Archives for posts with tag: big east

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tipping off Today/Tonight:

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

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

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

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

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

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

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.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

When asked last Friday if his team was close to turning the corner, Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing replied, “We can’t make the same mistakes we’ve been making, but we’re still just right there. We need our best players to play better; we need to play with more energy and more effort. And if we do that, the wins will come.”  Easy to say, until you realize that entering February that your team is winless on the road in conference play.  And then you lose your top scorer on an already thin team (due to four players departing in December) to a foot injury?  Trailing by 17 in the second half at ninth place St. John’s, the Hoyas turned their first small corner by rallying to beat the Red Storm 73-72.  Georgetown is 3-6 halfway through Big East play, but there will be chances for this team to climb back into the race for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015.  And while it won’t be getting any easier (two of their next three games are against ranked foes), they have a league road win.  And confidence that they’re on the right track.  We’ll find out throughout the month if there’s a train coming in their direction on that track.

Alma Mater Update:  the Orange had won five straight entering their game at Clemson, but forward Marek Dolazaj and Bourama Sidibe each picked up their fifth fouls before there were five minutes left in regulation and SU fell by one to the Tigers.  They followed that up with a tough loss at home to Duke.  Defensively they’ve yet to make the leap and have a whole week to prepare for Wake Forest.  The upcoming game won’t add anything to their profile should the Orange win; but a loss would be another body blow to their less than huge NCAA hopes.

Wow of the Week: George Washington (10-12, 4-5 Atlantic 10) may have lost at Richmond Saturday, but the Colonials won the week thanks to their 107-104 quadruple-overtime win over Davidson last Wednesday. Maceo Jack’s 35 points gave GW one heck of a win; and in the first year of head coach Jamion Christian this is exactly the type of victory one builds a program upon.

Player Spotlight: Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 19 of his career-high 31 points in Maryland’s 82-72 win over Iowa; an effort that helped the senior earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors.  He’s started all 120 games in his career thus far and is now climbing among the all-time greats: his 1,716 points just pushed the guard past Walt Williams for 12th most in program history while his 528 assists displaces John Lucas from the top five.  He’s bypassing All-ACC and All-American players, and most importantly for the Baltimore native he’s winning.

League Look:  the Big East has three teams ranked in the Top 20:  each lost last Saturday to unranked teams…at home.  While No. 10 Villanova and No. 12 Seton Hall remain in the top two spots of the standings, No. 19 Butler’s recent slide (four losses in six games) has the Bulldogs tied for fifth in the conference (they own the tiebreaker with Providence).  With surging Creighton (the No. 21 Bluejays have won four in a row) and Marquette also in position to play their way into the NCAA Tournament, one can see the tough task ahead of Georgetown in simply cracking the upper half.  One can’t wait for UConn to join the conference next year.

Ballot Battles: Last week I was listed as having the third-most “extreme ballot” by collegepolltracker.com (they factor in how varied each voter’s ballot is from the consensus).  This week?  Tied for the second-lowest rated (yes, the fans can vote on our voting).  But on the bright side, there were no such issues from Houston fans after the Cougars lost to Cincinnati.  The biggest variance on my ballot this week was having No. 9 Maryland 15th– Coach Mark Turgeon mentioned Monday that even he was surprised at how far his team had shot up both polls.  I did have five schools ranked that didn’t receive enough points to be in the Top 25: Northern Iowa, Rhode Island, Tulsa, Stephen F. Austin, and Bowling Green.  With the exception of URI who has to deal with a top ten team in Dayton, each is atop their respective conference at this time.

This Week’s Starting Five:

Tuesday- No. 9 Maryland vs. Rutgers.  The Scarlet Knights may have dipped out of the Top 25, but the Scarlet Knights have won more than 15 games for the first time since the 2005-06 season.  They bring a defense that ranks second in the Big Ten and boast a guard named Ron Harper Jr. who is doing for Rutgers what his father did for Miami (Ohio) in the 1980’s.

