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

Tournaments with DC area schools:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Since joining the Atlantic 10 Conference, VCU immediately made its mark on the league.  Five straight appearances in the Conference Tournament Championship Game and five consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.  So last year when the Rams finished 18-15 (most losses since the 1998-99 season) and 9-9 in the A-10 (first non-winning conference season since 2000), coach Mike Rhoades realized he needed to go back to basics. “The summer-we just went old school. (I told them) We gotta get back to increasing our workload and hard we work,” Rhoades said.  And while the summer conditioning program made his players stronger physically,  “The best thing about it is we got mentally tougher-period,” Rhoades said. “We got mentally tougher and they did all the work together. So they’re playing together and they’re fighting through it together.”  Together the second-year head coach and his team have risen to the top of the Atlantic 10.

Tuesday’s 71-36 dismemberment of George Mason was the team’s 24th, their most in the regular season since 2011-12 (their final winter in the CAA).  Tuesday was the rule and not the excption as the difference this year has been defense:  Rhoades’ Rams allow the fewest points per game in the A-10, while also allowing the lowest percentage of shots made and three-pointers.  In addition, they’re second in turnover margin.  “I wanted to press, I wanted these guys to have freedom-going for steals and make plays on the freedom to make plays on the ball,” Rhoades said. “But if you want to win a championship, there’s times where you just gotta sit down five guys in half-court…and get stops.”

The team’s 11th straight win clinches the top seed in the Atlantic Ten Tournament and also delivers something previous coaches Shaka Smart and Will Wade did not:  the school’s first regular season title.  “Everybody picked is seventh–some people picked us ninth. Nobody gave us a shot.  And I told these guys if they stick together and work really hard that stuff doesn’t matter-we can do this,” Rhoades said after Tuesday’s clinching win, “It wasn’t our only goal-we’ve got a lot ahead of us.”  Ram on…

 

Alma Mater Update- SU wraps up the regular season with a trip to Clemson. It’s a chance to win 20 games in the regular season for the first time since 2014.  Yes, you read me correctly.  The Orange can finish sixth in the ACC with a victory over the Tigers, who are locked into the 8-9 game next week with NC State.  Somehow it feels as though nothing says 8-9 game in the ACC like Clemson-NC State.  Pulling for first day regulars Boston College and Wake Forest to meet up Tuesday.

 

Friday’s Games-

#24 Maryland (21-9, 12-7 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (19-11, 9-10), 7 p.m., FS1.  The Terps can ill afford to enter the Big Ten Tournament with three straight losses…while the Golden Gophers have won two straight behind the scoring of Amir Coffey (32 points in wins over Northwestern and #11 Purdue).  They also boast the conference’s leading rebounder in Jordan Murphy (11.7 per game).  The Terps were somehow able to neutralize the senior in their January win over Gophers, holding Murphy to 9 points and 5 rebounds in an 82-67 win.  Two other notables from that night: Maryland closed the game on a 21-6 run and Anthony Cowan Jr. scored a season-high 27 points.  Cowan’s coming off of a rough effort against Michigan (he started the day shooting 1-for-11) and can use all the positive reinforcement he can get.

#15 Virginia Tech (22-7, 11-6 ACC) vs Miami (13-16, 5-12), 7 p.m., ESPN2.  So much for the major momentum of last week’s upset of then-#1 Duke.  So much for getting a double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament.  The Hokies let a 14 point halftime lead dissolve into a 73-64 overtime defeat at #14 Florida State Tuesday.  Don’t expect any sympathy from the Hurricanes, who were virtually locked in to playing in the First Round since beginning league play 1-8.  In those early stumbles was an 82-70 loss to Tech January 30th where coach Buzz Williams’ team shot 59% and Nickeill Alexander-Walker scored a season-high 25 points.  Miami senior Anthony Lawrence scored a career-high 27 points in a Senior Night victory over Pitt;  they’ve needed his production recently with leading scorer Chris Lykes netting just 12 points on 4-of-23 shooting over his last two games.

