Archives for posts with tag: college basketball

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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.

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Five days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up, with Belmont, Utah State, Bradley, Winthrop, Liberty, and East Tennessee State punching their tickets by taking their respective conference tournaments.  With the Ivy League cancelling its four-team tournament due to Coronavirus concerns, regular season champion Yale picks up the sixth bid.  Meanwhile, the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired with Indiana coach Archie Miller (whose Hoosiers are 9-11 in the Big Ten) comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”.  Which reminds me; I finally recognize Archie as “Andy who eats candy” from the 80’s Sesame Street sketch “Captain Vegetable”.  You’ve come a long way, kid.  With only one projected at-large school (San Diego State) losing last weekend, there’s minimal bumping for bubble teams.  Meanwhile, one local school already has a banner on order.

Bids for Grabs- five automatic NCAA Tournament berths are awarded this evening, although No. 2 Gonzaga is in the field even if they lose to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Championship Game.  The 26-7 Gaels are also projected to reach the field, but stranger things have happened to hopeful at-large schools in the tide of Conference Championship week:  many an undertow has dragged a 26-8 school into the NIT.  The Northeast Conference (Robert Morris hosts St. Francis (PA) after the Colonials beat the Red Flash ten days ago to earn home court advantage), Summit (North Dakota-North Dakota State), Horizon (UIC-Northern Kentucky), and CAA (Hofstra-Northeastern) are your classic Big Dance or Bust situations.

While the Colonial Athletic Association isn’t as transient as the Southern Conference (34 former members), there has been quite a bit of turnover since the league formed in 1979 and took the Colonial name in 1985.  It’s eleven ex-members include George Mason, Richmond, and VCU who went to the Atlantic Ten as well as American and Navy who left for the Patriot League.  Even Catholic was a member before deciding to go Division III while Baltimore dropped athletics entirely.  Unfortunately area schools still in the CAA like James Madison, Delaware, Towson, and William & Mary all fell short of tonight’s final.

Tournaments tipping off: we start with the ACC, where Virginia Tech (16-15, 7-13 ACC) faces last place North Carolina (13-18, 6-14 ACC) in the dreaded first round.  Thank goodness once again a conference school ran afoul of the NCAA and removed itself from postseason play; Georgia Tech joins Syracuse (2015) and Louisville (2016) and their loss is our gain as we only have to sit through two of these games (the 10 vs. 15 game is almost as bad as the old 9 vs. 16 game in the days of the bloated Big East).  I write “last place North Carolina” with a major caveat, as the Tar Heels have won three of four (the loss came to No. 10 Duke) and six of their fourteen losses were by one possession. Don’t be surprised if UNC bounces a Hokies team that is 2-9 since beating the Heels in January.  They’d then draw Syracuse, and the Orange still have plenty of enemies off the court in Greensboro.

Also getting underway is the MEAC, and in Norfolk both the men and women hold their conference tournaments during the same week.  As fate would have it the Howard men and women both play South Carolina State in Tuesday’s first round; the Bison men (3-28, 1-15) face a Bulldogs team that has lost five straight and nine of eleven.  They also played well in a 101-95 loss during the regular season. Stranger things have happened in March.  The Howard women (15-14, 7-9 MEAC) have lost five of six to drop under .500 in league play, but SC St. hasn’t won a game since January 20.

 

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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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Charlottesville and Blacksburg may not share in basketball success equally, but 2019 was a banner year for both schools.  Virginia won its first-ever National Championship while Virginia Tech earned a third straight NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in program history and advanced to the Hokies’ first Regional Semifinal since 1967.  But 2020 vision is far from ideal, with both schools still trying to find their way in February.  Defending National Champion Virginia (15-7, 7-5 ACC) finds itself squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble thanks to an offense that ranks in the bottom ten of Division I due to the early departures of the likes of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome to the NBA.  The Cavaliers have shown signs of life lately with an upset of then-No. 5 Florida State, but came up short in an upset bid of current No. 5 Louisville.  On the bright side, they posted 70 points for the first time all season.

