Archives for posts with tag: American University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Maryland may have the upcoming weekend off game-wise but they can’t escape what is beginning to settle in the world of college hoops: the dog days of the regular season where conference play is no longer new, yet the postseason feels a year away.  Under coach Mark Turgeon the Terps have been known for February fades: in his eight years at the helm, only the 2014-15 team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (that wasn’t always the case as his last three teams at Texas A&M each had better marks in the second half of Big 12 play).  How does the coach plan to keep this team rested but not rusty?  “We’ll take a little more time off,” Turgeon said, “but when we get together we’ll practice hard.”  They could use a breather after a Big Ten schedule that gave them 10 games over a 31-day stretch between January 2nd and February 1st.  “We take care of our bodies–I think really do that on a high level,” sophomore forward Bruno Fernando said, “Even on our days off we’re coming in here trying to do recovery as much as we can.”

Things get lighter this month:  after Wednesday’s win at Nebraska, seven games remain over the final five weekends of the regular season.  “This is where teams fold or where teams get better,” said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, “we don’t want to be the team that folds this year.”  Last year’s team lost seven of eight road games after the new year;  this year’s edition is 5-1 on the road since conference play resumed.  And they’ll have six days off before #15 Purdue comes to College Park next Tuesday.  “It gives us more time to watch film, which is what we really need,” Turgeon said, “and I think down the stretch we’ll probably do a little more with film than we will on the floor.”  After finishing the first half of Big Ten play 7-3, the Terps have won two of three.  They’ll have more time off, but after the Boilermakers come to Xfinity Center the Terps visit #7 Michigan and #20 Iowa.  One rough/ruff road, indeed.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange began Tuesday’s game with #22 Florida State by getting outscored 36-14, rallied to within one point of the Seminoles, and then was outscored 34-17 the rest of the way.  Suffice it to say this is one streaky team…and the Louisville-Duke-UNC gauntlet is a couple of weeks away.  Hopefully coach Jim Boeheim won’t be tossing his jacket Saturday when Boston College comes to the Carrier Dome.  Bring on the bubble once more…

 

Saturday’s Games:

Georgetown (15-8, 5-5 Big East) vs. Butler (13-10, 4-6), 12 p.m.,

The Hoyas are coming off of their first sweep of Providence since the conference realigned thanks to dominating the glass (a 50-33 rebounding advantage).  Road court advantage has held lately in this series:  the Hoyas have won three in a row at Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims remain ten feet above the court) while the Bulldogs have won three straight in DC.  Coach Patrick Ewing’s team shot 55% from three-point range in the two team’s meeting January 2nd–and that was a game they played minus Mac McClung.  Kamar Baldwin was the only Butler starter to score in double figures that night, and the junior lit up the Hoyas for 31 points the last time he came to Capital One Arena.  For the record, two years ago these two teams went to overtime in Washington–and last year’s game went to double-OT.  We politely ask that if you’re attending the game not to make an early dinner reservation.

#11 Virginia Tech (18-4, 7-3 ACC) at Clemson (14-8, 4-5) 12 p.m., ESPN2.  The Hokies come a home loss to Louisville where they allowed more points in the first 13 minutes than they did in 40 minutes at NC State.  Seriously, the Wolfpack sent the game back to the 19th century by shooting 9-for-54 and resembling teams playing the cartoon Harlem Globetrotters. The Tigers’ win over Georgia Tech Wednesday was its first on the road in league play and their third straight–but before you start looking at first and second round NCAA sites, remember the Yellowjackets are 3-7 in league play and the other two wins in the streak have come against Pitt and Wake Forest (a combined 4-16 in the ACC).

American (12-10, 6-5 Patriot League) at Army (11-13, 6-5), 2 p.m.  Two of the league’s three 6-5 teams get to this point from opposite directions:  AU has won four of five while the Black Knights have dropped three straight.  Despite having the conference’s best rebounder in Matt Wilson (8.6 boards per game), Army ranks seventh in the league on the glass.  The Eagles received a nice boost from Patriot League Freshman of the Week Jacob Boonyasith last week, only to see the guard experience growing pains (2 points on 1-6 shooting in the loss at Navy) this week.

VCU (16-6, 7-2 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (9-13, 5-4), 2 p.m. CBSSN.  Double-digit wins over George Mason and George Washington put the Rams one game out of first place in the conference at the halfway mark;  unfortunately they won’t play league-leading Davidson again in the regular season (the Wildcats took the January matchup at Belk Arena).  The Bonnies have won three of four, but losing three players to graduation and three more to transfer have forced coach Mike Schmidt to lean on freshman Kyle Lofton big-time this winter (the guard’s 38 minutes per game leads the A-10).

Howard (10-13 4-4 MEAC) at Florida A&M (9-14, 6-2), 4 p.m.  The Bison take to the floor for the first time since blowing a 24-point lead to Norfolk State in an 80-78 loss that saw a postgame scuffle brew out of the handshake line.  Three players will be suspended: Princewill Anosike, Jalen Jones and Andre Toure-of which only Anosike averages over 15 minutes per game this season.  The Rattlers provide a metaphorical one-two punch in being the best three-point shooting team in the MEAC while also allowing the second-fewest points per game in the league.  They also beat Howard in DC by ten January 5th thanks in part to turning them over 20 times.

Navy (8-14, 5-6 Patriot League) at Lehigh (15-7, 8-3), 4:30 p.m.  Consecutive wins over Loyola (MD) and American take the Mids from flirting with last place to one game out of third in the conference.  The Mountain Hawks are coming off of a loss to Colgate where they turned the ball over 21 times.  Lehigh did take the January matchup in Annapolis as senior Lance Tejada hit five three-pointers en route to 22 points.  The Mids need to get Evan Wieck the ball more:  the junior leads the Patriot League in field goal percentage (.708) but takes under five shots per game.