VCU (24-6, 15-2 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Joseph’s (13-17, 6-11), 9 p.m., ESPN2.  Do not overlook Phil Martelli’s team:  the Hawks have won two of their last four with each of the two losses coming by one point.  He also has the A-10’s top scorer in Charlie Brown Jr. But while the sophomore forward averages 19 points per game, he’s not getting a ton of help:  the team ranks 12th in the league in shooting and is last at defending the three.  That’s one of the few things VCU does not do well this year (13th).   In addition, do not overlook St. Joe’s road record in the A-10: it’s 1-7.  And the Siegel Center is not an easy place to play.

Saturday’s Games-

George Mason (16-14, 10-7 Atlantic 10) at George Washington (8-22, 4-13), 2 p.m.  The Orange Line Rivalry is renewed with the Patriots making the trek into the district and Foggy Bottom.  When GW has been good, there’s no place inside the beltway that rocks like the Smith Center:  the fans are right on top of the court (and media row) and it’s a great vibe.  This year’s Colonials have not been good, having lost eight of nine.  Can Mason rebound from getting blasted to bits at home on Senior Night?  “Twenty-five years as a head coach I’d like to say I’ve never had a game like this, but I have,” coach Dave Paulsen said, “I’ve had teams have this game: a rivalry game, at home, get embarrassed… and I’ve had that team bounce back and win a conference championship. I’ve also had teams that get embarrassed like that kind of put their head down and have a ‘woe is me’ attitude.”  Otis Livingston II needs to find a way out of his recent slump (averaging six points on 5-of-24 shooting over the last three games) for GMU to find its way back.

Georgetown (18-12, 8-9 Big East) at #16 Marquette (23-7, 12-5), 2:30 p.m., FOX.  Whatever vibe the Hoyas had after last weekend’s thrilling double-overtime win over Seton Hall, it’s gone.  As well as likely any hope of an at-large bid.  Losses to DePaul are not ideal; a 101-69 thumping is beyond disastrous.  A win would have kept coach Patrick Ewing’s team in third place–and instead they begin the weekend in seventh.  Now they face a Golden Eagles team that has lost three straight to hand first place to Villanova.  Marquette took the matchup in DC 74-71 thanks to 31 points from Sam Hauser, as the conference’s leading scorer Markus Howard left the game with lower back tightness after three scoreless minutes.  As Jessie Govan goes, so go the Hoyas:  the senior averages 20 points and 9 rebounds in the team’s Big East wins, while netting 15 points with 7 assists in their conference defeats.

Richmond (12-18, 6-11 Atlantic 10) vs. Davidson (22-8, 13-4), 6 p.m., ESPN+.  The Spiders take a three game losing streak into the final weekend, needing a victory or a St. Joseph’s loss to avoid playing in the dreaded first round of the A-10 Tournament.  A less than effective defense is a major reason why they’re going to finish under .500 for the second straight year:  Richmond ranks last in defensive field goal percentage and are 11th in stopping the three-pointer.  The Wildcats are led by Kellan Grady and Jon axel Gudmunsson who rank second and third in the conference in scoring; while Richmond held both in check earlier this winter it was freshman Luke Frampton who came alive with 24 points in a Davidson 75-62 triumph.  Frampton leads the A-10 in threes per game and the Wildcats are the league’s best three-point shooting team.

#2 Virginia (27-2, 15-2 ACC) vs. Louisville (19-11, 10-7), 4 p.m., ESPN.  The Cavaliers are coming off of a 79-53 thumping of Syracuse where they used a 27-3 run in the second half to take the lead for good, blow the game open, and lastly give the Orange a major inferiority complex.  UVa still needs a need a win to wrap up the top seed in the ACC Tournament, as they’d lose the tiebreaker with Duke and North Carolina in the case of a three-way tie.  The Cardinals haven’t won consecutive games since January 30th, and those consecutive wins were against Pitt and Wake Forest.  Just to show that stifling defense isn’t just a VCU thing, coach Tony Bennett’s team leads the ACC in scoring defense, field goal defense and stopping the three.  UVa won the previous matchup this winter 64-52 after holding Louisville to 15 second-half points.  They also got 26 points from De’Andre Hunter that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Ten Women’s Tournament has provided plenty of thrills, chills, and spills over its first two days. Five upsets in six games.  A #13 seed like Wisconsin who won four games in two months posting two victories in two days.  Defending champ Ohio State headed home.  It’s from the ashes of this busted bracket that #8 Maryland looks to emerge as tournament champs for the fourth time in five years. What becomes more a priority in this sprint as opposed to the 18-game regular season marathon?  “Just knowing that we can never take any possessions off. Every team is trying to play hard and win a championship,” junior Kaila Charles said, “So we just gotta go in and make sure that we’re focused on the little things.”  Charles is a three-year starter and cut down the nets two years ago before watching Ohio State celebrate last March.