Virginia Tech (14-10, 5-7) has lost six in a row (two to BOSTON COLLEGE!?!) and hasn’t scored 70 points in regulation since January 15. Their only victory since was a double-overtime defeat of North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are in danger of their third losing season since the creation of the ACC.  New head coach Mike Young knew it wouldn’t be a turnkey operation, but it looks like the Hokies’ streak of NCAA berths will end at three.  UVa’s made the field every year since 2015, but missing the tournament the March after cutting the nets down wouldn’t be an aberration. Four defending champs in the last 13 years (Florida in 2008, North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013, and UConn in 2015) have failed to return to the big dance.

 

Alma Mater Update- somehow the Orange were able to beat Wake Forest on a late putback by freshman Brycen Goodine.  That’s where we are at this time as SU is off the Bracketology board despite a 7-5 ACC mark.  They host NC State before traveling to a pair of top ten teams in Florida State and Louisville in the final chances to notch signature wins this winter;  none of the team’s final five regular season foes own a winning ACC record.  On the Buddy Boeheim beat, the sophomore scored 23 points against the Demon Deacons to give him 381 for the year and 598 for his career.  At his current pace of 16.56 per game he’s likely to land at 513 for the season and 730 for his career, meaning Buddy would start the ACC Tournament 15 points behind his dad.

Wow of the Week- American swept the service academies last week to improve to 8-4 and third place in the Patriot League.  Defense was the difference in defeating Navy and Army as the Eagles held their foes to 24% shooting from three-point range.  While Sa’eed Nelson continues to shine (third in the conference in scoring, second in assists and first in steals) he’s getting major help from junior Stacy Beckton:  the 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 17 points with 7 rebounds over his last four games and ranks third in the league in blocked shots.  The school’s first winning season since 2015 is well within reach.

Player Spotlight- Georgetown somehow beat DePaul Saturday despite Mac McClung not dressing (foot injury), Omer Yurtseven not finishing (sprained ankle), and Jamorko Pickett fouling out late in the second half.  Thank goodness junior guard Jahvon Blair scored 30 points;  his second career high in three games.  The Hoyas hope seven days off will allow their top scorer and best rebounder to heal up before they play a season-defining stretch where they’ll play four of their final seven games against ranked foes.

League Look- there’s a reason the MEAC flies under the radar locally and nationally. First, Howard is 2-24 with an RPI of 353 (there are 353 schools in Division I) which generates little local buzz.  Second, the Baltimore-area schools Coppin State (8-18, 331) and Morgan State (13-13, 303) don’t provide much relief.  But atop the standings there’s a pretty decent race as one game separates the top three schools. North Carolina Central has won five straight to move past Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T;  the Eagles and Aggies play twice over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Ballot Battles- a minor gaffe on my part this week.  I fully intended to move Pac-12 leading Colorado into the Top 25 (Buffaloes have won three straight) but somehow things got lost in the shuffle as I was moving schools up and down my ballot after another topsy-turvy week.  Small school shout-outs go to Wright State, East Tennessee State, and Stephen F. Austin.  Rhode Island and Northern Iowa don’t get small school shout-outs because they’ve been playing big for most of the season.  Maryland was the big mover from 15th to 10th after a pair of gritty wins.  The big sliders were Villanova (fourth two weeks ago to 15th) and Michigan State (off the ballot). Again, a mea culpa to my friends in Boulder–and if you ever visit make sure you check out JL Distillery.  Great spot.

 

Starting Five-all Saturday:

Georgetown at No. 19 Butler, noon (FOX).  The Bulldogs were once ranked fifth in the nation, but have lost five of eight-and their three wins have come by three, four, and five points.  The five-point win came at Georgetown two weeks ago;  Sean McDermott hit 7 of 10 three-pointers en route to 25 points-his highest output since netting 26 against IUPUI their season-opener.  The Hoyas need to get healthy (a major challenge), play solid defense (iffy given they’re last in the Big East in scoring D) and stay out of foul trouble.