Wednesday- American at Navy.  The two schools are tied with Army for fourth place in the Patriot League, and the Midshipmen are the classic bad offense, good defense team:  they rank last in the league in scoring, field goal percentage as well as three-point shooting while leading the league in scoring defense, defending the three and rebounding margin. Come for the stats, stay for the guardplay:  AU’s Sa’eed Nelson (17.1 points per game) and USNA’s Cam Davis (17.0) are third and fourth in the conference in scoring.

Also Wednesday- Georgetown vs. No. 12 Seton Hall.  The first test for the suddenly rejuvenated Hoyas is a hurting Pirates team in more ways than one:  Hall lost for the first time since December 14 last Saturday to Xavier, and point guard Quincy McKnight is day to day with a knee injury suffered in that game.  But they still have the Big East’s second-leading scorer in Myles Powell.  And who knows if Mac McClung will be back from the foot injury that kept the Hoyas high-scoring guard out of Sunday’s game at St. John’s?

Friday- VCU vs. Davidson. The Rams are 0-3 against Atlantic 10-leading Dayton and second place Rhode Island, but have beaten everybody else since league play began by double-digits.  The Wildcats are just as hot, having surged up the standings with four double-digit wins in its last five games, the lone exception being last week’s marathon loss at George Washington.  But it’s not just VCU’s pressure defense (A-10 best in steals and turnover margin) they’ll have to worry about:  Nah’Shon Hyland leads the conference in three-point shooting (44.1% from outside the arc).

Saturday- Virginia at No. 5 Louisville.  The Cavaliers are on the fringe of NCAA contention thanks to an elite defense (the 50.7 points per game allowed the lowest in Division I) and a sub-par offense (the 56.3 points per game ranks 350th out of 353 schools).  The Cardinals will either be red-hot thanks to an eight game winning streak or red-hot after a loss to Wake Forest. Either way, this is UVa’s chance for a signature win win and a corresponding move up the ACC standings while inching closer to a berth in the Big Dance.

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Maryland’s road to March has been bumpy so far this winter, to say the least.  An 0-4 start in true road games included the annual hiccup at Penn State (although for scheduling purposes, this season it happened in December), a shocker at shorthanded Seton Hall (although the Pirates have played their way back into the Top 25), a flameout at Iowa, and a last-minute meltdown at Wisconsin.  So when the Terps started slowly once again at last-place Northwestern we weren’t shocked by any stretch of the imagination.  When they trailed the Wildcats by 14 at the half the narrative was in motion once again.

But then Jalen Smith happened: the sophomore forward scored 21 of his 25 points after intermission as the Terps won its first road game of the winter 77-66.  And he wasn’t done:  Smith scored 29 points-including the go-ahead basket with 16 seconds left in Sunday’s 77-76 win at Indiana (the Terps’ first win in Bloomington since joining the Big Ten).  The Baltimore native also grabbed 11 rebounds in each of the Terrapins’ wins and was named Big Ten Player of the Week.  Almost halfway through league play, the 6-foot-10 forward ranks eighth in the Big Ten in scoring, fourth in rebounding, and third in blocked shots.  If he had enough attempts to qualify, Smith’s 42.9% would be tied for the league lead…in three-point shooting.  In the coming weeks, he’ll have duels with centers Luka Garza of Iowa and Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu.  And just like he’s helped re-write his team’s road performance narrative, Jalen Smith can re-write his own story as the Big Man of the Big Ten.

 

Alma Mater Update- can you say “Back to back to back to back to back”?  The Orange are suddenly 6-3 in the ACC after beating Notre Dame and Pitt, two schools they should be beating (Fighting Irish & Panthers are a combined 6-11 in league play).  They’re in…fourth place.  Granted, this is a down ACC this winter–but seriously?  SU hasn’t received a “double-bye” in the ACC Tournament since they finished second in the conference during their inaugural season of 2013-14.  That year feels like decades ago.  This week the Orange visit Clemson (Tigers have already won at North Carolina for the first time ever and followed that up with a victory over Duke) and then host Duke.  Gulp…

Wow of the Week- Towson has won six in a row to suddenly become a factor in the CAA race.  The Tigers are doing it with defense, allowing the fewest points per game while holding foes to the lowest shooting percentage in the conference.  They’re also second best in the league at defending the three and in rebounding.  While senior guard Brian Fobbs is their best offensive threat (16 points per game), freshman Jason Gibson is heating up with double-digit efforts in three of his last five games (including 21 points in a win at William & Mary).  Coach Pat Skerry has won 20 games three times since taking the reins of the program in 2011;  all of a sudden this team is in the mix to begin the 2020’s with a 20-win campaign.