The Terps captured the regular season championship despite not being the hottest team in December-that would be a Rutgers team that came into College Park and won on New Year’s Eve.  Nor were they the hottest team in February-that would be an Iowa team that beat the Terps by 13.  But the Hawkeyes would stumble later that week to fall out of the tie for first (Iowa owned the tiebreaker for the #1 seed), and coach Brenda Frese’s team put together fourth quarter rallies in wins over Minnesota and at Purdue, followed by a gritty win over Illinois at home to finish one game ahead of the Hawkeyes.  “We have faced a lot of adversity in the last three games,” coach Brenda Frese said “And to be able to find a way to win has been critical to our success.”

The victory over Minnesota saw the Terps come back from 16 points down in the third quarter, finishing the night on a 9-0 run to win by two on a last-second shot from Kaila Charles.  That game also saw senior Brianna Fraser go down with a high-ankle sprain.  The forward hasn’t played a minute since and remains a question mark for the Big Ten Tournament.  “Bree is day-to-day, and I think it’s hard to stay until you turn on the lights and are able to see.” coach Frese said, “With a high ankle sprain those are very hard to be able to determine how long it’s going to take for her to truly come back-she’s yet to go through even close to a full practice.”

If Fraser can’t play, that means the bench shrinks to four players-two of which average more than ten minutes per game.  Not ideal in the rough-and-tumble conference tournament.  “It’s a lot-especially with our conference where everybody’s physical,” junior forward Stephanie Jones said. “Everybody knows each other’s scouts so you’ve gotta be prepared mentally and physically.”  Jones ranks third in the Big Ten in shooting percentage and is a reliable third option offensively behind unanimous First Team selection Kaila Charles and Rookie of the Year Taylor Mikesell.  Mikesell’s ability to play the point has allowed coach Frese to bring Channise Lewis (second in the Big Ten in assists) off the bench while being able to go bigger with 6-foot-5 freshman Shakira Austin (second in blocked shots and fourth in rebounding) moving into the starting lineup.

 

Friday’s Foe:  9th seeded Michigan State beat Northwestern 68-52 to set up a high noon showdown.  The Spartans beat the Terps in January 77-60 after jumping out to an early 16-point first quarter lead.  Jenna Allen scored 16 points that night to pace a balanced offense where four others scored in double figures.  Michigan State leads the league in three-point shooting and ranks second in scoring and turnover margin.

Other Teams and Players to Watch: Iowa’s Megan Gustafson was voted Big Ten Player of the Year after leading the conference in scoring and rebounding, and the Hawkeyes are the last team to beat the Terps.  The first Big Ten team to hand Maryland a loss this winter is Rutgers, and after an early February hiccup where coach C. Vivian Stringer’s team lost four of five the Scarlet Knights enter the tournament winners of three straight.  Purdue and Indiana pulled off upsets Thursday, if they can repeat their magic Friday we’ll have an all-Hoosier State semifinal Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis.

 

 

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From Friday–

There are givens on this planet.  The sun will rise and set.  The Rolling Stones will go on tour for what might be the final time.  Hallmark Holiday Movies will somehow feature a twist yet arrive at a happy ending.  And since 2004, Kansas has secured at least a share of the Big 12 men’s basketball regular season championship.  That’s 14 straight titles…and whether the Jayhawks win the national title or get upset in the first weekend of the NCAA’s, they annually hang a banner marking their conference dominance.

It’s been somewhat of a perfect storm for the Jayhawks in that time;  when looking at how conferences have fared come Final Four time the Big 12 has been decidedly lacking.  Just four appearances in the National Semifinals, with Kansas (2008, 2012 and 2018) nabbing three of them (the 2016 Oklahoma team led by Buddy Hield is the other).  Meanwhile, three leagues (Big East, Big Ten and SEC) have sent ten schools to the Final Four while the ACC has had eight schools reach the final weekend (disclosure: the league the school was in that year gets the credit, so Conference USA gets credit for Louisville in 2005 while the Big East gets Louisville’s 2012 and 2013 trips).  Simply put, Kansas hasn’t had a ton of heavyweights to punch past during this stretch…even to the point that the Big 12 now has only ten schools-meaning they only have to be better than nine others, as opposed to the ACC’s 15 (Duke hasn’t shared a conference title since 2010).