No. 9 Maryland at Michigan State, 6 p.m. (ESPN).  The Spartans have slumped their way out of the Top 25 with three straight losses, but when they’ve been good coach Tom Izzo’s team has been on-point with seven of their eight Big Ten wins coming by double digits.  The Anthony Cowan-Cassius Winston matchup outside will only be rivaled by the Jalen Smith-Xavier Tillman duel inside.  Defense travels, which is good news for the Terps who’ve been guarding really well this winter.  It’s also good news for the Spartans who lead the Big Ten in blocked shots and defending the three while ranking second in rebounding margin and scoring defense.

VCU at Richmond, 4 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).  The winner has the inside track to fourth place and the Atlantic 10 Tournament double-bye that comes with it.  The Rams took last month’s meeting by nineteen, but that was against a Spiders team that was minus leading scorer Blake Francis.  The guard has recovered from his sternum injury and score 18 points last weekend in the win over Fordham.  But his Spiders haven’t beaten their cross-town rivals since 2018 and are 5-13 against VCU since they joined the A-10.

George Washington at George Mason, 4:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network). They gave out tricorn hats when the two teams tangled in Foggy Bottom January 15, and GW’s 73-67 win began a stretch where the Colonials won four of five.  But just like the Patriots’ 11-1 start, that surge is but a memory:  GW has lost three in a row while Mason has dropped four straight.  From a fashion statement standpoint, Doc Nix’s colorful outfits > tricorn hats.

Virginia at North Carolina, 8 p.m. (ESPN). One of the few benefits of having the ACC Network not being carried by all cable providers in the DC metro area is the Wake Forest-Miami game won’t see the light of day.  But we knew the Demon Deacons-Hurricanes might not be ready for prime time, while most thought the Cavaliers and Tar Heels would be factors in the ACC race.  And even though UVa is on track for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament (tied for fourth with a bubble-bound Syracuse), they’re a far cry from the air occupying top ten schools Duke, Florida State and Louisville.  UNC?  They lost at home to Clemson for the first time ever last month.  It’s one of those rare winters in Chapel Hill.

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Who’s ready for college basketball?  Opening days and weeks are kind of tricky.  Major League Baseball has it easy–the end of winter has everyone chomping at bit to get outside, and football signals the natural end of summer even though Labor Day weekend technically isn’t during the Autumnal Equinox.  But the winter sports provide a challenge:  the NHL and NBA begin their marathons in October when many minds (myself included this year) are still on baseball’s playoffs.  College hoops has been inching closer over the last couple of decades:  Georgetown and Maryland tipped off their seasons November 17th and 20th, respectively, while this year they will have played two games by November 9th.

Let the record show I love college basketball;  I’ve enjoyed covering Men’s Elite Eights and Women’s Final Fours and even wrote lyrics to the “CBS College Basketball” theme that plays throughout March.  I bask in the wall to wall basketball that is Conference Tournament week, and enjoy February as a month where schools get in position to be in position.  Nothing fills the football void better than conference play in January where you discover how good your team really is or was it a byproduct of a soft schedule.  I’m even all-in on December’s inter-sectional and non-conference affairs, as well as the holiday tournaments.  But early November is where I just have to say, “please”.

Have you ever eaten an Eggs Benedict?  Savored the poached eggs with hollandaise and ham (or, if you’re adventurous, try the Eggs Norwegian with smoked salmon instead)?  Imagine you’re eating one with incredibly crispy home fries.  And then somebody hands you a cheeseburger.  For those of us who cover, follow and love college football, that’s what these early men’s and women’s college basketball games are like.  It’s not that we don’t love college hoops–we do–but give us a chance to enjoy football’s most meaningful month of the regular season (some schools have four games-a third of their regular season-remaining) before giving us double helpings of early-season basketball.  They just released the first College Football Playoff rankings this week!  It’s akin to college football starting its regular season in February.  Is it too much to ask for a little synergy between college athletics’ two biggest sports?

