Apologies for getting the weekly feature underway two weeks later than normal.  Who’s ready for a semi-informative and occasionally amusing look at the Nats from a guy who is at the ballpark more often than not?

The 7-5 start has given fans plenty of thrills (Daniel Murphy picking up from where he left off in 2016), chills (Bryce Harper screeching home from first on a double in Friday’s win over Philadelphia) and spills (a leaky bullpen that’s less than ideal). Welcome to the 162-step marathon that involves plenty of missteps in every direction.

Causes for Confidence- an offense that leads the majors in OPS, ranks second in batting average and seventh in runs scored.  The addition of Matt Wieters extends the lineup as many thought it would…and even with Wilmer Difo still finding his bat this team has the potential to bring buckets of runs to the table.

Causes for Concern- the bullpen ranks 25th in ERA and has the fifth most blown saves (3) in the early season.  There’s the thinking that this is just an early hiccup…while the other school of thought labels the subpar start as the beginning of a season-long problem.

Dissecting the Division- it’s never too early to freak out about the rest of the NL East.  The Nats are tied for first with Miami and the New York Mets are one-half game behind the leaders.  Two weeks into the season, the club owns the third best run differential (-2) as a 17-3 loss to Philadelphia will cook the numbers a little bit.  Nobody has cause to panic in April–unless you’re 2-10 Toronto.

Meanwhile in the Other East- how about those plucky Orioles?  Despite not having Fort Knox at their disposal like the Yankees and Red Sox, Buck Showalter’s team owns a half-game lead in the division with the best record in the bigs.  Even without Chris Tillman, the Birds are getting it done (although the pitching staff allows the second-highest batting average in the majors).  Now Zach Britton’s on the disabled list…and they still take three of four from the Blue Jays.  Break out the Old Bay…

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper hit .391 with 2 HR and 8 RBI…and scored the game-winning run Friday night against the Phillies before smacking a walk-off homer Sunday.  This is the Bryce of 2015 that was a registered force of nature.  Chris Heisey makes the most of his opportunities, consistently delivering productive at-bats.  Gio Gonzalez tossed 14 and a third innings over two starts, posting an ERA of 1.88.  Shawn Kelley posted two wins in relief, striking out four over three and a third innings.

Last Week’s Humbled- Wilmer Difo is NOT Trea Turner.  Nobody expected the infielder to light up the league with the Nats’ leadoff man on the DL…but hitting .190 with six strikeouts and no walks is far from ideal.  Anthony Rendon hit .240 last week with four strikeouts…hopefully his RBI double last Friday is the start of a turnaround.   Joe Blanton pitched in three games and allowed a home run in each.

Game to Watch- Friday the defending NL East champs face the 2015 division winners for the first time this year.  Tanner Roark (2-0, 3.50 ERA) has a 12-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio and will pitch against a Jacob deGrom who’s coming off a 13-strikeout performance.

Game to Miss- Wednesday the novelty of the Braves’ new ballpark will be worn off…as no doubt Atlanta fans will be clamoring for a new venue.  It’s not Joe Ross’ fault he’s making his 2017 debut the same night the Capitals visit Toronto and the Wizards host Atlanta.  I’ll be curious to see how he fares, but one will be rocking a different red that night.

Previously appearing on WTOP.COM in 2016…and re-dressed with last year’s Second Round Stumble.  Apologies to the 1986 Caps Collapse to a sub-500 Rangers team.

It happens every spring… beauty and awe before they’re gone all of a sudden.  The Cherry Blossom season more often than not mirrors the Caps postseason:  heavy anticipation, attention-grabbing quick bloom,  and then after one or two rains it’s all gone.

The Capitals have enjoyed a checkered postseason in their history…unfortunately getting double-jumped by Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Rangers on multiple occasions while having to hear the refrain “King Me” a lot more than they’d prefer.  But in the middle of the wreckage of many a spring on ice they have also had their moments–it’s just tough to locate the highlights amongst the heartbreak.  Two provide a nice bookend to get us started…

Highlight Honorable Mention: 1983.  In Bryan Murray’s first full season as head coach, the previously hapless Caps (8-67-5 in their first year…and it took six seasons to post a winning percentage above .400) actually make the playoffs and lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.  Just like being nominated for best documentary, it was simply an honor to be the first speedbump that season for Mike Bossy, Billy Smith & company.

Heartbreak Honorable Mention: 2015.  Losing to the Rangers is never fun…and blowing a 3 games to 1 series lead is even more painful.  Thank you, Curtis Glencross for your contribution to Caps Collapse History.  Still, they bounced the Islanders (although losing game 6 meant they couldn’t close out Nassau Coliseum).  They won a game the same night the Wizards and Nats prevailed…and it was coach Barry Trotz’s first season.  Of course, the key to getting over heartbreak is rationalization.

Highlight #5: 1994.  Sadly, it’s a little bit of a challenge to find roses amongst the playoff thorns for this franchise.  But in 1994 they bounced recent nemesis Pittsburgh (who beat the Caps en route to Stanley Cups in 1991 & 92) in six games…outscoring the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the get-go.  Don Beaupre stood on his head for four games…while Joe Juneau and Michal Pivonka led a balanced attack that more than took advantage of their opportunities.  The Caps won the series clincher 6-3 and had other games where they lit the lamp 4 and 5 times.  What happened to that NHL?