But this year it finally appeared as though the Jayhawks would wind up looking up somebody in the standings for the first time since 2004…I mean they were barbecued by Texas Tech 91-62 last Saturday in Lubbock.  All we needed was for a Kansas State team that has been ranked all season to go into Allen Fieldhouse and finish the job.

Only they didn’t.  The Jayhawks 64-49 win sets coach Bill Self’s team up perfectly:  they’re now 10-5 in the conference- just one game off the pace set by the Wildcats and Red Raiders while their three remaining Big 12 foes are a combined 18-27 in league play, easily the worst in the four teams that are in the mix for first place (Baylor is also 10-5 in the league).  Are you kidding me? Prepare yourself for another year under Pax Jayhawka.  The Big 12 sun refuses once again to set on the Kansas basketball empire.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange try to bounce back from two tough losses to Duke and North Carolina…with the antidote known as Wake Forest next on the schedule.  SU can still reach 20 regular season wins…a loss to the Demon Deacons almost drags them down to the land of the NIT.

Saturday’s Games:

Navy (10-18, 7-10 Patriot League) at Boston University (14-16, 7-10), 12 p.m.  The Midshipmen are coming off of an upset of first place Bucknell thanks to 17 points and 8 assists from senior Hassan Abdullah;  they also held the Bison to under 30% shooting at Alumni Hall.  Unfortunately the Mids have not been the same team away from Annapolis:  they’re currently 1-7 on the road in league play.  BU won the previous meeting this winter 75-69 behind 22 points from Max Mahoney.  There’s plenty on the line as the loser is assured of playing in the Patriot League Tournament’s first round while the winner has a shot at fourth place and a home quarterfinal game.

American (14-14, 8-9 Patriot League) at Holy Cross (15-15, 6-11), 1:05 p.m..  Speaking of Patriot League positioning, the Eagles can wrap up home court for the quarterfinals with a win or losses by Army, Lafayette and Navy.  That’s the good news;  the bad news is that AU has lost four of five.  They did defeat the Crusaders in DC February 2nd on their best defensive day of the season (49 points allowed).  Jacob Boonyasith led AU in scoring that afternoon, an aberration this winter as Sa’eed Nelson has been the Eagles’ top scorer in 12 of 17 Patriot League games.

#2 Virginia (25-2, 13-2 ACC) vs. Pitt (12-16, 2-13), 2 p.m., ACC Network.  Will there be thank-you notes sent to Blacksburg?  Virginia Tech’s win over Duke means the Cavaliers control their path to the ACC Regular Season title and #1 seed in the conference tournament (as UVa owns the head to head tiebreaker with North Carolina).  Speaking of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Cavaliers conclude their league schedule with Pitt,  Syracuse and Louisville.  I know–still feels kind of weird.  Can’t wait for next winter’s 20-game schedule.  Pitt has lost eleven straight and is 0-9 on the road this season.  One of the bright spots in Jeff Capel’s first season has been Arlington, Virginia native Xavier Johnson:  the freshman from Bishop O’Connell is averaging 17 points with 5 assists.  By comparison, UVa has three players on its roster from the Commonwealth–and the trio of Austin Katstra, Jayden Nixon, and manager Grant Kersey (who suits up for home games) have played a total of 13 minutes in ACC action.  The way this year has been going for both teams, don’t be surprised to see Kersey take to the floor late in the second half.

George Mason (16-12, 10-5 Atlantic 10) at Saint Louis (17-11, 8-7), 3 p.m., NBCSN.  The the Patriots are coming off of a 77-63 win over Richmond that clinches a winning conference record for the first time since Mason joined the A-10.  For comparison, it took three seasons for the program to record its first ten victories in league play.  The Billikens were the preseason favorites but have fallen on tough times since starting 5-0 in the conference-although there’s nothing to be ashamed about losing consecutive road games at Dayton and VCU.  SLU is the best rebounding team in the Atlantic 10, with Hasahn French (8.5 boards per game) the main culprit.  Cause for Patriots confidence?  Coach Dave Paulsen’s team is 4-3 on the road in A-10 play this winter.