November basketball at its best is rather nebulous.  Many matchups are tune-ups for conference play as well as stocking stuffers, and there’s nothing wrong with Georgetown-Central Arkansas or Maryland-Oakland.  Other showdowns receive the natural spotlight, but you know in March everyone will be saying how the “November” Michigan State team that lost to Kentucky is nothing like the Spartans they’re trying to seed higher than those same Wildcats on Selection Sunday.

That said, I’m watching.  I’m figuring out Maryland’s rookie rotation and wondering if Georgetown’s commitment to defense is practical or still in theory. I’m curious to see how Virginia performs now that “next year” happened last spring and what sort of buzz a Buzz Williams-less Virginia Tech will generate.  Will the George’s be relevant in the Atlantic 10 Race and will VCU/Richmond become the showdown to spotlight?  Can American or Navy contend in the Patriot League?  And will Howard’s streak of non-winning seasons continue (if their loss to Washington Adventist tells us anything, another season of discontent has already begun for the Bison).  In the immortal lyrics of yours truly, “CBS College Basketball–who do you think will win? Let’s tip off!”

Cruising the Commonwealth- Virginia defends its National Championship with a different cast, as Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter have moved on to the NBA. But even without their top three scorers from last year the Cavaliers are ranked No. 11 to start the new season.  The question will be can Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key make the transition from supporting roles to lead players.  They’ll have help in the form of highly-touted freshman Casey Morsell.  Virginia Tech began the post-Buzz Williams era Tuesday with a win at Clemson (I’m assuming the Tiger faithful were more focused on being No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings), a game where freshman Landers Nolley II scored 30 points.  As a guy who never really got behind the “conference games in December” theory, you can only imagine how I feel about league play in November.

The Two Georges- George Mason enters its fifth year under head coach Dave Paulsen, and the Patriots have slowly moved up the Atlantic 10 ladder in his tenure (from 12th to 7th to tied for 5th to sole possession of 5th).  Otis Livingston II is gone, but sophomore Jamal Hartwell II keeps the suffix tradition alive in Fairfax.  He also scored 12 points in the season-opening win against Navy.  George Washington has a new coach in Jamion Christian, who led Mount St. Mary’s to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths over six seasons at the school before spending last winter coaching Siena.  When the Colonials are good, there’s no better place to catch a game inside the beltway than the tightly packed bandbox that is GW’s Smith Center.  Hopefully those days will come sooner rather than later.

The True Commonwealth Clash- say what you will about Virginia-Virginia Tech, they have nothing on VCU-Richmond.  Two schools that share a city as well as plenty of disregard.  The Rams begin the year ranked 25th nationally and return just about everybody from last year’s 25-win team that made the NCAA Tournament, while the Spiders are dealing with consecutive 20-loss seasons.  Winchester, VA’s Grant Golden was the bright spot last winter and the junior looks to be the primary weapon again this season.

Patriot League Primer- American and Navy began both of their seasons on the road this week, with the hopes a little higher in DC than Annapolis.  The Eagles were picked to finish third in the Patriot League while the Midshipmen are projected to finish ninth.  AU also boasts the Preseason Conference Player of the Year in Sa’eed Nelson (19 points and 5 assists per game last winter) while also enjoying the addition of Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris (20 points in the season-opening loss at Siena).  The Mids are two years removed from a 20-win season but need to replace two starters from last year, including leading scorer George Kiernan.  But no matter where one stands in November, come January everyone will be chasing preseason Patriot League favorite and defending conference champ Colgate.

Howard’s End- somehow these previews always end with the sad-sack, perpetually struggling Bison.  The program hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, and twice finished right at .500 during head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s nine-year tenure.  They had the nation’s leading scorer in James Daniel III on campus and still found a way to lose 20 games.  Nickelberry’s final team finished with a flourish, winning its last four regular season games, and needed to win once in the MEAC Tournament to secure a winning mark. Which they did.  Only to accept a bid in the CBI Tournament and lose at Coastal Carolina to wrap up the year 17-17.  Former DeMatha Catholic star and Duke captain Kenny Blakeney takes over a program that lost leading scorer R.J. Cole to transfer, but there is talent in the form of senior Charles Williams.  The forward scored a team-high 19 points in Wednesday’s loss to NAIA Division II Washington Adventist.  The long road to March is just underway in more ways than one.