Player to Watch- Virginia Tech is faring well in their first season of the post-Buzz Williams era. One reason has been the play of freshman guard Landers Nolley II- the Atlanta, GA native is averaging 18 points with 6 rebounds and 3 assists while shooting 37% from three-point range.  He’s the true barometer for this team: in five ACC wins he’s netting 23 points per game while Nolley is averaging 13 points in their four league losses.

League Look- the Atlantic 10 has six schools with 14+ wins.  While No. 7 Dayton is the only school in this week’s Top 25,  more than just Dayton. Rhode Island is also receiving votes this week while VCU as well as Duquesne have also been on ballots this winter.  A good year for the A-10 means bad news for George Washington and George Mason:  both schools are under .500 in league play and are one bad week away from dipping into the bottom four (meaning they play in the dreaded First Round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament).  I enjoyed covering the tournament when it was held at Capital One Arena two years ago; I wish I didn’t have to wait two more years for the A-10 to return to DC.

Ballot Battles- while my top ten stayed the same this week, the bottom of my Top 25 got overturned with Stanford, Florida, Duquesne and Memphis making their exits. Back in is plucky Akron from the MAC and making it’s debut from the Southern is East Tennessee State.  Unfortunately my number 26 school Houston did not make the cut this week, prompting ire from the Cougar fan base.  I can only imagine how mad they’d be if the Big 12 had let them in the conference.

 

Starting Five-

Tuesday- Georgetown vs. No. 16 Butler.  The Bulldogs lead the Big East in rebounding margin while the Hoyas rank second;  but Butler is also tops in scoring defense while also leading the conference in shooting and defensive field goal percentage.  They also boast Kamar Baldwin; the senior scored 31 points in Saturday’s overtime win against Marquette.  The big question mark is junior guard Aaron Thompson;  the Paul VI product sat out the Marquette with with a left wrist injury.  If he’s able to play he’ll face DeMatha Catholic product Terrell Allen, who remembers Thompson well from their younger days.

Also Tuesday- VCU at Richmond.  College basketball rivalries have nothing on our capital city duo.  It’s state school versus private institution. It’s 21st Century Cinderella against the original article.  It’s also a winter where both programs are A-10 contenders for the first time in three years:  each is 15-5 and 5-2 in the conference.  The Rams have health on their side this time as Spiders’ leading scorer Blake Francis is out with a sternum injury.

Thursday- No. 15 Maryland vs. No. 18 Iowa.  The Terps had as many turnovers as made baskets (17) in their January 10th loss at the Hawkeyes.  Coach Fran McCafferty’s team shot 3-20 from three point range Monday against Wisconsin; no matter as they finished off the Badgers thanks to a 23-5 closing run.  Jalen Smith will have his hands full against Luka Garza as the junior center leads the Big Ten in scoring and ranks second in rebounding.

Also Thursday- Towson vs. UNC-Wilmington.  How much of a high-wire is the CAA?  Seven schools are within two games of league-leading William & Mary.  The Tigers trail the Tribe by one game after winning by 12 in Williamsburg, and are home this week.  With slumping Charleston coming to campus Saturday, enter “Trap Game 101”.  UNCW may be 2-7 in the league but has just beaten Charleston and Northeastern (two of the seven schools in the hunt).