George Washington (8-20, 4-11 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Bonaventure (14-14, 10-5), 4 p.m., ESPN+.  It’s been one rough winter for the Colonials who have lost six of seven– with all of their losses coming by double digits.  Tuesday’s defeat at Rhode Island saw GW begin with a bang (54% shooting in the first half) and end with a whimper (24% after intermission) while missing all 11 of their three-point attempts.  While the Colonials are likely ticketed to the dreaded first round of the A-10 Tournament, the Bonnies have won five straight to move into contention for a double-bye.  They also have a big man named Osum Osunniyi who leads the conference in blocked shots.  GW has enough trouble generating offense without this ominous obstacle planted in the paint.

VCU (22-6, 13-2 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (12-16, 6-9), 4 p.m., CBSSN.  The Rams can wrap up their first regular season title since joining the Atlantic 10 with a victory plus a loss by Davidson.  The hottest team in the conference (nine straight wins) is piling up W’s thanks to their D: coach Mike Rhoades’ bunch leads the A-10 in scoring defense, field goal defense and defending the 3-pointer.  Richmond ranks last in the conference in rebounding, and the Spiders are also looking to rebound from a double digit loss at George Mason.  They led 37-35 before the Patriots went on a 15-4 run to take the lead for good.  VCU took the February 13th matchup thanks to a 21-5 first half run at the Siegel Center.

Howard (14-15, 8-6 MEAC) at Savannah State (10-18, 7-7), 6 p.m.  Can the Bison somehow post their first winning record since 2002?  That may be a tough task with first place Norfolk State on the slate Monday, but coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team does have a legitimate shot at a double-bye in the upcoming conference tournament. The Bison and Tigers rank 1st and 2nd in the MEAC in scoring…while also ranking 11th and 12th in scoring defense.  Howard has the stars- with RJ Coles (21.1 points per game) and Charles Williams (18.2) holding down the top two spots in the league.  Savannah State has the depth- six Tigers average between eight and 13 points per game.

Georgetown (17-11, 7-8 Big East) vs. Seton Hall (16-11, 7-8), 6:30 p.m., CBSSN.  Senior Night may have arrived a couple of evenings early as Jessie Govan scored 26 points in the Hoyas’ 82-73 win over lowly DePaul (yes, after the Blue Demons flirted with as high as third place in the Big East they currently are back residing in the conference basement).  Can the Hoyas win consecutive league games for just the second time this winter?  “Our problem is we’ll have a great game today, and then exhale and take a step back for the next one-and we can’t do that,” coach Patrick Ewing said, “Especially going down the stretch–everyone is fighting for seeding right now.”  Case in point- the Hoyas and Pirates are tied with Xavier for fourth place in the conference, one game behind third place St. John’s and one game ahead of the Butler-Creighton seventh place duo.  Back to Govan- the senior scored 20 points the last time these two teams played, but the Pirates Myles Powell poured in 30 as the Hall led by 20 in the first half of an 80-75 triumph.

Sunday’s Game:

#17 Maryland (21-8, 12-6 Big Ten) vs. #9 Michigan (25-4, 14-4), 3:45 p.m., CBS.  The Terps return home after their annual February Foulup:  if it feels like every year they have a confounding road loss around this time, it’s probably because this is the third straight February they’ve lost to the Nittany Lions on the road.  While this winter’s team is probably not headed to the NIT (Penn State beat Utah at MSG in the finals last year), they have won five of seven after an 0-10 Big Ten start (and with Illinois and Rutgers coming up they could go 7-3 over the second half of league play).  The last time the Terps faced the Wolverines it was Michigan that was trying to bounce back from a loss in Happy Valley.  One expects that one of the keys Sunday will be ball security:  Maryland turned the ball over 16 times in their February 9th loss at Ann Arbor.  It was so bad in the first half they had issues simply getting the ball to midcourt.

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After a winter of wondering, the Harper has landed.  Free agent Bryce Harper agres to a 13-year contract with Philadelphia worth a record-$330 million.  Instead of an amicable split where the one-time face of the franchise heads west to play for San Francisco or the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nats poster boy is headed to the team’s NL East neighbor to the north.  Instead of dealing with thoughts of what could have been for one or two series a summer, Nationals fans get to face Harper 19 times over the next decade-plus.  He’ll be wearing a different shade of red…with a curly P on his cap.  Phreaking Phantastic.