Who’s ready for Opening Day!?!  In March???  It’s the price of doing business playing 162 reguarl season games with 3+ rounds of playoffs while not holding the World Series in November.  For better or worse.  I know-I get this feeling twice every year.  It happens in early November, when we’re halfway through the NFL season and just into college football’s closing month when suddenly we’re supposed to care about Maryland-Hofstra.  The men’s college basketball season concludes over the next few weeks, so it’s only fitting some of the NCAA Tournament thunder is robbed by baseball’s pomp and circumstance.  Usually opening week in baseball overlaps with the Final Four;  this year the Nationals will have played nine games (weather permitting) by the time the nets are cut down in Minneapolis.

That said, the calendar waits for no one. The Washington Nationals attempt to bounce back from an 82-80 season as well as the offseason loss of Bryce Harper.  But this team will be bolstered by offseason additions like Patrick Corbin as well as the catching duo of Yan Gomes/Kurt Suzuki.  The Nats were built to handle Harper’s departure as good as they could be, with prime prospect Victor Robles joining last year’s breakout rookie Juan Soto in the “future is now” category.  If only Adam Eaton can play 140 games in rightfield while leading off;  the veteran has been limited by injuries to just 118 games over the last two years.  Other questions involve the health of mainstays Ryan Zimmerman (85 games played last year) and Stephen Strasburg (22 starts).  Also, will manager Davey Martinez return for year two armed with lessons learned in 2018?  Unlike the NFL, baseball is not a snapshot season.  Over 162 games a team’s players and manager rise or fall to their actual level a lot more than pro football-or even the NHL and NBA.  Let’s get this season underway.

 

Regional Roundup: fourteen of the top sixteen seeds advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, with three glaring losses by David over the first weekend.  Thursday, Belmont was a tipped pass away from beating Maryland and New Mexico State missed two of three free throws against Auburn when three makes would have upset the Tigers and two would have forced overtime.  But both of those losses paled in comparison to UCF leading Duke late but being unable to hold off the overall number one seed in the final minute.  So instead of Cinderellas, we get a #5 seed Auburn and a #12 seed Oregon as the only Regional outliers.

 

Sweet Sixteen Showdowns–

South-

 #1 Virginia vs. #12 Oregon.  While the Cavaliers avenged last year’s First Round loss to UMBC by rallying past Gardner-Webb and moved past 2017’s Second Round loss to Florida, the “Ghosts of Regionals Past” are just as haunting.  UVa has won just one Regional Semifinal game this century…while the Ducks have reached the Final Four as recently as 2017.  They also boast the 12th ranked defense in Division I-UVa allowing the fewest points per game again this season.  Coach Dana Altman’s team is the only double-digit seed still in the tournament thanks to ten straight wins.

#2 Tennessee vs. #3 Purdue. Rick Barnes previously led Clemson and Texas to the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s no different with his third straight orange-clad school.  One would think that if things don’t work out longterm in Tallahassee, he’ll head to Illinois.  The Boilermakers were a Lucas Haas injury away from doing major damage last March;  guard Carsen Edwards led the Big Ten in scoring this past winter and is averaging 34 points a game in the NCAA Tournament.

 

West-

#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 Florida State. The Bulldogs have lost to ACC schools in four straight NCAA Tournaments, and the Seminoles are one of the more athletic teams in the bracket.  It’s also amazing how somehow FSU coach Leonard Hamilton looks younger than he did 20 years ago.

#2 Michigan vs. #3 Texas Tech.  Two of the top three defensive teams (UVa being #1) battle with the Wolverines looking to make a return trip to the Elite Eight.  The Red Raiders reached the Regional Final last year as well before falling to Villanova.

 

East-

#1 Duke vs. #4 Virginia Tech.  An ACC matchup takes place one round earlier than it should; I’m still flummoxed that the committee was cool with putting three Big Ten schools in the lower half of the East bracket.  The Hokies beat the Blue Devils when Zion Williamson was hurt, but so was VT guard Justin Robinson. Tech is 17-3 with the senior in the lineup; 7-5 without.

