 2002.

Alma Mater Update:  the Orange led Florida State until late in the second half, falling  80-78 in Tallahassee when a road victory would have been a signature win for a team that desperately needed one.  Instead, another rough outing saw SU slip to .500 in the ACC and closer to .500 for the season.  Next up? A Louisville team that’s dropped two in a row and is just as angry as the Florida State team they fell to last weekend. When does lacrosse begin?

Wow of the Week: Georgetown beat No. 19 Butler 73-66 Saturday despite being minus their top two players, as Omer Yurtseven had yet to fully recover from a badly sprained ankle and Mac McClung has missed four straight games with a foot injury.  Somehow the Hoyas went into Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims are still ten feet off of the court) and hit 10 of 15 three-pointers while Terrell Allen (not even a starter until James Akinjo left the program) scored a career-high 22 points. At 15-10 and 5-7 in the Big East, Georgetown still has a window of opportunity (however slim) to make the NCAA Tournament.

Player Spotlight:  Richmond’s resurgence this winter saw the Spiders avenge their January loss to VCU by routing the Rams 77-59.  This winter they’ve been sparked by high-scoring Blake Francis and anchored by big man Grant Golden while Jacob Gilyard pilots the offense.  But every so often an unsung hero comes up big:  Saturday it was Nick Sherod who scored 23 points while hitting 5-of-7 three-pointers.  The junior has done a lot of the little things this winter to help the Spiders bounce back from consecutive 20-loss seasons, and at this time coach Chris Mooney’s team is making its way towards the NCAA Tournament bubble.

League Look: despite Clemson’s recent success on the gridiron and Virginia’s men’s lacrosse title, the ACC is first and foremost a basketball conference.  Former Duke player Gene Banks said during an era when a maximum of two schools per conference made the big dance that “if the ACC got six teams into the NCAAs, they’d all make the Final Four.”  Six schools have made the field every season since the league expanded to 15 during the 2013-14 season, but this year they’ll be hard-pressed to get five.  Back to back wins by Virginia (one in overtime, another on a last-second shot) have the Cavaliers on the right side of the bubble, but after that there’s a hot mess where fifth and 12th place are separated by a total of two games. Perhaps quality instead of quantity is this year’s mantra:  the league’s  soft center will help upper tier schools like Duke, Florida State, and Louisville likely land top three seeds next month.

Ballot Battles:  last week’s turnover has been rectified, as Pac-12 leader Colorado makes the Top 25.  Maryland moves up three spots on my AP ballot from 10 to 7 this week, while Seton Hall and West Virginia both slide down the teens.  Butler (once as high as number five) drops out after falling to a depleted Georgetown at home.  Small school shout-outs this week go to the usual suspects:  Wright State, East Tennessee State, Stephen F. Austin, and Rhode Island.  Just missing the cut:  Iowa and New Mexico State.

Starting Five:

Wednesday- Georgetown vs. Providence.  The Hoyas lost to the Friars by 16 on the road last month, and while they were hurt by the absence of Mac McClung (eye injury) they were hurt just as much by Alpha Diallo’s 20 points and 8 rebounds.  PC has beaten three ranked teams this month, but has lost road games at Xavier and St. John’s.

Also Wednesday- George Mason at Richmond.  The Patriots are smarting after getting swept by George Washington, but let the record show they went into the Siegel Center last week and beat VCU.  The Spiders shot 67% in a January win at Fairfax, while Mason’s Javon Greene scored 39 points in defeat.

Thursday- William & Mary at Towson.  Both schools are chasing first-place Hofstra in the CAA, with the second place Tribe one-half game ahead of the Tigers, who took the January meeting by 12 thanks to a career-high 21 points from freshman Jason Gibson.  They also lead the conference in scoring defense and rebounding margin.

Sunday- American at Boston University.  AU enters the week one game behind the Terriers for second place in the Patriot League;  in a conference where the tournament is played on home courts tiebreakers are all the more important. The Eagles won the previous meeting by four in DC thanks to Sa’eed Nelson; the senior is the only active NCAA D-1 player to have recorded 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists in his career.

Sunday- No. 7 Maryland at Ohio State.  The Terps took the January meeting after falling behind 8-0 and going scoreless into the game’s first media timeout.  The sibling tandem of Kaleb & Andre Wesson combined for 29 points and 14 rebounds that night, but their teammates shot a collective 10-for-43 (23%).  The Buckeyes boast the Big Ten’s best scoring defense and are tops at defending the three;  should the Terps find themselves down seven with three minutes left on this time they might not find a comeback as easy in Columbus as it was in East Lansing.

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Charlottesville and Blacksburg may not share in basketball success equally, but 2019 was a banner year for both schools.  Virginia won its first-ever National Championship while Virginia Tech earned a third straight NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in program history and advanced to the Hokies’ first Regional Semifinal since 1967.  But 2020 vision is far from ideal, with both schools still trying to find their way in February.  Defending National Champion Virginia (15-7, 7-5 ACC) finds itself squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble thanks to an offense that ranks in the bottom ten of Division I due to the early departures of the likes of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome to the NBA.  The Cavaliers have shown signs of life lately with an upset of then-No. 5 Florida State, but came up short in an upset bid of current No. 5 Louisville.  On the bright side, they posted 70 points for the first time all season.

Virginia Tech (14-10, 5-7) has lost six in a row (two to BOSTON COLLEGE!?!) and hasn’t scored 70 points in regulation since January 15. Their only victory since was a double-overtime defeat of North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are in danger of their third losing season since the creation of the ACC.  New head coach Mike Young knew it wouldn’t be a turnkey operation, but it looks like the Hokies’ streak of NCAA berths will end at three.  UVa’s made the field every year since 2015, but missing the tournament the March after cutting the nets down wouldn’t be an aberration. Four defending champs in the last 13 years (Florida in 2008, North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013, and UConn in 2015) have failed to return to the big dance.