Heartbreak #5: 1989.  Finally, a Patrick Division regular season championship.  This would be the team that would finally emerge from the early rounds…only to learn that in the divisional playoff format turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s often expected.  The Caps got bounced by an aging Philadelphia team in six games.  These weren’t the Broad Street Bullies…or even the Cup runners-up from 1987.  How bad were these Flyers?  Their 80 points was the team’s fewest since 1972 and they’d go on to miss the playoffs the next five seasons.  Which brings to mind the question about banner protocol.  Do you have to return the regular season championship banner if you lose in the first round?

Highlight #4: 1984. You never forget your first series win.  Especially when it’s a sweep.  Against the team less than 3 hours up I-95.  And especially when it ends the career of Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke.  Long before he was ruining the Flyers on a short-term (as General Manager) and long-range (as Senior VP) basis, Clarke was one of the scrappiest (some will say dirtiest) players in the league.  He was the face of the franchise in Philadelphia…and to sweep him into retirement by beating the Flyers in the Spectrum was the extra onions on the cheesesteak.  Yes, they lost to the Islanders in the next round.  But still…

Heartbreak #4: 2009.  After winning the Southeast Division (let the record show that it was called the SouthLEAST for much of its existence), the Caps trailed the Rangers 3 games to 1 before taking games five, six and seven (so it does happen the other way sometimes!).  A thrilling conference semifinal showdown against Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby brought three overtime affairs and a 3-3 series tie heading into a Game Seven at Verizon Center.  Sadly, this finish would be more floundering than fantastic and the Penguins won a 6-2 clincher that wasn’t as close as the score looked.  That Pittsburgh would go on to win the Stanley Cup would be little consolation this time.

Highlight #3: 2012.  A team in turmoil fires its coach early in the season and brings in a legend (Dale Hunter) to put the house in order.  After finishing two games over .500…the grittier version went into Boston and won a game seven (thank you Joel Ward!) before taking the #1 team in the conference (Rangers) to seven games in the next round.  The foundation was set.  And Coach Dale Hunter would be back to take this franchise to the next level.  Only he didn’t…choosing to return to his role as president and owner of the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.  The team would stagger and then crumble under Adam Oates.  But we’ll always have that spring…

Heartbreak #3: 2016.  Last year’s Second Round loss in six games to Pittsburgh offered up a little of everything Caps fans have grown to expect.  Losing to Pittsburgh on the Penguins’ path to another Stanley Cup?  Check.   A President’s Trophy banner that gets to hang from the rafters, highlighting not the great 82-game marathon won but reflecting on the 6-game sprint lost?  Check. A guy who scored just nine regular season goals ending your postseason in overtime? Check.  What separates this from the 2009 defeat was that team’s best days were seemingly ahead of it (as evidenced by the 2010 President’s Trophy)…while the 2016 club can definitely see the day when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom skate for the final time.  From here on out every spring stumble carries extra weight.

Highlight #2: 1990.  An underwhelming regular season saw the Caps finish with a losing record for the first time in eight years.  Naturally there was a midseason coaching change.  Oddly enough, coach Bryan Murray was replaced by his brother Terry.  Thankfully Bryan didn’t go all Fredo (he remains smart and deserves respect).  Despite an 18-14-2 finish under Murray 2.0, little was expected.  And with low expectations comes a surprising first round triumph over New Jersey.  Followed by shocking the first place Rangers in five games.  Even after getting swept by a better Boston team in the Cup Semis, the team’s first and only Patrick Division banner remains a high point during their stay in Landover.

Heartbreak #2: 1987.  Again, sometimes its how the movie ends that enhances everything before it.  The seven-game showdown with the Islanders was one for the ages.  Another 3 games to 1 lead with a game five at home.  Haven’t we written this script before?  Yes…but only this time the game seven went down to the wire and beyond.  A late one-goal lead disappeared with 5 minutes left in regulation.  Four overtimes later Pat LaFontaine ends the Capitals’ season…and a game that began at 7 p.m. concludes at 1:58 a.m..   Easter morning was a groggy one for many families in the area.

Highlight #1: 1998.  After finishing third in their division, the Caps rode hot goaltender Olaf Kolzig to the finals for the first time in franchise history.  Never mind that they got swept by Detroit.  And never mind that they took advantage of a busted bracket (upsets of Pittsburgh and New Jersey meant they would have better records than each of their playoff foes in the first three rounds).  Even the teal eagle jerseys couldn’t ruin this run.

Heartbreak #1:  2010.  After winning the President’s Trophy, the high-flying offensive juggernaut looked as though it was ready to finally crown Alex Ovechkin (career high 59 assists), Nicklas Backstrom (career highs in goals and assists) and Mike Green (before the injuries).  After taking a 3-1 first round series lead over Montreal (and posting 19 goals)…they somehow forgot the league changed the format to best-of-seven back in the 1980’s.  Yes, the Canadiens Jaroslav Halak somehow conjured up the spirits of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy to limit the #1 offense in the league to 1 goal in games 5, 6 and 7.  But to lose in the first round after 82 games of positive reinforcement?  The Bruce Boudreau regime would never be the same–making its eventual departure less than 20 months later.