#2 Michigan State vs. #3 LSU.  One coach is being flogged for freaking out during a game, while the other is in the land of limbo. Will Wade hasn’t coached since the Tigers’ penultimatet regular season game…but LSU finds itself in DC along with Tom Izzo, who might be persuaded to drink more decaf this weekend.

 

Midwest-

#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Auburn. Another strong regional has the Tigers as an outlier–although coach Bruce Pearl’s team was in the top 25 for a big chunk of the season and they did win four games in four days at the SEC Tournament.  The Tar Heels are the best team nobody’s talking about, and senior Luke Maye feels like he’s in his 8th year at the school.  Both teams can score in bunches.

#2 Kentucky vs. Houston. They want Wildcats-Heels in the Regional Finals, right?  PJ Washington remains a question mark with his foot injury- and at best will play 15-20 minutes against a Cougars team that is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1984- when Akeem Olajuwon led the team to the Final Four and a loss to Georgetown in the National Championship game.

 

 

 

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The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament tips off tomorrow with the Infamous “First Four”.  Before you dismiss the dealings in Dayton, take note that in the eight years they’ve had the last four at-large teams face off a “First Four” team has won a First Round game every year.  Four times one of these schools has reached the Regional round and we will always have the initial First Four Graduate VCU’s Final Four run as an example.

 

East- the road to the Final Four goes through Washington, DC with overall number one seed Duke and Zion Williamson expected to find their way to Capital One Arena.  Their First Round matchup may very well be a Durham City Championship Game, as North Carolina Central faces North Dakota State in the First Four Wednesday.

Favorites- the Blue Devils have lost just once this season while playing at full-strength, and their run through the ACC Tournament now that Zion Williamson puts the rest of the nation on notice.  Intriguing potential first weekend showdowns include the Durham City Championship in the First Round if North Carolina Central wins its First Four game (remember, the First Four Success doesn’t transfer to No. 16 seeds), or an alumni reunion against ninth-seeded UCF coached by former Blue Devils All-American and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins.  Flying under the radar on the other side of the bracket is Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Michigan State.

Best Matchup- No. 10 seed Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino.  The Golden Gophers draw No. 7 Louisville, who fired Pitino’s father Rick two years ago. Who said the Selection Committee doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Locals-

Maryland (22-10) is seeded sixth after its disappointing showing at the Big Ten Tournament.  In their last NCAA appearance the sixth-seeded Terps lost to Xavier by 11 in Melo Trimble’s final game.  Anthony Cowan Jr. shot 1-for-4 that night;  last week it was Bruno Fernando who shot 1-for-4 against the Cornhuskers.  The Terps need the sophomore big man to return to the form that made First Team All-Big Ten if they’re going to reach the weekend.  The Terps will face either Belmont or Temple Thursday–the Bruins are 0-7 all-time in the big dance and the Owls are 2-5 in the tourney under coach Fran Dunphy.

Virginia Tech (24-8) is seeded fourth as the Hokies make the NCAA’s for the third straight year (the first time that’s happened in program history).  The also get point guard Justin Robinson back in the lineup–since the senior went to the shelf with a foot injury the Hokies are 7-5, including a pair of overtime losses to red-hot Florida State.  They draw Atlantic Ten champ Saint Louis;  the Billikens won four games in four days while banishing Dayton and Davidson to the NIT.

VCU (25-7) is seeded eighth after their upset loss to Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals.  Thankfully URI is not in the tournament-as they’re the only team to have beaten the Rams since January 12.  Coach Mike Rhoades’ initial opponent is a UCF team that lost by 24 points in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament.

 

South- Virginia (29-3) gets a number one seed for the fourth time in six years…as the Cavaliers will not only face Gardner-Webb but will also confront the ghosts of last March.  UVa’s loss to UMBC in 2018 will be a scarlet L the program will wear for some time.  They’re a little older and a little wiser this year;  they’re also a lot healthier as De’Andre Hunter is 12 months removed from the broken wrist that hijacked his-and in effect the Cavaliers’-campaign last March.