It’s never ideal to lose a six-time All Star and former league MVP, but the Nationals have constructed their club in a manner to minimize Harper’s departure.  The emergence of Juan Soto last year provided unexpected depth-and the 20-year old will be the team’s leftfielder of the present and future.  Taking over in right will be veteran Adam Eaton, now two years removed from a knee injury that hijacked his 2017 season.  Prime prospect Victor Robles is the future in centerfield, with Michael A. Taylor being able to provide defensive depth at all three positions.

While the absence of Harper in the lineup is not ideal, not having him on the payroll will benefit the long-term sculpting of the roster under General Manager Mike Rizzo.  Anthony Rendon is due to become a free agent next year, and all things being equal an offensive third baseman with sharp defensive skills is much harder to find and develop than an outfielder.  Moving forward, having Rendon on this team for the remainder of their playoff-contending window is more important than having Harper on this team in 2026.

The Phillies get the free agent boost they were looking for this offseason;  last year’s team won 80 games but faded down the stretch.  They also ranked 22nd in the majors in runs scored.  Harper will bat third in a revamped lineup along with offseason acquisitions J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen. After a few years of building and retooling, the Phillies are ready to win now.  Just like the Washington Nationals have been doing this decade.  The balance of  NL East power began to shift in 2011 when the Nats signed Jayson Werth away from the Phillies; after winning 102 games that year and losing in the NLDS the Phils have not posted a winning record–while the Nats posted a winning mark every year since going 80-81 in 2011.

Oh, and by the way…for those curious Bryce Harper and his new team come to Nationals Park for the first time this season April second.  Who’s ready for a reunion?

 

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes the street signs take your attention away from the road. Selection Sunday is less than four weeks away-and that means the annual elevation of “Bracketology”.  I used to do it as a kid with the weekly AP poll–and as a cottage industry it’s been around for about 20 years.  Where projecting the field was once the near-exclusive domain of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS, FOX and Yahoo! have gotten into the act as well.

And it’s not just an in-season thing:  you can find projected brackets as early as the week after the Final Four–updated over the summer! (seriously, people- go to the beach or do the crossword by the pool).  The women’s tournament even has ESPN’s Charlie Creme to set that field of 64.

So prepare to have each and every win and loss by the schools in the NCAA mix be talked about in terms of not what happened during the game, but how the result might move a  school up or down a line.  Or-heaven forbid- into the “First Four Out”, “Next Four Out” and “Further Four Farther Out”.  Sometimes it feels as though the analysts are more focused talking about the projected bracket shift than the actual game.

How do teams deal with the extra noise? Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said, “Well I know the guys watch it…the good thing is we’re being mentioned in it. But there’s so much basketball left-and we’re really trying to get better.”  After missing the NCAA Tournament and the NIT last March for the first time since 2014, the Terps are projected as a #6 seed by ESPN, CBS and FOX.   “The good thing is that we’re being mentioned that we’re going to be in it right now.” Turgeon said, “Now we’re not in it for sure–we’ve got work to do…but that’s a good sign that we’re headed in the right direction.”

For comparison, the networks have Virginia a #1 seed, Virginia Tech a #5 or #6, and VCU (taking the Atlantic 10 automatic bid) anywhere from a #9 to a #11.  Even Georgetown has been listed as one of the “First Four Out” on Yahoo! Sports’ latest bracket.  But not like anyone’s watching…just ask Mark Turgeon: “Of course I don’t pay attention to anything except my team-and watch film”.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange host #1 Duke three days after Zion Williamson sprained his knee…and the Blue Devil freshman won’t be playing Saturday.  Jim Boeheim will be coaching–just three nights after being involved in a car accident that killed a pedestrian on I-690.  One thinks of the deceased man’s family and friends at this time.