 

Alma Mater Update- somehow the Orange were able to beat Wake Forest on a late putback by freshman Brycen Goodine.  That’s where we are at this time as SU is off the Bracketology board despite a 7-5 ACC mark.  They host NC State before traveling to a pair of top ten teams in Florida State and Louisville in the final chances to notch signature wins this winter;  none of the team’s final five regular season foes own a winning ACC record.  On the Buddy Boeheim beat, the sophomore scored 23 points against the Demon Deacons to give him 381 for the year and 598 for his career.  At his current pace of 16.56 per game he’s likely to land at 513 for the season and 730 for his career, meaning Buddy would start the ACC Tournament 15 points behind his dad.

Wow of the Week- American swept the service academies last week to improve to 8-4 and third place in the Patriot League.  Defense was the difference in defeating Navy and Army as the Eagles held their foes to 24% shooting from three-point range.  While Sa’eed Nelson continues to shine (third in the conference in scoring, second in assists and first in steals) he’s getting major help from junior Stacy Beckton:  the 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 17 points with 7 rebounds over his last four games and ranks third in the league in blocked shots.  The school’s first winning season since 2015 is well within reach.

Player Spotlight- Georgetown somehow beat DePaul Saturday despite Mac McClung not dressing (foot injury), Omer Yurtseven not finishing (sprained ankle), and Jamorko Pickett fouling out late in the second half.  Thank goodness junior guard Jahvon Blair scored 30 points;  his second career high in three games.  The Hoyas hope seven days off will allow their top scorer and best rebounder to heal up before they play a season-defining stretch where they’ll play four of their final seven games against ranked foes.

League Look- there’s a reason the MEAC flies under the radar locally and nationally. First, Howard is 2-24 with an RPI of 353 (there are 353 schools in Division I) which generates little local buzz.  Second, the Baltimore-area schools Coppin State (8-18, 331) and Morgan State (13-13, 303) don’t provide much relief.  But atop the standings there’s a pretty decent race as one game separates the top three schools. North Carolina Central has won five straight to move past Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T;  the Eagles and Aggies play twice over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Ballot Battles- a minor gaffe on my part this week.  I fully intended to move Pac-12 leading Colorado into the Top 25 (Buffaloes have won three straight) but somehow things got lost in the shuffle as I was moving schools up and down my ballot after another topsy-turvy week.  Small school shout-outs go to Wright State, East Tennessee State, and Stephen F. Austin.  Rhode Island and Northern Iowa don’t get small school shout-outs because they’ve been playing big for most of the season.  Maryland was the big mover from 15th to 10th after a pair of gritty wins.  The big sliders were Villanova (fourth two weeks ago to 15th) and Michigan State (off the ballot). Again, a mea culpa to my friends in Boulder–and if you ever visit make sure you check out JL Distillery.  Great spot.

 

Starting Five-all Saturday:

Georgetown at No. 19 Butler, noon (FOX).  The Bulldogs were once ranked fifth in the nation, but have lost five of eight-and their three wins have come by three, four, and five points.  The five-point win came at Georgetown two weeks ago;  Sean McDermott hit 7 of 10 three-pointers en route to 25 points-his highest output since netting 26 against IUPUI their season-opener.  The Hoyas need to get healthy (a major challenge), play solid defense (iffy given they’re last in the Big East in scoring D) and stay out of foul trouble.

No. 9 Maryland at Michigan State, 6 p.m. (ESPN).  The Spartans have slumped their way out of the Top 25 with three straight losses, but when they’ve been good coach Tom Izzo’s team has been on-point with seven of their eight Big Ten wins coming by double digits.  The Anthony Cowan-Cassius Winston matchup outside will only be rivaled by the Jalen Smith-Xavier Tillman duel inside.  Defense travels, which is good news for the Terps who’ve been guarding really well this winter.  It’s also good news for the Spartans who lead the Big Ten in blocked shots and defending the three while ranking second in rebounding margin and scoring defense.

VCU at Richmond, 4 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).  The winner has the inside track to fourth place and the Atlantic 10 Tournament double-bye that comes with it.  The Rams took last month’s meeting by nineteen, but that was against a Spiders team that was minus leading scorer Blake Francis.  The guard has recovered from his sternum injury and score 18 points last weekend in the win over Fordham.  But his Spiders haven’t beaten their cross-town rivals since 2018 and are 5-13 against VCU since they joined the A-10.

George Washington at George Mason, 4:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network). They gave out tricorn hats when the two teams tangled in Foggy Bottom January 15, and GW’s 73-67 win began a stretch where the Colonials won four of five.  But just like the Patriots’ 11-1 start, that surge is but a memory:  GW has lost three in a row while Mason has dropped four straight.  From a fashion statement standpoint, Doc Nix’s colorful outfits > tricorn hats.

Virginia at North Carolina, 8 p.m. (ESPN). One of the few benefits of having the ACC Network not being carried by all cable providers in the DC metro area is the Wake Forest-Miami game won’t see the light of day.  But we knew the Demon Deacons-Hurricanes might not be ready for prime time, while most thought the Cavaliers and Tar Heels would be factors in the ACC race.  And even though UVa is on track for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament (tied for fourth with a bubble-bound Syracuse), they’re a far cry from the air occupying top ten schools Duke, Florida State and Louisville.  UNC?  They lost at home to Clemson for the first time ever last month.  It’s one of those rare winters in Chapel Hill.