Favorites- the Cavaliers’ toughest test may be Tennessee at the other end of the bracket, but the Volunteers have a potential Second Round showdown with AAC champ Cincinnati-in Columbus, Ohio.  Defending national champion Villanova is also in the region as the No. 6 seed, fresh from becoming the first school to win three straight Big East Tournaments.

Best Matchup- No. 12 seed Oregon has won eight straight, and they’ve done so minus 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol (son of the late Washington Bullets center Manute Bol), while Wisconsin is led by four-year starter Ethan Happ in the pivot.

Locals-

Virginia- the top seed enters the NCAA’s again with the best scoring defense in the nation, but this year’s team has a little more firepower with Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter providing scoring punch.  In addition to a Gardner-Webb team making its first-ever trip to the tournament, Ole Miss (five losses in seven games) and Oklahoma (a Big 12 Tournament loss to sub-500 West Virginia) stand in their way to the Regional in Louisville.  Break out the bourbon.

Old Dominion- former UVa and American University coach Jeff Jones is back in the NCAA Tournament after leading the 26-8 Monarchs to the Conference USA tournament championship.  ODU gets a No. 14 seed and plays Purdue;  the Boilermakers may be coming off of an upset loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Quarterfinals but have advanced to four regionals in ten appearances under coach Matt Painter and boast the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Carsen Edwards.  Jeff Jones’ team is led by B.J. Stith and his 16.9 points per game;  Stith is the son of Virginia’s all-time leading scorer Bryant Stith (who played his last two years at UVa under Jones).

 

Midwest- North Carolina gets the ACC’s third No. 1 seed- the first time one league has nabbed three top seeds since the Big East in 2009.  The Tar Heels head to nearby Columbia, SC where the local school refers to itself as “Carolina” and “USC” to the dismay of some and the amusement of others.  The Regional is in Kansas City-and if the seeds hold UNC will play Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.  I’ve been told that Kansas City is somewhat near the state of Kansas.

Favorites- in addition to the Tar Heels and Jayhawks, the bracket boasts blue blood Kentucky as well as AAC regular season champ Houston–not to mention SEC Tournament winner Auburn and Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State.  Buckle up.

Best Matchup- Cinderella Wofford played its way to a national ranking as well as the Southern Conference championship, while Seton Hall scraped its way to within two points of the Big East Tournament title.  Seven-ten matchups

 

West- Gonzaga has been in the top five of the national rankings all season, and even their loss in the WCC finals couldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the top seed.  They’ve also advanced to the second weekend four straight years, and this year’s obstacles include First Four winner Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M plus potential Second Round foes Baylor and Syracuse.

Favorites- at the other end of the bracket is last year’s national championship runner-up Michigan.  The second-seeded Wolverines began this season 18-0 and have lost only three times since Valentine’s Day-all to Michigan State.  No. 4 seed Florida State is coming off of an impressive ACC Tournament run that included a double-digit win over Virginia.

Best Matchup- No. 6 seed Buffalo awaits the First Four winner of St. John’s-Arizona State;  while an Empire State showdown (we have to wait for Albany-Buffalo for our Erie Canal clash) would be exciting the Sun Devils are in their second season under former Bulls coach Bobby Hurley.  For the record, the Selection Committee does not go out of its way to generate specific matchups.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange play the late game Thursday evening against Baylor, another team that has issues offensively.  But they’ll have Tyus Battle back in the lineup.  And an ACC team has eliminated Gonzaga in each of the last four years.  So there’s that.  More important is the drumstick to flat ratios.

 

 

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Even with Maryland no longer in the ACC, there’s still a little residual disgust in and around the district towards a private school located in Durham, NC.  And with all of the people who have moved to the Washington area who brought their Yankees and Cowboys fandom with them, there’s a healthy Duke contingent in the area.  Beltway basketball fans, prepare of two months of dread–because the Blue Devils are likely en route to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth National Championship, turning this into the Duke Decade (they beat Butler in 2010 and edged Wisconsin in 2015).