Saturday- Virginia Tech vs. No. 5 Florida State.  The Seminoles were picked to finish fifth in the ACC, and soft seasons by North Carolina and Virginia have created a bit of a vacuum which coach Leonard Hamilton’s team has been more than happy to fill.  But three straight single-digit victories may lead one to believe FSU’s run is about to end, or at least be sidetracked for a game or two.  And who knows what shape they’ll be in from a tempo standpoint after facing Virginia Tuesday night.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Welcome to Conference Championship Week, where the winners advance to the College Football Playoff–sometimes.  Sorry, Virginia-your reward if somehow you pull off an upset of defending national champ Clemson in the ACC Championship Game likely won’t even be a trip to New Year’s Day (due to an accounting move, the Orange Bowl will be played December 30 this year).  I know that’s not how it works in men’s basketball or lacrosse, or even in football at EVERY OTHER LEVEL (good luck James Madison against Monmouth).

The sport with the best regular season and most unwieldy postseason enters its cocoon stage.  Don’t worry-you loved the three month caterpillar and you’re going to enjoy the Championship Game butterfly next month. Bear with them.  First we get a slate of exhibitions that will determine which school gets into the New Orleans (Sun Belt Conference) or the Las Vegas (Mountain West Conference) Bowls.  Conference USA’s winner gets to pick from a group of games if they’re not the “Group of Five” team, while the MAC and AAC send schools to bowls based partially on geography (meaning the schools competing may already know their destination regardless of Saturday’s result).

Then the curtains close and the 13-member committee determines which four schools advance, and the dust settles on the rest of the 41 bowls (really-41??).  To take even more air out of the ball, Ohio State and LSU are expected to make the playoff even if they lose their respective title tilts.  There are those that want an eight-team playoff (I am one of them), and with five schools in the “Power Five” it almost makes too much sense.  But just like we had to sit through 20 years of the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series, we’ve got the current system for a few years more.  You can always do fantasy fields of eight-team brackets like I do on cocktail napkins.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange just happen to reside in the “tough” ACC division, the Atlantic. While the Clemson juggernaut is dominating the league at this moment, don’t forget the dormant monster that is Florida State (2013 BCS winners).  It’s going to be tough to return to an era when SU won or shared five Big East titles from 1996 to 2012.

 

Friday’s Game-

Pac 12 : No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon, 8 p.m., Santa Clara, CA. (ABC).

What’s at stake:  a potential playoff berth for the Utes if things drop right, or further proof that this league eats its own if the Ducks prevail.

Rematch?: the two schools didn’t play this year, although the Utes won the 2018 matchup in Salt Lake City 32-25.

Players to watch:  Utah defensive end Bradley Anae brings 12.5 sacks to the Bay Area, and his goal is to disrupt Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (67% completion rate, 3,140 passing yards with at 31-5 touchdown to interception ratio).

Fun Fact:  the South Division is 1-7, with the lone victory coming when the South representative is the higher ranked team.  That’s the case this year.

Presto’s Pick: Utes make their case with a 35-30 win.  Will it fall on deaf ears?

 

Saturday’s Games-

Big 12: No 6. Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor, noon, Arlington, TX (ABC).

What’s at stake: in theory this should be for an automatic berth in a six or eight team field, instead the winner won’t even have a headstart against Utah for “who’s number four?” if the Utes win the night before.  And heaven forbid if Georgia somehow wins…

Rematch: OU trailed 28-3 in Waco November 16 before dialing up a rally for the ages, storming back for a 34-31 win where Baylor threw a last-minute interception.

Players to watch: Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts picked up where Kyler Murray left off, one year after Murray picked up where Baker Mayfield left off.  In other news, I am seriously thinking about transferring to Oklahoma in the offseason.  The Bears rely on the pass as well, but when they run John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty average over six yards per carry.

Fun Fact:  Oklahoma is 9-1 in this game, with their only defeat coming in 2003 when as the top-ranked team in the nation they were blasted 35-7 by Kansas State.  Ell Robertston is not walking through that door.

Presto’s Pick:  Sooners stir up the pot with a 41-22 whipping.