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Past met present at Georgetown…with an eye towards the future.  The school introduced Hoyas great Patrick Ewing as its head men’s basketball coach in front of a room packed with media, boosters, fans, students, alumni and a pep band that did not know “Vehicle” by the Ides of March.  But the name “Patrick Ewing” was music enough to everyone’s ears at the John Thompson Jr. Athletic Center.  Ewing even replicated his famous scene from when he committed to play at the Big East school in 1981, holding a Georgetown pennant above his head.  Ewing has less hair now and has put on a little weight, but the three-time All-American can still pose for a picture.

“I’m very honored and pleased to be named head coach at Georgetown basketball,” Ewing opened, “we’ve had a rich tradition led by the man in the back–Coach Thompson. His vision, his hard work, his dedication has helped to lift the program to where it has gotten. It’s my job to add on to that legacy.”

On the right-hand side after the first few rows of chairs and conveniently near a door for his quiet exit sat the man who brought Ewing to DC from Boston.  John Thompson, Jr. retired 18 years ago and saw his #1 assistant (Craig Esherick) make a Sweet Sixteen appearance before getting fired after a sub-500 season.  He then witnessed his first-born son (John Thompson III) lead the program to the Final Four before getting fired after consecutive losing campaigns.  Now Big John sees his best player take over the program and brand he and Ewing took to an elite level over 30 years ago.

“If it was any other university I wouldn’t be doing this,” the longtime NBA assistant coach said, “but it’s my alma mater. It’s Georgetown. I’m a Hoya. I just thought it was a great opportunity to come back and rebuild the program.”

The job is open for a reason.  John Thompson III’s tenure ended with three losing seasons in its last four years, punctuated by a ninth-place Big East finish this March with a loss at home to cellar dwelling DePaul.  A highly-touted freshman class of three years ago resulted in players underachieving, transferring, or both.  The Hoyas lose their top two scorers from this past season (Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak).  That means the Hall of Famer will have to rebuild on the fly for next winter.

“We’re going look at JuCo (players) if they can get in, we’re going to look at fifth year seniors. European…anything. Anybody that we think has the ability to be successful here.” Ewing said, then cautioned: “But I’m not going to just jump into it and bring in people in here that in two years I’m saying ‘now why the hell did I bring him in here?’. I want to take my time and make sure we bring in the right people.” It’s early April…and time is not a luxury Ewing and his yet to be comprised staff has for the 2017-18 campaign.

Ewing’s first task is putting together that coaching staff.  He’ll need assistants who can guide him along the recruiting road, as all of his experience on the bench has come in the NBA.  But the Jamaican-born and Boston-educated Ewing knows where the Hoyas bread will be buttered if they’re to become successful.

“The D.C., Baltimore and Virginia area is a hotbed of great talent.” Ewing said, “That’s my job to try to get us back to that level that these great players try to stay home.”  On this past season’s 14-player roster, just five were from the region.  Great players like Josh Hart (Villanova) as well as those who made immediate impact like Anthony Cowan (Maryland) went elsewhere…as the Hoyas’ local talent base slowly eroded over the last five years.

The major question mark facing Ewing is what is more of a challenge for a career NBA assistant (15 years):  becoming a first-time college coach or a first-time head coach?  There will be adjustments on both fronts;  and just as not all valued assistants become successful head coaches, pro success does not directly translate into winning at the college level.  Fellow 80’s Big East icon Chris Mullin is 22-43 after two seasons with St. John’s, but the Red Storm won six more conference games this past winter and Mullin doesn’t have nearly the coaching experience Ewing possesses.  Fellow Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler went straight from playing to coaching at his Alma Mater Houston…and two years later he left with a 19-39 mark.  Eddie Jordan after a career as an NBA assistant and head coach returned to Rutgers and posted a 29-68 record over four seasons with his former school.  Despite the Hoyas recent dip, the program is in much better shape than the other three situations.

When the Redskins had to deal with a third coaching change in four years (I’m not including interim coach Terry Robiskie for accounting purposes) they looked lost in the wilderness…before bringing back Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs.  Despite limited success, Gibbs represented a magic bullet for the Burgundy and Gold faithful.  For anyone dissatisfied with how the John Thompson III era finished or how he was treated in the final days, Patrick Ewing is a seven-foot tall magic bullet with a vision and work ethic to bring the Hoyas back to relevance.  Heaven forbid if this move doesn’t work out.