#3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) vs #2 Duke (20-2, 8-1), 6 p.m., ESPN.  The Cavaliers were done no favors when the league schedule their home game with the Blue Devils two days before a roadtrip to North Carolina.  The makeup call?  Seven days to prepare for Coach K’s crew.  The meeting in Durham saw the two teams combine to shoot 67% from inside the arc and 5-for-31 (16) from three-point range.  Can UVa find a way to contain Zion Williamson & RJ Barrett (the duo tallied 57 points on 21-of-35 shooting)?  And will point guard Ty Jerome’s back (he sat out the Miami win) be good enough for him to keep pace with the healthy Tre Jones (14 points and 5 assists per game since his return from injury)?

George Washington (7-15, 3-6 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (9-14, 3-7), 6 p.m.  Good news for those who enjoyed the A-10 Tournament at Capital One Arena last March- the league’s postseason tourney returns to DC in 2022.  Even with none of the local schools reaching the weekend it was a great five days, with just one blowout (naturally the late Friday 3-vs-6 Quarterfinal) and a thrilling Final (Davidson upsetting Rhode Island 58-57).  The January meeting between these two schools saw the Spiders win by 20.  While rebounding (Richmond held a 38-25 edge on the glass) was a major factor that day, the major mismatch between these schools is ball security:  GW ranks 12th in the league in turnover margin while the Spiders’ Jacob Gilyard leads the conference in steals.

Sunday’s Game:

George Mason (13-10, 7-3 Atlantic 10) vs La Salle (7-14, 5-4), 2 p.m.  The Explorers are attempting to be this year’s Richmond:  last winter the Spiders bounced back from a 2-10 non-conference mark to post a .500 record in league play and almost upset NCAA Tournament at large team St. Bonaventure in the Quarterfinals.  The Patriots are trying to avoid becoming this year’s VCU:  the Rams lost six of eight last February to finish without a winning record for the first time since they joined the A-10.  Mason’s coming off a disaster in Richmond where they turned the ball over 20 times and allowed 57% shooting.  La Salle has won four straight–but those victories have all come against the bottom four schools in the league.

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So much for a duel in the Dominion.  Tuesday’s ACC battle royale between #4 Virginia and #9 Virginia Tech turned into a rout almost from the outset:  the Cavaliers scored the game’s first five points and held the Hokies without a field goal for the first three and a half minutes.  There would be no repeat of last winter when coach Buzz Williams’ scrappy bunch shocked then-second ranked UVa in overtime.  Instead, the Cavaliers hit 59% of their shots and 54% from three-point range while winning the battle of the boards 27-19.  The 22-point point lead at intermission would turn the entire second half into mop-up time as coach Tony Bennett’s team emerged as the ACC’s last remaining team unbeaten in conference play.  And just like Florida State two weeks ago, another top ten team tumbles before leaving John Paul Jones Arena.  Virginia’s four league wins have come by an average of 20.5 points per game and while a date with #1 Duke awaits, the Cavaliers have undercut their instate foes (don’t you dare tell the Charlottesville faithful that the Hokies are their rivals) once again.  Set your calendar for Monday, February ninth when these two teams battle in Blacksburg.

 

Alma Mater Update- nothing like washing off the smell of a double-digit home loss to Georgia Tech by beating #1 Duke at Cameron Indoor in overtime.   A 4/5 court heave by Elijah Hughes that went down.  A monster game that saw Tony Battle and his 32 points remind everyone why they all rejoiced when he announced he was coming back for his junior season.  Despite the injuries and illnesses, the Blue Devils are the team to beat and the Orange did just that.  Now they play a pesky Pitt that’s pesky and guided by a former Duke assistant in Jeff Capel.  SU has proven they can win on the big stage–can they sustain their solid play?

 

Friday’s Game:

Maryland (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) at Ohio State (12-4, 2-3), 6:30 p.m, BTN.

This is the second of four Friday games for the Terrapins this winter.  Friday night hoops should involve me wearing a blue foam finger in Manchester, NH and scrounging up enough money to get Ugli sticks at Luisa’s Pizza on the west side.  The Terps have won consecutive games against Indiana and Wisconsin despite not putting together complete 40-minute efforts.  What’s encouraging is that even when things have gone sideways this month coach Mark Turgeon’s young team has found a way to win.  The Buckeyes have dropped three straight, including a three-point loss at Rutgers.  Perhaps they need to get the ball more to Kyle Young, who leads the conference in shooting (72.1%) but has taken just 12 shots during the slide.

 

Saturday’s Games:

Richmond (7-10, 1-3 Atlantic 10) at Davidson (12-5, 3-1), 12:30 p.m., NBCSN.  Both teams are looking to bounce from discouraging defeats:  the Spiders lost at home to Duquesne for the first time in 25 years, while the Wildcats fell at St. Joe’s by one.  Both teams bring plenty of firepower to Belk Arena:  Davidson leads the A-10 in three-pointers made per game while the Spiders rank second in the conference in field goal percentage.

 

American (8-8, 2-3 Patriot League) vs Lafayette (4-12, 1-4), 2 p.m.  How friendly has home court been for the Eagles thus far in conference play?  They’re 2-0 at Bender Arena and 0-3 outside DC.  Perhaps this is the game where Sa’eed Nelson finds his stroke from three-point range:  the Leopards rank last in the Patriot League at defending the three and are 9th in scoring defense.  But they do have a pair of offensive threats in Justin Jaworski (18 points per game in league play) and Alex Petrie (50% from outside the arc in conference action).