 

Meanwhile, the Sun Belt (UAB-Florida Atlantic), Conference USA (Louisiana-Appalachian State), MAC (Miami (OH)-Central Michigan), AAC (Cincinnati-Memphis), and Mountain West (Boise State-Hawaii) will play all of their games in the early to mid-afternoon shadows. These conference championship games have no playoff implications whatsoever, although the AAC champ and Boise State have shots at being the “group of five” team that plays in a “New Year’s six” bowl.  If the Big 12 game is a blowout, run your holiday errands at this time.

 

SEC: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia, 4 p.m., Atlanta (CBS).

What’s at stake: if the Bulldogs win, they’re in.  Alabama’s loss to Auburn makes LSU’s playoff inclusion a near-certainty, further cementing the college football theory that “every game matters”.

Rematch?: the two schools last met in 2018 when the Tigers tore through the Bulldogs 36-16.

Players to watch: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (78% completion rate with 4,366 yards passing and 44 touchdowns) is the Heisman Trophy favorite.  Georgia runningback D’Andre Swift rushed for 1,203 yards but is bothered by a shoulder injury.

Fun Fact: this will be the fourth meeting in this game between these two schools, making it the second-most common matchup (Alabama & Florida have played for the title nine times).

Presto’s Pick:  Tigers triumph, 24-16.

 

ACC- No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia, 7:30 p.m. Charlotte, NC (ABC).

What’s at stake:  the unbeaten team nobody’s talking about looks to cement its spot after playing an underwhelming schedule, while the Cavaliers look to continue an incredible year that saw men’s basketball and lacrosse teams win national championships.  An upset would likely also pull the Tigers out of the playoff.

Rematch?: the longtime conference foes haven’t met since November of 2013, a day in Charlottesville where Clemson won 59-10. For the record, Kippy & Buffy enjoyed a pregame tailgate Chateau O’Brien Malbec that day :”a medium-bodied wine with complex aromas of plum and fig, a velvety soft texture, and remarkable fruit flavor“–or as other expert tasting notes read: “Big Boat”.

Players to watch:  Tigers runningback Travis Etienne averaged over eight yards per carry while posting seven 100-yard rushing games; he’d have better numbers but sat a lot of second-half blowouts.  While Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins wore the Superman’s Cape all year, their linebacking corps deserves notice: Zane Zandier (team-high 85 tackles), Jordan Mack (7.5 sacks), Noah Taylor (6.5 sacks with two interceptions) and Charles Snowden will have one tough task Saturday.

Fun Fact: Kippy & Buffy make their way to Charlotte, and it’s not just a first-ever Coastal Division crown they’re celebrating. Fellow alums Henry & Hildy live in the Ballantyne neighborhood, and Hildy was just made partner at her law firm. So a bottle of Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Late Harvest Tannat will be opened at the tailgate;  it’s a non-fortified Port-style wine.  “During ripening, natural sugar accumulation reaches a level beyond the capacity of a natural yeast fermentation. No wine language can eloquently articulate the elegance of this wine.” We’ll go with “Big Boat”.

Presto’s Pick:  Cavaliers are gonna need a bigger boat, getting blasted 44-17.

 

Big Ten- #1 Ohio State vs. #8 Wisconsin, 8 p.m., Indianapolis (FOX).

What’s at stake- like LSU in the SEC, the Buckeyes are likely headed to the Playoff barring a 40-point loss.  The Badgers can tie OSU with a third victory in the nine-year old  title game.

Rematch?:  you bet. The Buckeyes bludgeoned the Badgers 38-7 in Columbus October 26. J.K. Dobbins-despite sounding like a character from a Charles Dickens story-rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns in the rout.

Players to watch:  Ohio State’s Chase Young posted four of his 16.5 sacks this season against Wisconsin during the October win; one assumes they’ll have a better plan this time. Jonathan Taylor may have led the Big Ten with 1,761 yards rushing, but he was held to 52 yards on 20 tries by the Buckeyes D in October.

Fun Fact: Michigan has appeared in as many Big Ten Football Championship Games as Maryland and Rutgers.

Presto’s Pick:  Buckeyes bring it, 31-10.

 

Last Week: 2-1.  I picked UVa the last two years and swore I wouldn’t again until they beat the Hokies. Congratulations.

Overall: 84-35.