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What is it with the yo-yo performances of the Washington Nationals?  They’re slowly becoming the poor man’s San Francisco (forget about the three World Series titles the Giants have- last fall’s flameout against the Cubs in Game Four was even more spectacular than the Nats’ underwhelming Game Five loss to the Dodgers) with playoff appearances during even-numbered seasons…and frustrating walks in the wilderness during odd-numbered years.  The shock of 2012 and making the postseason for the first time ever was tempered by the frustration of a 2013 team that floundered…just like the 2014 club that exceeded expectations found a way to spiral downward in 2015.  The local team’s fortunes remind me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine loses her job and winds up wearing sweatpants while George gets hired by the Yankees.  Everything evens out eventually…

With a few exceptions (the Joe Torre Yankees, the Bobby Cox Braves), teams don’t repeat because in order to win in the first place a club needs premium seasons from its best players and outlier-type seasons from the mid-range players.  Doug Fister isn’t going to win 16 games every season…and when opposing hitters adjust and things aren’t as sharp as they were during the dream season, a 5-7 nightmare with a 4.17 ERA can be a rude awakening.  It hasn’t helped that there have been whispers around the Nats clubhouse regarding their manager in both occasions where the team was defending its title, whether it was Davey Johnson being put out to pasture or Matt Williams being out of his league.  Dusty Baker’s calm center should keep the yo-yo in check somewhat…but players will still vary production-wise year to year.

That is very good news for Bryce Harper.  The 2015 MVP had a less than stellar 2016…just like his 2014 was less than ideal.  But even with all of his issues (some alleged to be injury-related), the Nats prime offensive weapon still ranked second on the team in on-base-percentage, third in runs scored and second in runs batted in.  Could this be the year he finally surpasses 100 RBI?  The yo-yo says yes.

Does this mean that Max Scherzer will likely not win 20 games this season?  Even thought the ace says he’s recovered from the hairline fracture to the knuckle of his right ring finger, back to back 20-victory campaigns are few and far between in the current era.  And Max had a better WAR (wins above replacement) season the year before when he went 14-12.  What’s more unlikely for the reigning Cy Young winner is his continued prowess at the plate:  last season Scherzer drove in 12 runs over 70 at-bats…a rate that would translate to 102 RBI over 600 AB.

Should Tanner Roark be nervous then?  After winning 15 games in 2014, the pitcher went to the bullpen the following year and showed that he was best suited as a starting pitcher.  His return to the rotation resulted in 16 wins and proved that 2014 wasn’t a fluke.  He gets another year of going against third and fourth starters in other team’s rotations…so another 15+ victory season isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Daniel Murphy fans should be wary, though.  Nobody expected the offseason acquisition to hit .347 with 25 homers and 104 RBI in 2016…and nobody should expect him to match those numbers this year.  Conventional wisdom has the second baseman hitting in the .290’s with 15 HR and 80 RBI in 2017…but the famed conventional wisdom said the same thing about Murphy last year.

What to make to Turner and Treinen?  Trea Turner set the base paths on fire last season from the leadoff spot and returns to lead off this season…how much of his 2016 success (.342 with 33 steals and 53 runs scored over 73 games) can be attributed to beginners luck?  Now that pitchers have an actual scouting report on the kid one feels that while he’ll be productive it won’t be at the rate Turner was in 2016.  Blake Treinen had a breakthrough season last summer in the bullpen…but in a setup role.  Posting an ERA of 2.28 over 73 games as a set-up man is one thing…but how will the 28-year old handle the responsibility and expectations of being the team’s closer?

Sometimes the string wears out- Ryan Zimmerman’s coming off his least productive season and hasn’t driven in even 80 runs since 2012.  The “new normal” for the oft-injured 32-year old may be .250 with 15 homers and 55 RBI…not what you look for from a power position like first base.  Jayson Werth enjoyed a resurgence after being moved to the #2 spot in the batting order last spring…but the 37-year old enters the final year of his contract and hasn’t had consecutive 20-homer seasons since 2010-11.  Like Zim, Werth plays a position where production is paramount.  How one veteran bounces back and another prevents a market correction could go long way towards if the Nats will continue their even-odd year yo-yo.  That…and of course the Mets who were ravaged by injuries last year.  One expects a bounce-back from the other NL East team to make the playoffs last year.

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John Thompson III’s firing on paper almost makes sense.  Consecutive losing seasons for a school that once ruled the Big East.  A ninth-place finish this year in a conference that only has ten schools (and a home loss to lowly DePaul to boot).  A 69-62 mark over the last four years…with first weekend losses in the NCAA Tournament (Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio) the rule and not the exception since their Final Four run ten years ago.  You could even make the case that JT3’s Final Four team was built with his predecessor Craig Esherick recruits (Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert).  Forget about those who were shouting “Fire Thompson!” at Verizon Center…think about the 5,158 who actually showed up to watch the Hoyas host St. John’s.  But we don’t exist in a vacuum…and Georgetown’s heart and soul will have to find itself over the next few months as the parting with the son of Big John will need a while to take hold.

Think about where the program was when John Thompson, Jr. took over in 1972.  A private, catholic university that was near the White House but far from relevant.  A paltry postseason history that included one NCAA Tournament berth plus a pair of trips to the NIT.  Fresh off a 3-23 season.  Enter a 31-year old high school coach with a couple of NBA Championship rings.  Sounds like a bad sitcom on the CW, right?  But Big John turned around a program that was fighting for fourth place inside the beltway behind Maryland, George Washington and American (remember, this was during the Kermit Washington era) into a national power.  The 1980’s Georgetown teams ran through a newly created Big East conference and more often than not were cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden each March.  Unforgettable stars ranging from slippery guards like Sleepy Floyd and Allen Iverson to giants ranging from Patrick Ewing to Alonzo Mourning.  Fantastic supporting players from Victor Page to Jaren Jackson.  Under Big John, Georgetown became a Big Deal locally and nationally.