 

Navy (6-10, 3-2 Patriot League) at Army (8-10, 3-2), 2:30 p.m., CBSSN.  It’s not the football game, but this mid-January matchup has two schools recovering from nightmarish pre-conference schedules.  While the Midshipmen are still trying to find their way after losing last year’s leading scorer Shawn Anderson to graduation, the Black Knights are led by juniors Matt Wilson inside (2nd in the conference in rebounding) and Tommy Funk outside (2nd in assists).

 

#9 Virginia Tech (14-2, 3-1 ACC) vs Wake Forest (8-8, 1-3), 4 p.m., ACC Network.  Can the Hokies pick themselves back up from Tuesday night’s wreckage?  They face a Demon Deacons team that is fresh from upsetting #17 NC State by holding the Wolfpack to 37% shooting and 21% from three-point range.  Wake also has a second-generation star in Brandon Childress (son of assistant coach and 1995 ACC Tournament MVP), who’s averaging 16 points with 4 assists per game.  Despite the debacle in Charlottesville, Tech does lead the ACC in shooting and ranks second in scoring defense.  They should be able to find get their mojo back at Cassell Coliseum.

 

Howard (7-11, 1-3 MEAC) at South Carolina State (4-15, 2-1), 4 p.m.  Remind me not to buy into the Bison until they have a winning record entering February: eight losses in nine games has one feeling that “next year” won’t be happening this year.  Tuesday’s defeat to Morgan State was made possible by 18 turnovers and R.J. Cole’s second-lowest scoring output of the season (12 points in 42 minutes).  But as long as Cole and Charles Wiliams (25 points against the Bears) are around, the Bison are a threat to break out on a scoring spree.  And bring me back into the camp thinking that it might just happen this winter.

 

#4 Virginia (16-0, 4-0 ACC) at #1 Duke (14-2, 3-1), ESPN, 6 p.m.  The Cavaliers will have little time to bask in their beatdown of the Hokies…traveling to Durham to face an angry Blue Devils team that lost at home as a top-ranked team for the first time ever (previously 60-0 in that situation).  Adding injury to insult, guard Tre Jones is out indefinitely with a right shoulder injury.  But they still have the ACC’s leading scorer in R.J. Barrett and walking double-double Zion Williamson to test the pack-line defense.  UVa’s ultra-efficient offense that leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio won’t easily have its way with a Duke defense that holds teams under 40% shooting and under 30% from three-point range.

 

VCU (12-5, 3-1 Atlantic 10) vs UMass (7-10, 0-4), 6:30 p.m., NBCSN.  The Rams defeated Dayton Wednesday thanks to Marcus Evans: the transfer from Rice scored 17 points-including the team’s last seven and the go-ahead three with 33 seconds remaining.  The Minutemen may be tied for last in the conference, but three of their four league losses have come by five points or fewer.  They lead the A-10 in three-point shooting and are #2 in field goal percentage, while junior guard Luwane Pipkins scored 38 points last year against the Rams.

 

George Mason (10-8, 4-1 Atlantic 10) vs. Fordham (9-8, 0-4) 7 p.m., ESPN+.  The Patriots outscored UMass 18-9 over the final 6:40 of the second half to beat the Minutemen 68-63 Wednesday as Justin Kier tallied 22 points and 9 rebounds–the junior is averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds in league play.  That makes up for Otis Livingston II struggling over the last three games to the tune of 7-32 shooting (22%).  The Rams lead the conference in turnover margin, but are 1-4 on the road (those losses include a defeat to Houston Baptist).

 

Sunday’s Game:

George Washington (6-11, 2-2 Atlantic 10) vs. Duquesne (12-5, 3-1), 4 p.m., NBCSN.  The Colonials bounced back from a horrid first half at La Salle by shooting 68% after intermission in their 68-63 win Wednesday;  they’ll find the Dukes a little tougher to contend with even though the game is in Foggy Bottom.  Duquesne is 12-5 and 3-1 in the league for the second straight January;  last year’s edition stumbled the rest of the way into a 16-16 finish.  Sincere Carry averages 5.5 assists per game;  I can’t think of a more appropriately named point guard.

 

 

 

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By George, that was one rough opening night.  Which was more painful, George Mason’s 72-71 loss at home to Penn or George Washington wasting a 22-0 first half lead in their defeat to Stony Brook?  Never mind, as GW compounded it by losing to Siena Thursday evening.  The Patriots and Colonials will battle twice in Atlantic 10 play, with GW going to Fairfax January 26th and Mason heading to Foggy Bottom March 9th.  Meanwhile, DC houses two more Division I programs…and American visits Howard December 8th.  Both teams are rebuilding:  the Eagles are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 while the Bison have a 26-year Big Dance drought.  Of the four, George Mason has the best chance of making waves this winter while the other three have hopes-for the moment.

 

George Mason- the Patriots enter coach Dave Paulsen’s fourth year at the helm, meaning every player in the program is someone brought to Fairfax by his efforts. “There’s just a comfort level that the kids have and a comfort level that I have with the kids,” Paulsen said, “What we’re starting to see when is when the players enforce the culture, when the players can help correct some things on the side.”

Mason has improved from 12th to 7th to 5th in the Atlantic 10 over the last three years;  this fall the Patriots return all five starters and have been picked to finish 4th in the A10’s Preseason Poll.  Paulsen returns all five starters and every significant bench player from last winter.  This is a team built to contend. “We talk a lot about playing two-tempo basketball:  being able to push it in transition but also be able to really execute on the offensive end.”

Leading the returnees is guard Otis Livingston II: the senior was named Preseason all-Atlantic 10.  While his 17 points per game paced the Patriots last winter, Livingston’s coach feels they’ve only scratched the surface.  Paulsen said, “We really challenged Otis to become a complete point guard in the truest sense.  To assert himself more defensively and pressure the ball…and continue to be aggressive scoring the basketball.”

