PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday’s Games:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday’s Game:

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