Thompson was more than just successful on the court- the first African American coach to win a national title was also a vocal supporter of student-athletes, once walking off the court before a 1989 game to protest the NCAA’s Proposition 42 that took scholarships away from academic non-qualifiers.  Thompson also went toe-to-toe with a D.C. area drug dealer to stay away from his players.  Big John provided a lifeline for many underprivileged young men…all while winning six Big East Tournament titles and a National Championship.  He’s still around the program to this day…sitting on the baseline near the home bench at Verizon Center.  And even seated, John Thompson, Jr. will always cast a shadow.

The transfer from the elder Thompson to longtime assistant (and former player) Craig Esherick in the late 1990’s was less than smooth.  One trip to the NCAA’s in his five full seasons…and no Big East finals appearances.  When John Thompson III came over from Princeton (with two NCAA appearances and an NIT berth) to succeed the fired Esherick in 2004, it felt natural to move from one heir apparent to the namesake.  And for a while it was amazing.  DePaul never got to the Final Four under Joey Meyer…and Sean Sutton was quickly disposed of at Oklahoma State.  Pat Knight?  A sub-500 record at Texas Tech.  JT3 won (albeit with Esherick recruits) and did so by staying true to his Princeton offense roots.  People recall the first round flameouts and recent winters of discontent, but I’m going to remember the John Wallace-Jeff Green-Roy Hibbert team that upset Ohio State in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen, advanced to the Final four in 2007 and ran into a hot-shooting Steph Curry and Davidson the following March.  Little did we know that would be the peak of the JT3’s thirteen-year tenure.

I always dreaded “Parent Observation Day” in elementary and middle school.  Tough to be “cool-at-school-Dave” when your parents are sitting in the back row.  And that was for two hours once a year.  John Thompson III has enjoyed the wisdom and guidance of his Hall of Fame father, but has also had his dad in the classroom with him for most of the last thirteen years.  Big John is not shy when sitting in the back row at press conferences, from calling out referees for sloppy efficiency or kissing former conference rival Syracuse goodbye after a 61-39 thumping at Verizon Center.  He’s also protective of his son, having sent someone to pipe down students chanting “Fire Thompson!” at a recent game. One can imagine despite however beneficial-how uncomfortable it was for JT3 trying to become a successful coach in his own right under a legend he couldn’t hope to match let alone eclipse.

Off the air with WTOP’s digital sports editor Noah Frank this week I mentioned how “it’s always easier to perform the autopsy than the diagnosis”.  There will be post-mortems on Thompson-the-Younger’s success and failures.  And reasons why recruiting wasn’t as successful the last few years.  There will be discussions about how the Hoyas play in a half-full NBA arena instead of a Cameron 2.0.  There will be short lists of who’s next, from Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley (not to be confused with brother Bobby) to current Charlotte associate coach Patrick Ewing (if you’ve read this far, you might have heard of him).  There will be a search led by Athletic Director Lee Reed and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.  But until one hears what John Thompson, Jr. has to say, the final word has yet to be spoken.

 

Regional Roundup- Thursday gave us three nailbiters and a blowout…not bad for the second weekend when your viewing options are fewer than the first two rounds.  And even the Kansas-Purdue game was competitive for 24 minutes…at least until the Jayhawks turned a 53-51 game upside-down by going on a 45-15 closing run.  They’ll meet an Oregon team that held Michigan scoreless for the final 2:04 as the Wolverines’ season ends with just three shots (all misses) in the last two minutes of their season.  Finishing droughts wasn’t the exception, as West Virginia didn’t score for the final 1:48 and miss 5 shots plus 2 free throws in that span in their loss to Gonzaga.  Arizona?  Nothing to show for the final 2:40 as Wildcats coach Sean Miller won’t have the chance to experience heartbreak in the Elite Eight this year.  The Musketeers move on to their first Regional Final since 2008–when Sean Miller was their coach.

Tonight’s Games- in Memphis it’s the bluebloods plus a team that wears blue.  Butler meets North Carolina in the early tipoff (try to tell the Tar Heels they’re the warmup act) while UCLA meets Kentucky (19 NCAA titles combined) in the nightcap.  Madison Square Garden is still recovering from losing both the Big East and ACC Tournament winners last weekend:  minus Villanova and Duke, the South Carolina-Baylor and Wisconsin-Florida matchups have a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl feel about them.

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Some Marches become memorable because your school steals a game it had no business winning…while others are made by incredible tournament runs that keep the season alive for another weekend.  The select few seasons end with your team playing for it all during the first weekend of April…with the chance to bring home hardware.  This was not one of those years for the area schools…as even George Washington fell Monday night in the College Basketball Invitational (also known as CBI) to UIC (previously known as Illinois-Chicago) in the Quarterfinals (I feel like I should continue the trend and call it the QF).