Saturday’s Games:

#3 Virginia (23-2, 11-2 ACC) at #18 Louisville (18-9, 9-5), 12 p.m., ACC Network.  Can the Cavaliers somehow win the conference despite getting swept by Duke?  The Blue Devils’ loss Wednesday to #8 North Carolina evens matters in the loss column, and who knows how long they’ll be without freshman phenom Zion Williamson (according to coach Mike Krzyzewski it’s a sprained knee)?  Duke’s finishing kick also involves three road games in Blacksburg, Chapel Hill and Syracuse.  Don’t tell Louisville about the Carrier Dome:  the usually potent Cardinals (fourth in the ACC in scoring) shot 26% while putting just 49 points on the board there Wednesday.  UVa has to contain forward Jordan Nwora, who notched a double-double against Duke and leads Louisville in scoring and rebounding.  A reasonable task for the top defensive team in the ACC.

#24 Maryland (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten) vs. Ohio State (17-9, 7-8), 2 p.m., ESPN.  The Terps took the January 18th matchup in Columbus by 15 despite 19 turnovers thanks to 20 points from Anthony Cowan Jr.; Tuesday the junior guard scored 17 points with a season-high 8 assists in a 66-65 win over #21 Iowa.  That victory was the first for the Terps on the road against a ranked foe since January 2008 when they upset then-#1 North Carolina.  The Buckeyes are 0-5 against ranked teams this winter-and are less than one week removed from scoring 13 points in the second half of a loss to #10 Michigan State.  But if scoring in the forties (they posted 44 in East Lansing) is a disease, then OSU most certainly passed it on to Northwestern in their 63-49 win Wednesday.

George Washington (8-18, 4-9 Atlantic 10) at VCU (20-6, 11-2), 2 p.m., ESPN+.  The Rams have won seven straight to go from underwhelming contender to perhaps a likely at-large contender-last year the A-10 received two such bids (Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure).  They also won the February 6th matchup between these two teams in Foggy Bottom by ten; it was a game where GW had 17 turnovers to 15 made baskets. D.J. Williams scored 16 points that night- he’ll need more help this time (his teammates shot 9-for-34 and 0-for-9 from three-point range that night).  The Colonials are coming off their first win in five games this month:  Maceo Jack tallied 20 points with 7 rebounds in the 79-67 win over UMass.  They’ll need more than Jack and Williams to play well Saturday.

Richmond (11-15, 5-8 Atlantic 10) at La Salle (8-17, 6-7), 2 p.m., ESPN+.  The Explorers took the February 2nd meeting 66-58 as Pookie Powell tallied 18 points; after a minor hiccup (a season-low two points in a loss last weekend to Saint Louis) Powell produced 20 in La Salle’s 62-60 loss to St. Bonaventure Wednesday.  First-year head coach Ashley Howard is less than a year removed from cutting down the nets as part of Villanova’s national championship staff; growing pains are to be expected in the A-10.  Just ask Chris Mooney, who posted losing seasons his first two years in Richmond.  Unfortunately the Spiders of the present are on the verge of a second straight losing season for the first time since 2006 (Mooney’s second season).  But they do head to Philly having won four of six.

Navy (9-17, 6-9 Patriot League) at Colgate (13-10, 10-5), 2 p.m., CBSSN.  While the Midshipmen’s game with Loyola of Maryland was pushed back a day due to the winter weather, the Raiders have been storming up the standings with a five game winning streak-a streak that includes victories over conference co-leaders Lehigh and Bucknell.  The Midshipmen took the January 3rd matchup in Annapolis by six on a day where they hit 45% of their shots (their season average is 31%).

Georgetown (16-10, 6-7 Big East) at Creighton (14-13, 5-9), 2:30 p.m., FOX.  The Hoyas’ 85-73 win over #17 Villanova was huge not just because it snapped a nine game losing streak to the Wildcats but it was also coach Patrick Ewing’s first victory against a ranked opponent in his head coaching career.  It was the best 40-minute effort of Ewing’s team this winter–on both ends of the floor.  The defense that’s coughed up points early and often?  Held Nova to 39% shooting and 24% from three-point range.  The offense that squandered double-digit leads?  Freshman James Akinjo notched nine assists to three turnovers while piloting the Big East’s highest scoring attack.  Getting from this win to the NCAA Tournament is a major leap, but at least 20 wins remains a possibility for Ewing’s second season at the helm.  The Bluejays have made the tournament each of the last two seasons; barring a major miracle that won’t happen this March for coach Greg McDermott’s team.  It’s been an aggravating slide, with two overtime losses plus a pair of two-possession defeats before their win over DePaul.