Livingston will have plenty of options at his disposal:  Jaire Grayer led the team in threes while the 6-foot-5 guard was also the best player on the boards.  Six-foot-seven Minnesota mountain man Goanar Mar looks to build off of what was a productive freshman season in the post.  Paulsen said, “I do think we’ll have better balance–we pretty much lived and died on the perimeter last year and I think we’ll be able to throw the ball inside and get some easy buckets in there as well.”

That they’re picked 4th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll is nice, but the coach expects a long winter with many twists and turns.  “There’s always a team that does very well and always a team that doesn’t perform as well as expected–but there’s no easy night”, Paulsen said.  The schedule has Mason playing defending A10 regular season champ Rhode Island once (on the road) and tournament winner Davidson at home.

 

George Washington- Maurice Joseph’s team was picked to finish 13th in the conference after losing their top three scorers off of last year’s 15-18 team.   Stepping into the vacuum of the graduating Yuta Watanabe and Patrick Steeves plus the transferring Jair Bolden (bound for South Carolina), 6-foot-8 forward Arnaldo Toro.  The junior from Puerto Rico led the Colonials in rebounding last winter and will be expected be the primary post presence moving forward.  Getting him the ball will be Baltimore product Terry Nolan Jr.:  the preseason Atlantic 10-All Defensive Team guard was fifth in the conference in steals as a freshman.  The season begins with a bang as GW faces top 25 teams Virginia and Michigan in November.

American- the Eagles were extremely young last year and it showed in a 6-24 finish (3-15 Patriot League).  But after taking those lumps coach Mike Brennan’s team returns a nucleus of Sa’eed Nelson (Preseason Player of the Year), senior Larry Motuzis (15 points and while leading the team in threes) and sophomore Sam Iorio (15 points while leading the team in rebounding).  Despite the experience, the Eagles are picked seventh in the conference…with everybody chasing Lehigh and Bucknell.  Games to watch include trips to George Mason (November 9th) and George Washington (December 27th).

Howard- forgive me for being shy about the Bison.  This program was THIS CLOSE to breaking through with James Daniel leading the nation in scoring and his teammates leading the country in untimely injuries.  Kevin Nickelberry has rebuilt the roster and has HU picked to finish fourth in the MEAC (keep in mind they have one winning conference record since 2002) and once again boast a high-powered backcourt.  Preseason MEAC Player of the Year RJ Cole looks to build on one incredible freshman season (his 24 points per game ranked 7th nationally) while junior Charles Williams (20 points per game last winter) can fill it as well.  Upper Marlboro, MD native Zion Cousins led the Bison with 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman.  If he can develop a better offensive game, Howard might just finally find a way to turn from pretender to contender.

It’s not technically March Madness, but conference tournament time is here after an underwhelming regular season for most of the local schools.  Yes–I know that Virginia is #1 in the nation and Virginia Tech is fresh off wins over the Cavaliers and Duke, but the bulk of the beltway schools have struggled in conference play.  Unlike previous years where at-large bids were possibilities, the only route to the field of 68 for Maryland, Georgetown and others involves winning a conference tournament championship.

 

Patriot League- one of many “one-bid” conferences, the Patriot League holds each round on campus sites which places more value on the 18-game regular season.  But that hasn’t guaranteed anything:  just twice since 2011 has the regular season champ won the tournament and two years ago the road teams went 5-4 as 9th seeded Holy Cross emerged from the rubble.

Team to Beat- Bucknell won its fourth straight regular season title by going 16-2 (12 of those wins coming by double-digits).  The Bison have lost just once at home this winter (to Boston University January 2nd).  They led the conference in scoring and shooting while also being the best at defending the three-point shot.

Players to Watch- Bucknell’s Zach Thomas led the conference in scoring and rebounding (21 points with 9 rebounds per game) en route to winning MVP honors;  last March as a junior he averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Bison cut down the nets in the Patriot League Tournament.  Lehigh’s Lance Tejada paced the conference in three-point shooting percentage as well as three’s made per game.  Army’s Tommy Funk was tops in assists–and possesses one cool name.

Fun Fact- American actually owns the best record in Patriot League Tournament history, their .622 winning percentage a whisker better than Bucknell’s .621.  Of course, the Bison have been in the league 12 more seasons than AU, but that’s splitting hairs.

 

Tuesday’s First Round:

#10 American (6-23, 3-15 Patriot League) at Lafayette (9-20, 7-11).  The Leopards won both regular season games, shooting 65% from the field (and 75% from three-point range) February 17th in a 90-85 triumph.  They also have the conference’s Rookie of the Year in guard Alex Petrie while senior Matt Klinewski discovered his three-point shot this winter, hitting 48 of 110 attempts after attempting just four threes (all misses) in his first three seasons.  The Leopards have had issues taking care of the ball this winter, ranking last in the league in turnover margin.  As befits a team that enters the tournament having lost 10 of 11, AU ranks last in the conference in shooting, rebounding, stopping the three and defending shots in general. Coach Mike Brennan does have a decent 1-2 combination in freshman forward Sam Iorio and sophomore guard Sa’eed Nelson.  Both will need to produce for the Eagles to have hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals.

 

Thursday’s Quarterfinal:

#3 Navy (20-11, 11-7 Patriot League) vs #6 Holy Cross (11-18, 8-10).  Yes-you read that correctly.  The Midshipmen have won 20 games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.  Their 5-1 sprint to the finish began with a 69-34 win on the Crusaders’ home court-a game where they were minus first team all-conference guard Shawn Anderson due to illness.  The senior came back with a healthy shot, making more than 50% of his attempts since returning to the lineup.  Rebounding knows no virus, and no team was better on the glass in the Patriot League this winter than the Mids.  The offensively challenged (last in the conference in scoring) Crusaders boast the Defensive Player of the Year in junior Jehyve Floyd (2.2 blocks per game) who is also their best offensive weapon after posting a league-best .657 shooting percentage this winter.  Holy Cross has also won four of their last five road games and took Navy to overtime in Annapolis.  After going 15 years in between Patriot League Tournament wins, nobody is looking ahead to potential semifinal matchups.