As the dust clears from a wild weekend–what happened?  If you went into the tournament recognizing Mount St. Mary’s would be overmatched with Villanova, each of the other locals (Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech and VCU) had potential red flags.  And each red flag was flown high.  And while the answer opening weekend was less than ideal for each school, as the offseasons begin there will only be more questions until next October 15th.

Maryland (24-9) had issues beginning with its January 1st loss to Nebraska where they did not score for the final six minutes of regulation.  Minus a proven post presence the Terps were reduced to a jump-shooting/drive-and-kick team this winter…and when they were hitting it was great.  But they had too many stretches of wandering in the offensive wilderness-against Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern-and losing Michal Cekovsky to injury limited their options inside further.  The Terps’ 76-65 loss to Xavier saw another one of those extended scoreless stretches (six minutes in the second half)…along with getting hammered on the boards by ten.  As Damonte Dodd graduates and L.G. Gill wraps up his one year with the program as a graduate transfer, all eyes are on Melo Trimble.  Will the 22-year old now projected to land in the middle of the second round by nbadraft.net return for his senior season?  Even if the junior departs, there’s a solid base in College Park with the freshman trio of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson.  Not to mention redshirt Micah Thomas. Will six-foot-ten center Bruno Fernando be the inside answer?  Come back next winter.  

I didn’t know the Musketeers were that loaded- Xavier is the only double-digit team to survive the first weekend, and Chris Mack’s team did so after entering the tournament on a 4-7 lurch where three of those wins came against lowly DePaul (I have yet to check with the NCAA office, but I believe until further review one has to refer to the Blue Demons as “lowly DePaul”).  They hadn’t been the same since losing point guard Edmond Sumner and the NCAA Tournament is a guard’s game, right?  While the victory over Maryland wasn’t a complete shock their dismembering (91-66) of #3 Florida State was.  Along with fellow Big East newbie, Xavier is flying the conference banner in the regional round.

Virginia (23-11) gained the reputation as “London Perrantes plus four guys from the Y” during a stretch where they lost six of eight…and had trouble shaking that status no matter how many good games Kyle Guy and Marial Shayok produced.  Perrantes was the only Cavalier on the roster in March averaging in double figures (transfer Austin Nichols was dismissed in November after scoring 11 points in his only game for UVa)…and Saturday in the 65-39 loss to Florida the rest of the team shot 14 of 42 (33%).  Perrantes leaves Charlottesville having been the pulse of the team that averaged 28 wins and brought home the school’s second-ever ACC Tournament title.  He leaves a roster of players who need to develop over the next offseason…from Shayok and Guy to Jack Salt (the New Zealander had a season-high 10 rebounds against the Gators) and Isaiah Wilkins (limited by illness in the NCAA’s).  The only commit so far is shooting guard Marco Anthony, so the next floor general will have to come from within the ranks.  Darius Thompson, we presume?

ACC stands for Annoying Conference Collapse- nine schools made the field of 68…and one by one each went down over the weekend.  While nobody had Wake Forest or Miami making the Final Four, Louisville and Notre Dame had each been in the top ten during the regular season.  And both were gone by the end of the weekend.  Same with Florida State and…Duke?  Granted-they lost to South Carolina in Greenville, SC-but the way the Blue Devils had been playing down the stretch their faithful were confident in (and their detractors were fearful of) a Final Four run.  Only North Carolina somehow pulling victory not only out of the jaws but out of the esophagus of defeat against Arkansas kept the league from going 100% sour before the Sweet Sixteen.

Virginia Tech (22-11) ranked last in the ACC in rebounding…and that was before losing top rebounder Chris Clarke to a season-ending ACL injury.  So it was no surprise that the Hokies got crushed on the glass in their 84-74 defeat against Wisconsin…especially when the Badgers blew up everyone’s bracket by bouncing defending national champ Villanova two days later.  But let’s sit back for a second…Virginia Tech made the tournament for the first time in ten years.  And despite a rapidly thinning bench, coach Buzz Williams’ team entered selection Sunday having won six of nine.  While Zach LeDay and Seth Allen have played their final games in maroon and orange, there’s a solid nucleus that has plenty of starting experience (truth be told, LeDay and Allen were coming off the bench by the end of the season).  Another recruiting class for the energetic Williams comes to Blacksburg…and next winter they try to post the school’s third straight winning conference record for the firs time since 1986 (three moves ago, or when they called the Metro home).  Even with a loss to the Badgers, the Hokies’ glass is more than half-full.