#20 Virginia Tech (20-6, 9-5 ACC) at Notre Dame (13-13, 3-10), 4 p.m..  The Hokies attempt to bounce back from another loss to Virginia, although this one was much closer than the 22-point drubbing they were dealt last month in Charlottesville.  How soon will Justin Robinson return from his foot injury?  The team is 3-3 this month without the senior guard, scoring more than 70 points just once.  They began league play the first weekend of January with a 15-point win over the Fighting Irish in Blacksburg.  Since that day things have not been ideal for Mike Brey’s team: their three league wins have come against sub-500 squads Boston College (twice) and Georgia Tech.

George Mason (15-11, 9-4 Atlantic 10) vs. Duquesne (17-9, 8-5), 4 p.m., ESPN+.   Both teams have lost three of their last five games while having the entire week to prepare for this battle for fourth place…and while each team still has five conference games remaining it’s never too early to think about playing for the double-bye in the upcoming A-10 Tournament (and even if it is, we’re already dissecting brackets for the Big Dance).  Mason has won four straight at home…while the Dukes’ Eric Williams Jr. has been heating up in February (shooting 51% from the field and 56% from three-point range).

Howard (12-15, 6-6 MEAC) at Coppin State (6-21, 6-6), 4 p.m.  The Bison play their final four games of the regular season on the road-and that might not be a bad thing.  R.J. Coles and company are 4-0 away from Burr Gymnasium in league play.  The Eagles have already won more games this winter than in coach Juan Dixon’s first season;  they’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with the most prolific offense in the MEAC-especially with a unit that ranks last in the conference in turnover and rebounding margin.

 

Sunday’s Game:

American (13-13, 7-8 Patriot League) at Army (12-16, 7-8), 2 p.m.  The Eagles can make the case for being the snakebitten area team of the month with three straight losses coming by two points.  This battle for fourth place carries extra weight because the Patriot League plays its tournament games on the campus of the higher seed.  AU beat the Black Knights 71-68 February 9th thanks to freshman Jacob Boonyasith’s 20 points:  that may have been an isolated incident, because in the three games since that afternoon the guard has scored a combined 19 points.

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Happy Presidents’ Day Weekend! Although it does kind of feel claustrophobic and a little unfair. Just one holiday for 44 people? For accounting purposes I’m counting Cleveland once– although Taft is often counted twice due to excessive weight. How do you breach the subject with the really good ones? It’s like lettering in track– only to realize that everybody who put on a uniform got the same honor…regardless of performance or attendance.
“Lincoln– you freed the slaves and kept the nation together… you get 2.27% of today.” Did Benjamin Harrison have the same impact as George Washington? Does James Buchanan merit equal billing with Franklin Roosevelt? Millard Fillmore is most famous for resembling the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”-are we really honoring Jonas Grumby?  Should we be a nation that celebrates excellence but lumps disastrous terms with nation-saving leadership is one that’s lost its way?

 

Solution: create an official Presidents’ Day Weekend. Let’s be honest:  most take off the second half of Friday on a holiday weekend anyways.  And separating the wheat from the chaff not only acknowledges greatness, but also gives “the other guys” a half-day in the spotlight Friday. Instead of being overshadowed by Washington, Lincoln and the like-Rutherford B. Hayes can have his semi-moment in the sun (with lemonade).

Honoring ten “Super Presidents” on Monday then gives those who deserve a whole day their due. But how do we determine a “Super President”?

1– Like stamps… they have to be deceased (sorry Bill)…

2– Mount Rushmore– if you are chiseled into the side of a hill– you qualify. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt— welcome to the club.

3– Currency is consideration, but no slam-dunk. So just because Grant is on the $50, doesn’t mean he’s in (far from it). FDR, Wilson and Jackson make the cut though.

4– Veterans Committee– alternating underrated chief executives from the 19th and 20th centuries for a “special spot”. Example: Polk this year, Truman next year, Cleveland in 2021, Eisenhower in 2021. You get the idea.

5– Partisan Picks– in throwing a bone to both parties…Reagan and Kennedy make the list. Makes sense: Republicans are still looking for the next Reagan and Democrats are still searching for the next JFK.

So enjoy the holiday weekend… and celebrate the mediocre with the great. Because often it’s the Hoovers that make the FDRs necessary.