 

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January means more than resolutions, a new calendar and writing the wrong year on your checks (for the record, I’m still writing “2016”).  College basketball transitions from holiday/tropical tournaments, cupcake games and the random worth-watching showdown into conference play (I know, Maryland played two Big Ten games early last month and most everybody else got their first league games in over the final weekend of December)…which can be jarring for some schools that played super-easy non-conference schedules (Georgetown, anybody?).  Can the guy who scored 25 against Gardner-Webb do the same thing against other teams of similar skill level?  For the area schools the two-games-a-week rhythm starts against the usual suspects:  league foes.  The march to March begins in earnest…with more than a few roadblocks for schools in and around the beltway.

 

Maryland (13-4, 2-1 Big Ten)- the Terps played a pair of December conference games (the league is ending its regular season February 25 so they can play the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden the week before the Big East own MSG) and entered January ranked second in the league in rebounding margin.  That might not last as their frontcourt suffered two major setbacks over the last week, losing forwards Justin Jackson (labrum) and Ivan Bender (knee) for the season.  After surviving at home against Penn State, the Terps lost at #1 Michigan State 91-61.  The duo of Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan scored 42 points on 13-of-27 shooting while the rest of the team combined to hit 7-of-26 shots.  With Jackson done for the year, the firm of Huerter & Cowan badly need a new associate.

Bully on the Block:  #1 Michigan State.  The Spartans blew away the Terps while notching 30 assists on 32 field goals–it’s no surprise they lead the nation with 21.7 assists per game and their average margin of victory is 26 points.  They also come to College Park Sunday January 28th.

Georgetown (11-3, 1-2 Big East)- the Hoyas began conference play by blowing a 20-point first half lead in an overtime loss to Butler.  Cue critics of their soft non-conference slate (five opponents outside of the top 320 in the RPI).  Naysayers during the 10-1 start also pointed to the Hoyas propensity to turn the ball over.  Cute 25 turnovers in their loss to Marquette.  That Patrick Ewing’s team was able to hold off multiple rallies by DePaul in a 90-81 win at the Blue Demons was a step in the right direction;  and over the next three weeks they’ll play DePaul again and face St. John’s twice.  Jessie Govan’s 25 points and 12 rebounds was a nice turnaround from the first two league games where he shot 9-of-25, turned the ball over 7 times and picked up 5 fouls.  But regardless of the competition and the outcome, the junior still rebounds well.  They’ll need that against Creighton Saturday as the Blue Jays lead the Big East in shooting.

Bully on the Block: #3 Villanova.  The Wildcats are the Hoyas’ nearest neighbor-but the two programs couldn’t be further apart this decade.  Since the new Big East was formed, Nova is 64-10 in conference play while Gtown has had just one season where they’ve lost fewer than 10 league games.  The snappily-dressed Jay Wright brings his team to DC January 17th.

 

#8 Virginia (13-1, 2-0 ACC)– the Cavaliers escaped upset by beating Boston College by one at home before crushing Virginia Tech 78-52 in Blacksburg.  Ty Jerome followed up a career-high 31 points against the Eagles with 13 points and 5 assists against the Hokies.  But the story as it usually is with UVa was stellar defense, one that held the conference’s best-shooting team to 36% from the field and 17% from three-point range.  Even big man enigma Jack Salt had more points than fouls (6 to 4).  There’s little time to celebrate because coach Tony Bennett’s team hosts a #12 North Carolina team that’s smarting from a one-point loss at Florida State.

Virginia Tech (11-4, 0-2 ACC)- the Hokies entered the new year with the highest scoring offense in the league…only to score a season-low 56 points in a loss at Syracuse before being held to another season-low at home against their in-state rivals (note how I don’t refer to the Hokies as the Cavs’ rival, they’re particular about such things in Charlottesville).  Two offensive nightmares to start conference play-and not a lot of time to sort things out with the 9 p.m. tipoff Wednesday and noon start Saturday.  At least both are at home–but after playing last-place Pitt this weekend they’re either on the road or facing a ranked team for the rest of the month.  Who put this schedule together?

Bully on the Block:  #2 Duke.  The Blue Devils may have lost to Boston College, but this winter’s edition features the most highly rated newcomer in Marvin Bagley III and the most hated veteran in Grayson Allen.  Bagley’s playing just well enough to make everybody forget Allen’s tripping history.  The Blue Devils face Virginia Tech twice (February 14th and 26th) while Virginia plays the conference and national favorites just once (January 27th).  Come to think of it, the Cavaliers also play #8 Miami, #12 North Carolina, #24 Florida State and #25 Clemson just once as well.  Seriously, who MAKES this schedule?

Alma Mater Update- as sharp as the Orange (12-3, 1-1) looked in their win over Virginia Tech, things came undone late in their 73-67 loss at Wake Forest.  The Demon Deacons hit 47% of their threes–many of which were open–and SU was also beaten on the boards for the first time all season.  But what’s most important was losing the chance to snare a road victory in the ACC-the inability to win on the road last year (2-8 in true road games) cost the Orange an NCAA Tournament berth.  Trips to #8 Virginia and 24th ranked Florida State loom next week.

 

George Washington (8-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the Colonials missed a chance to start league play 2-0 for the first time since 2015, losing 69-52 at Duquesne Wednesday.  A two-possession game with 13:55 left turned sour as the Dukes held GW to three field goals over the next 11 minutes and went on a 19-5 run to seal the game.  The opportunity missed turns into one tough task at hand:  defending conference champ Rhode Island visits Foggy Bottom Saturday before GW plays four of its next five games on the road.