From Much-Maligned to Sweet Revenge- the Big Ten was undervalued early and often this winter, culminating with a Selection Sunday slap in the face to multiple teams.  How’d they respond?  Purdue fought back the ghosts of brackets past with two solid wins (including a great punch-counterpunch victory over Iowa State) and their first Regional trip since 2010.  Michigan continued its great play that started well before its 4-0 sweep through the Big Ten Tournament (6-2 in final eight regular season games)…and bounced Oklahoma State before upsetting Louisville.  Wisconsin?  The conference runnerup after being given a #8 seed found a way to eliminate defending champ and overall number one seed Villanova.  Instead of misery this March is filled with magic for the Big Ten-as the league’s three teams alive are tied with the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.  Maybe it was because their tournament was held in DC…

VCU (26-9) had issues shooting the three all season…tying for 248th in Division I.  Against an underseeded St. Mary’s (the Gaels were a #7 despite finishing the regular season 22nd in the writer’s rankings) in Salt Lake City the Rams were held to 2-of-13 from outside the arc in an 85-77 loss.  One wonders what sort of seed they would have received if VCU had managed to hold off Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals.  One doesn’t wonder about the force of nature that was JeQuan Lewis:  the senior went down shooting in his final game, leading the Rams with 30 points.  While the Rams return juniors Justin Tillman (2nd in the A-10 in rebounding) and Jonathan Williams (2nd on the team in assists), coach Will Wade won’t as the 34-year old wunderkind gets swept away to rebuild LSU.  Caveat Emptor:  the power conferences are littered with former VCU coaches, from Anthony Grant at Alabama to Jeff Capel at Oklahoma.  And Shaka Smart just went through an 11-22 campaign at Texas.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange finished the season 19-15 much like their inconsistent play mandated:  tipping off an 11am Saturday NIT game.  While Tyler Lydon is off to the NBA, longtime #1 assistant and “coach in waiting” Mike Hopkins is headed to Washington as the Huskies’ head coach.  This allows Jim Boeheim to stay after the 2017-18 season that was originally agreed upon as his retirement date (you know, after the probation that stripped the school of over 100 wins and 2 Big East Tournament titles).  Betty White applauds…

Bracket Busted- my CBSSports.com bracket did not lose a game the first weekend–because the computer site froze between 11:30am and 12:30pm. Epic fail, kids…but let that be a lesson to procrastinators worldwide. Get it done early…and watch suckers like me freak out at the last moment.

Conference Carousel- the ACC’s flameout (especially after last year’s incredible success) in the Big Dance this year reminds me of the Big East in the 1980’s.  1985 saw the league send three schools to the Final Four and post an 18-5 record, before going 4-4 the following March while getting shut out in the Sweet Sixteen.  The Big East bounced back in 1987 with a 14-5 record, two Final Four teams and a third that reached Regional Final.  So  2018 is on notice…

Sunday Night Special- I understand that TNT, TBS and TRU own the first Sunday of the tournament and thus are putting their games on at night for the biggest audience.  But could we move the 9:40 game to 4:40?  The 8:40 game (Duke-South Carolina) was the perfect cherry on Sunday’s games–making UCLA-Cincinnati seem like the cherry’s stem. It’s there but you don’t want to look at it…especially for those of us who have consumed 47 games over 48 hours of watching over four days.

While you’re watching the Turner guys try to one-up each other on how much they know, follow and care about the NCAA Tournament…

 

LOCAL profiles-

Maryland (24-8)- which Terrapins team will we get?  The one that started a program-best 20-2 and ripped off road win after road win while repeatedly stealing victory from the jaws of defeat (Georgeton, Richmond, Michigan State)?  Or the one that had issues rebounding and saw its offense go extended stretches without scoring (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue)?  Junior Melo Trimble was arguably the best player on this team from the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman, but during the preseason coach Mark Turgeon said that for the first time this was “his team”.  He can’t have turnover-filled games like he did in the Big Ten Tournament…while Trimble also needs help from the freshman trio of Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson.  A decent effort inside from Damonte Dodd wouldn’t hurt either.

 

Best Case- playing one game over a 13-day span recharges this team’s batteries and focus…and they find a way to put a slumping Xavier (4-7 finish with 3 wins over DePaul) out of its misery before shocking Florida State.  Back to back Sweet Sixteens? Even sweeter.  Worst Case- the “freshman trio has hit the wall” becomes more than just a theory while Dodd gets into foul trouble against a Musketeers team that ranked 1st in the Big East in rebounding.  Trevon Bluiett turns the Terps inside out and Maryland heads home without being able to visit nearby Disneyworld.

 

 

Virginia (22-10)- the Cavaliers can defend.  We’re talking #1 in the nation. Back to back efforts where they held ACC foes to under 50 points (and that’s with a shot-clock, four-corners devotees).  Unfortunately, there are two ends of the court and offensively UVa has been lacking as of late.  London Perrantes is a fantastic initiator, but the lack of a consistent secondary scorer means coach Tony Bennett has to find the hot hand in his rotation before feeding it.  The lack of a productive post-presence (6-foot-11 sophomore Jack Salt went scoreless with three fouls over 12 minutes in the loss to Notre Dame) puts way too much pressure on the perimeter.  On the bright side, they don’t have recent nemesis Michigan State (losses to the Spartans in 2014 and 15) in their region and last year’s kryptonite (Syracuse) is in the NIT.

 

Best Case- somehow Perrantes carries the Cavaliers past UNC-Wilmington and Florida with just enough help form Isaiah Wilkins, Devonte Hall and Marial Shayock.  Jack Salt makes more than two baskets for the first time in a game since December.  And somehow they avenge their January loss to defending champ Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen.

Worst Case- UNC-Wilmington (10th highest scoring team in D-I) runs them out of the gym Thursday afternoon.  Perrantes gets no help offensively and Jack Salt finds a way to foul out before the first TV timeout.  Once arriving home they tune in to watch Virginia Tech upset Villanova two days later (for shame!).

 

 

 

Virginia Tech (22-10)- the Hokies arrive a year early by hitting their stride late;  coach Buzz Williams team for the second straight year won six of nine down the stretch.  Last year it meant an NIT bid while this year it means Virginia Tech’s first trip to the big dance since 2007.  While Zach LeDay in the post (26 points and 11 rebounds a game this month) provides plenty of problems, the Hokies boast the best three-point shooting team in the ACC (#10 in Division I).  But defense and rebounding travel in the tournament, and the Hokies were last in the ACC in rebounding margin before losing top rebounder Chris Clarke to a season-ending knee injury.  And first round foe Wisconsin likes to board.

Best Case- the threes fall against Wisconsin as the Badgers crawl back into their late-season hibernation that lost five of six.  Villanova gets its scouting report mixed up and spends too much time guarding Justin Robinson from three and Justin Bibbs to penetrate…and the Hokies somehow reach the Sweet Sixteen as tournament darlings.

Worst Case– the rotation shortened to seven men due to injuries gets into foul trouble early against the Badger bigs, allowing Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes to have the Hokies for lunch inside.  The threes don’t fall and coach Buzz Williams sweats profusely throughout the second half of a 20-point blowout.

 

 

 

VCU (26-8)- the Rams are the most recent “local” school to reach the Final Four.  Despite more wins than the Terps, Cavaliers or Hokies the Atlantic 10 runners-up find themselves with the lowest seed…and in the 7-10 game for the third straight year.  Senior JeQuan Lewis is the catalyst on both ends of the floor (4th in the A-10 in assists and steals) while junior Justin Tillman has posted nine double-doubles in his most recent 12 games.  They draw fellow mid-major Saint Mary’s in the first round…and have the longest to travel (Salt Lake City) of the area schools in the tournament.  But that’s nothing new, as they’ve also been sent to San Diego and Portland, Oregon in recent years.  I’m sure there are plenty of direct flights from Richmond…

 

Best Case- the Rams get past the Gaels after holding 6-foot-11 center Jock Landale (17 points and 9 rebounds per game this season) in check.  Their havoc defense wears down an Arizona team that peaked last weekend in the Pac-12 Tournament and the former Cinderellas are able to wear the glass slipper once again en route to the second weekend.

Worst Case- Landale and 6-foot-10 big man Evan Fitzner are too much inside and the Saint Mary’s defense that ranks 2nd in the nation causes too many bad possessions.  The Rams learn you can’t press of misses and turnovers…and come up short.

 

 

 

ODDS AND ENDS—

Biggest Snub—

Illinois State (27-6). Two losses since Christmas Day-both to a 30-win Wichita State.  Meanwhile, middling major conference schools like Vanderbilt (first 15-loss team to make the field as an at-large) from a so-so SEC makes the field.  The other pretenders (Iowa, Cal, Syracuse, Richmond) had enough holes in their resume to justify their exclusion of a bracket that rewards quality seasons.

 

Most Overseeded—

South Carolina.  The Gamecocks finished 22-10 and tied for third in an underwhelming SEC while entering Selection Sunday with five losses in their last seven games…yet they get a #7 seed in Greenville, SC?  Honorable mention goes to Minnesota scoring the second-highest seed (#5) from the Big Ten despite finishing fourth in the league and getting swept by Wisconsin (a #8).

 

Most Underseeded—

Wichita State.  The 19th ranked Shockers were certainly shocked to get a #10 seed after going 30-4.  While their major-conference foes (LSU, Oklahoma) wins game against teams that wound up underperforming, they’ve lost once since Christmas.  And they get to play Dayton in Indianapolis…with a potential second round showdown against Kentucky.  Honorable mention goes to SMU, who gets a #6 seed and won’t know their foe until Wednesday night’s game between USC and Providence.  Perhaps the committee has a thing against 30-4 teams…?

 

 

Local team everybody bandwagons on-

Can we include West Virginia?  No?  In that case Maryland will play in the Sweet Sixteen after disposing of Xavier and Florida State.  Melo gets one more weekend as a Terp before going pro…

 

 

Sleeper Pick-

Wake Forest played their way into the field as the young nucleus gathered by coach Danny Manning won seven of its last eleven.  Forward John Collins is the type of player the Demon Deacons can ride into the second weekend, and Wake has prevailed recently when foes have zeroed in on him.  Honorable mention goes to Rhode Island…who got hot late en route to an Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and faces a Creighton team that hasn’t been the same since losing Maurice Watson, Jr. to injury.

 

 

Favorite to Win-

North Carolina despite losing in the ACC Semifinals is a #1 seed and begins tournament play in Greenville, South Carolina.  The Tar Heels are talented and when focused their ceiling is better than anyone elses.  For all the grief Roy Williams gets, he has as many National Championships (2) as Dean Smith has…and in half the tenure of his late mentor.  UNC won’t need an errant pass or late time-out to give him a third.