George Mason (7-8, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the Patriots rallied to win at UMass in overtime despite blowing a 10-point lead in the second half and going scoreless for the final 1:02 of regulation.  Instead, senior Otis Livingston II scored 9 of his 33 points in the extra session (while notching a pair of steals) in Mason’s 80-72 victory.  Livingston and Jaire Grayer are the two lone upperclassmen in the rotation this year, although freshman Goanar Mar and sophomore Justin Kier have been pleasant surprises.  Sunday Davidson drops by Eagle Bank Arena in the first of three straight games at home the Patriots will play against schools currently with losing records.

VCU (9-6, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the highest-scoring offense in the conference couldn’t outscore St. Joseph’s, falling in overtime 87-81.  The Rams were haunted by 20-20 vision:  they shot 20.7% from three-point range while also turning the ball over 20 times.  Justin Tillman tallied his fourth consecutive double-double (22 points and 12 rebounds), but his game-winning three that fell at the end of regulation was launched just after time ran out.  The Rams try to recover this weekend at LaSalle, one of ten teams to start 1-1 in A-10 play (there are 14 schools in the league).

Richmond (3-11, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- yes, it does feel like EVERYBODY is 1-1 in league play.  Even a Spiders team that struggled for much of the first two months of the season.  And shocker of all shockers, UR’s game at Fordham went into overtime before they lost 69-65.  Hope is not lost-as the team that ranked second to last or last in the A-10 in points allowed, opponents field goal percentage, defending the three and rebounding margin actually defended and rebounded well against the Rams and Davidson.  Some teams take longer to come together and that might be the case here.

Bully on the Block: Rhode Island.  The Rams’ top four scorers are seniors from last year’s 25-10 team that reached the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.  If they make their way back to the big dance, prepare to be shocked when the URI is “randomly” paired with Arizona State (and coach Dan Hurley’s brother Bobby).

 

American (3-10, 0-2 Patriot League)- the Eagles were within one point of Colgate at 58-57 with 4:47 left, but AU shot 1-for-7 with 6 turnovers to end the game and the Raiders pulled away to win at Bender Arena 72-63.  You think the weather has been rough this week?  It’s been one difficult winter for American- who rank 9th or 10th in the conference in just about every major category (exceptions include 3rd in defending the three-pointer and 8th in points allowed).  Sa’eed Nelson and company try to post a full 40 minutes Friday at Navy.

Navy (10-5, 1-1 Patriot League)- the Midshipmen bounced back from an opening day loss to top Lehigh 78-66 Tuesday.  On a night where leading scorer Shawn Anderson shot 3-for-12, George Kiernan scored a career-high 27 points that included 4-of-7 three-point shots against the Mountain Hawks.  He also grabbed a season-high 7 rebounds, and for a Mids team that leads the conference in rebounding a great effort on the glass can keep you on the floor longer than a shooting streak.  The schedule is set up for a strong start with six of the first nine league games taking place in Annapolis.  American comes to campus Friday.

Bully on the Block:  Bucknell.  The Bison were picked to win the league behind senior Zach Thomas who only came back better (23 points, 9 rebounds and 49% from three-point range).  Despite the home loss to Boston University and sub-500 record, they remain the league standard as they attempt to reach the postseason for the fourth straight season.  They visit Navy January 24th and wrap up the regular season at American February 24th (Bucknell opened league play with an 84-55 thumping of AU last Friday).

 

Howard (3-14, 0-1 MEAC)- the Bison began league play with an 84-76 loss at Florida A&M, a 15-loss team whose previous win this season was against non-Division I school Albany (GA) State.  Somehow I’m feeling I’m not going to be buying into the Bison this winter.  How do you spoil a 30-point effort by freshman phenom RJ Cole?  By coughing up 50 points in the second half to a foe that ranks 346th in the nation in scoring.  That said, the MEAC is a tough league to figure out in early January because most schools play a heavy diet of paycheck games, which results in all 13 schools owning losing records entering league play and nine teams with 10+ losses.  The Friday-Monday schedule has Howard at home this weekend against Bethune-Cookman and Hampton.

Bully on the Block:  Morgan State .  The Bears were picked to win the league and is 5-9 after edging Maryland-Eastern Shore in its conference opener.  They have sophomore Tiwian Kendley who’s 30.3 points per game would lead the nation if he had played enough games to qualify.  Despite being just up the road in Baltimore, Morgan State plays Howard just once this winter- February 5th in the Charm City.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

Is this really the most wonderful time of the year?  Most of us still have our football mindset with the NFL season entering its final few lengths and 40 (!) bowls on the menu.  Forgive us if college basketball is somewhat of an afterthought–like getting to the Barnes & Noble and Bath & Body Works for Christmas presents, I’ll get around to the hoop season.  Promise!  Unfortunately while there have been a few gifts in the pre-conference season (I know Maryland has begun Big Ten play and Duke lost its ACC opener to Boston College, but just work with me here), we’ve also been treated to some refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys.  And for the record, a gun that shoots jelly is pretty cool in the long run.  Here are early impressions of the local schools…who’s getting the Star Wars Death Star™ playset and who receives tube socks and a bathrobe this December?

 

Maryland (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten)– hold on.  They actually trailed Division III Catholic 20-18 in the first half?  Ugh.  What’s Nice:  Anthony Cowan has taken ownership (16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game) of this team while freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darrell Morsell have emerged as major contributors (not unlike last year’s trio of Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson).  What’s Naughty:  they lead the nation in turnovers per game and lack of an effective offense against zones is the nightmare that won’t go away.  Instead of a breakout year, Jackson while posting more rebounds and assists has regressed as a shooter (37% from the field and 25% from three after making 44% from both last winter).  Best Win:  December 3rd at Illinois.  The Illini may not be expected to do much in the Big Ten, but the Terps could ill-afford to start conference play 0-2.  A clutch free throw from Cowan with one second left gave the sophomore a career-high 27 points.  Worst Loss: a 63-61 stumble to St. Bonaventure saw 20 turnovers and 5-of-23 three-point shooting.  Yes, the Bonnies play zone.  Game to watch before conference play:  Friday December 29th UMBC comes to College Park.  The 7-5 Retrievers boast former VCU guard Jairus Lyles (20 ppg & 46% from three-point range) and the kid-brother mentality that Catholic brought to Xfinity Center, only they have more staying power.

 

Georgetown (8-0)– with four wins over MEAC foes, the Hoyas may actually be eligible for that league’s postseason tournament should things end early in the Big East.  Actually, the schedule involves three schools that have already lost eight games, 1-10 Howard and 0-11 Coppin State.  They couldn’t at least bring St. Leo to DC?  What’s Nice:  coach Patrick Ewing said a lot would be expected of Jessie Govan this winter, and the junior has delivered in averaging 23 points (on 63% shooting) and a Division I-best 13 rebounds per game.  The offense is tied for 11th in assists per game.  It’s not “Hoya Paranoia” yet, but they rank third in the Big East in scoring defense, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in stopping the three-pointer.  What’s Naughty:  the schedule gives means “Georgetown Cupcake” is now more than just a thriving business on the corner of 33rd and M (not that I’ve ever been there).  They’re last in the Big East in turnover margin…and that’s going against teams with a combined 21-63 record (with nine wins coming against non-Division I schools).  Best Win: an 82-76 win at Richmond (the Hoyas lone road trip before conference play).  Five in double-figures proves this is more than a one-man team.  Game to Watch before conference play:  the Hoyas host Syracuse Saturday at 12:30 p.m.  CBS will be there.  Even in the final days of John Thompson III, Georgetown was still able to beat its hated rival consecutive years.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are off to an 8-1 start that includes wins over Maryland and UConn that make one think they’re better than the team picked 10th in the ACC preseason poll…with a loss to Kansas reminding the faithful how much they still have to improve before becoming a contender instead of a pretender.  Saturday they play at Georgetown–an occasional win in this series would be nice.

Virginia (8-1)- reports of the Cavaliers’ demise after London Perrantes graduated and multiple players transferred were premature:  coach Tony Bennett has this team in the top 20 and eyeing a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.  What’s Nice:  Kyle Guy got rid of the famed man-bun and came back to campus even more productive-the sophomore is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 45% from outside the arc.  They lead the nation in scoring defense and almost caused basketballs worldwide to explode in their 49-37 water-drip win over Wisconsin.  What’s Naughty:  Jack Salt is back–and the center from New Zealand has only two more points than personal fouls through nine games (25-23).  Better big man production will be needed when the conference slate begins.  Best Win: the 76-67 victory at VCU.  Forget that the Rams have a first-year head coach.  It’s nice to stay the top dog in the Commonwealth.  Lone Loss: a 68-61 defeat at #18 West Virginia.  No shame in coming up short in Morgantown; the Mountaineers are a good team, even if their coach wears a track-suit.  Game to Watch pre-ACC:  Saturday always-dangerous Davidson drops by Charlottesville.

 

Virginia Tech (9-1)- introducing the high-flying Hokies:  #1 in Division I in shooting and scoring while ranking second in three-point shooting.  Forgive us if we’re getting adjusted to a coach Buzz Williams’ sportscar;  we’re accustomed to pickup trucks in Blacksburg (often with a faulty transmission).  What’s Nice:  Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a sparkplug from the perimeter (14 points per game and 47% from three) while Chris Clarke’s recovery from a torn ACL is far enough along that the junior is shooting 60% from the field while averaging 6.8 rebounds per night.  What’s Naughty:  tough to find a smudge on this early season–but the Hokies do allow the fourth-most points per game in the ACC. Best Win: a 103-79 neutral-site victory over a Washington team that has since gone on to upset Kansas.  Nice to get a victory on the Madison Square Garden floor.  Lone Loss:  the night before VT fell to Saint Louis 77-71 after getting outrebounded by ten.  Last year rebounding was an issue…it couldn’t be again when they begin league play, could it?  Game to Watch before ACC play: Saturday the Hokies visit #8 Kentucky.  The tipoff is at 2 p.m–but this will go a long way to determining if they’re ready for prime time.

 

George Washington (5-5)- the Colonials have had quite an ambitious pre-Atlantic 10 slate, visiting the likes of Florida State and Penn State while playing holiday tournaments against #15 Xavier and Kansas State.  Sadly they’re 0-4 against those schools.  What’s Nice: sophomore Jair Bolden has emerged as a do-it-all floor general, leading the team in assists while developing into the team’s best three-point threat.   What’s Naughty:  they’re not the best at taking care of the basketball (12th in the conference in assist-to-turnover margin).  Against the VCU’s and better defensive teams in the league that will be a major issue.  Best Win: December 3rd they beat Temple 71-67.  The Owls used to run the A-10 like their private rec-club, so it’s nice to beat the school that won nine tournament titles over a 26-year span before bolting for the AAC.  Worst Loss: a home loss to Rider from the MAAC.  Not the MAC (Mid-American) or even the (Mid-Eastern Athletic) but the Metro Atlantic Athletic-ugh.  Game to watch before league play tips off:  Saturday they host #6 Miami at noon.  Really, does every good December game involving beltway schools have to be this Saturday?

 

George Mason (5-6)- one year after winning 20 games perhaps a year earlier than expected, coach Dave Paulsen’s team is one of nine Atlantic 10 schools that are within one game of .500.  What’s Nice:  Otis Livingston II came back for his junior year with a three-point shot (46% this season as opposed to 34% as a sophomore) while freshman Goanar Mar has produced since opening night for the Patriots.  What’s Naughty:  you think GW has issues with turnovers?  Mason has the most miscues in the A-10 by a wide margin.  Best Win: a 76-72 grand larceny November 29th at James Madison.  They trailed by four with seven seconds left but an Ian Boyd three began a furious finish.  Worst Loss: Tuesday’s 74-51 loss to Georgia Southern.  The Eagles may be 8-2 but shooting 29% and turning the ball over 21 times at home is no way to go through life.  Best pre-conference game remaining:  Sunday they host Penn State.  Beware the Green Machine.

 

VCU (5-5)- coach Mike Rhoades has a lot to live up to in his debut season:  his predecessor Will Wade won 25 games in his first season at the helm, Shaka Smart’s Rams went 27-9 in his first winter as head coach and Anthony Grant’s first team bounced Duke in the first round of the NCAA’s en route to a 28-7 mark.  So there’s obviously no pressure whatsoever.  What’s Nice:  all five losses are to legit programs, including Smart’s Texas team.  Senior Jonathan Williams leads the A-10 with 6.6 assists per game.  They’re also second best in the league at scoring as well as shooting from three-point range.  What’s Naughty:  something intangible feels like it’s missing this season…and it’s going to take a while for this program to come together under their new head coach.  Best Win: an 83-69 win in Maui against Cal.  Pass the poi.  Worst Loss: a 90-67 defeat at Seton Hall.  They turned the Pirates over just twelve times and allowed 55% shooting.  Game to Watch:  Saturday against Bucknell.  The Bison almost won at Maryland-and aren’t scared of anybody.

 

Richmond (2-8)- the Spiders’ run of ten straight non-losing seasons is in danger of not going to eleven.  Triple-threat TJ Cline took Atlantic 10 MVP honors last winter–and this season you’re seeing how exactly valuable he was.  What’s Nice:  sophomore big man Grant Golden has stepped up from a role player to a primary contributor, netting 15 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this fall.  Freshman Jacob Gilyard has become a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per contest.  What’s Naughty:  they’re the worst free-throw shooting team in the Atlantic 10 and have lost five games by double-digits.  Best Win:  the 74-71 win over James Madison snaps a six game slide…hopefully turning the pre-conference tide.  Worst Loss: an 82-76 home defeat to Georgetown.  You don’t often get the Hoyas on your home floor…and with Patrick Ewing’s rebuild this was a golden opportunity.  Game to Watch:  at Boston College Saturday December 23rd-I’m curious because this BC team beat Duke yet lost to Nebraska.  They could easily slip against the Spiders.

 

Navy (9-3)- this could be the Midshipman team that ends a near-two decade NCAA Tournament drought.  Ed DeChellis directed the program to its first winning conference season since 2009, and this fall they’re off to their best start of any team in the Patriot League.  November and December mean little in one-bid league’s come March, however.  What’s Nice:  the stifling defense allows the fewest points per game in the Patriot League and they’re the best rebounding team in the conference.  Senior Shawn Anderson leads the Mids in scoring, rebounding and assists while passing the 1,000 career points barrier last month.  What’s Naughty:  the Mids rank last in the Patriot League at defending the three…and in a conference of Davids it’s often the slingshot that causes the most damage.  Best Win: opening night against Pitt. Yes, the game was in Annapolis and the Panthers may be a mess under second-year coach Kevin Stallings, but they’re still an ACC opponent.  Worst Loss: falling to 8-4 Penn, 7-4 FGCU and #6 Miami is nothing to be ashamed about.  One cannot help but feel this Midshipmen team is something special.  Last game before league play:   Thursday December 21st against Lipscomb- the Bisons are off to a 6-4 start that includes losses at Alabama, Texas and #24 Tennessee.  Should be a good test.

 

American (3-6)- can the Eagles overcome a slow start to contend in a Patriot League that features not only a Navy program hitting its stride but the usual bully Bucknell that returns four double-digit scorers?  A young roster has turned the first two months of the regular season into a “getting to know you” process for coach Mike Brennan’s team.  What’s Nice: the one-two punch of Larry Motuzis and Sa’eed Nelson (each averages 19 points per game) has provided the bulk of the offense.  What’s Naughty: ninth in the conference in rebounding margin and defending the three, eighth in scoring and scoring defense as well as assist-to-turnover ratio.  Best win: 74-70 at New Hampshire November 21st.  When you play seven of your first eight away from DC, life can be rough on the road.  Sa-eed Nelson netted a season-high 26 points that night.  Worst Loss: a 100-89 loss to St. Francis (PA). Shoot 56% and still come up short?  At least this wasn’t against the 2-7 St. Francis (BKN) Terriers.  Game to see: they host Mt. St. Mary’s from the one-bid Northeast Conference.  Should be a truer test than trips to West Virginia and Marquette.

 

Howard (2-10)-  DO NOT accuse the Bison of stocking their schedule with non-conference W’s.  Just the opposite:  coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team has played 9 of 11 games on the road.  As the song plays, “they’ve been everywhere, man.”  Trouble?  They’ve had their share, man– from a 106-69 thumping at Gonzaga to an 81-67 loss at Georgetown.  Never paid their fair, man?  Well, these are buyout games.  What’s Nice:  freshman guard RJ Cole leads the team with 19 points and 6 assists per game-including 30 in their win over Washington Adventist.  He’s one of five players in the nine-man rotation in their first year with the program.  What’s Naughty:  it’s a shooter’s game and the Bison rank 341st in field goal percentage.  Gotta Watch:  no more home games in 2017–so if you can get a good rate there’s that game against Hawaii December 29th.