Duke may not currently be #1 in the nation;  Tennessee has held the top spot since the Blue Devils’ loss to Syracuse and as the Volunteers haven’t lost since, let’s just say pollsters can act in a glacial manner when it comes to moving teams up and down.  But the team to beat and as well as the one everyone is talking about is Coach K’s collection of NBA-in-waiting freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones.  They remind me of the 1998-99 Duke team (Elton Brand) that went unbeaten in the ACC and finished 37-2, dropping an early-season game to Cincinnati (during an era when Bob Huggins had the Bearcats in the top ten annually) and the National Championship game to UConn (Rip Hamilton was just a little too much).  Every time that Duke team took the floor you weren’t thinking they would win–you were wondering if it would be a blowout.

This year’s team is 7-1 against ranked foes;  last Saturday they went to Charlottesville and out-executed a #3 Virginia team that out-executes everyone–with Williamson’s skying- blocked shot the highlight burned into our minds.  The Blue Devils then turned around and rallied from 23 down in the second half at #16 Louisville.  While they still have #8 North Carolina twice on their schedule and visit #22 Virginia Tech, those who dislike Duke (and there are a few out there) are feeling some discomfort.  Especially with this year’s Final Four in Minneapolis–the site of their 2001 championship where the Blue Devils rallied from 22 down to beat Maryland in the semifinals.

Alma Mater Update- one rough road loss for the Orange at NC State that felt similar to their home defeat to Florida State the week before.  Another rally from an early deficit…and then running out of gas in the second half before another double digit defeat.  The 8-4 start in ACC play is nice, but after taking this weekend off SU plays #16 Louisville, #2 Duke and #8 North Carolina over a seven day period.  Gulp…

Saturday’s Games:

#24 Maryland (19-6, 9-4 Big Ten) at #6 Michigan (22-3, 11-3), 12 p.m., FOX.  The Terps head to Ann Arbor after their most impressive win of the season:  they rallied from 11 down in the first half to beat #12 Purdue 70-56, holding the Boilermakers to 17% shooting after intermission.  The Wolverines?  Steaming from a loss at Penn State (previously 1-11 in league play)…much like Dr. David Banner, you don’t want to make coach John Beilein’s team angry.  But Michigan can be beaten on the boards (the Nittany Lions outrebounded them by ten) and no team is better on the glass in the Big Ten this winter than Maryland.

George Washington (7-17, 3-8 Atlantic  10) at Duquesne (16-9, 7-5), 12 p.m., NBCSN.  Both teams have been sliding down the standings over the last few weeks: while the Colonials have lost six of seven the Dukes have dropped four of six, losing all four games by six points or less.  GW’s descent began January 20th when they fell at home 91-85 in overtime to Duquesne;  Michael Hughes led the Dukes with a season-high 21 points while Colonials big man Javier Langarica had 19 that day.  Their two paths have diverged since:  Hughes is hitting 64% of his shots this month while Langarica has made just 13-of-33 attempts since that afternoon.

#4 Virginia (21-2, 9-2 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (13-11, 3-8), 2 p.m., ACC Network.  The Cavaliers bounced back in fine fashion from their home loss to #2 Duke by beating #8 North Carolina two days later in Chapel Hill to improve to 6-2 against top 25 teams (the two losses coming to the Blue Devils).  The Fighting Irish’ 0-5 mark against ranked foes this season includes January 26th’s 82-55 loss to UVa in South Bend.  How sharp were the Cavaliers?  They committed just a pair of turnovers.  Irish junior forward John Mooney is averaging a double-double but isn’t getting a ton of help:  ND ranks 14th in the ACC in field goal percentage and 13th in rebounding margin.

Navy (8-16, 5-8 Patriot League) vs. Army (12-14, 7-6), 2:30 p.m., CBSSN.  The Midshipmen are 4-2 in Annapolis during conference play thus far while the Black Knights have lost four of five.  But they did beat the Mids in West Point last month by 11 as Navy’s offensive issues (10th in the Patriot League in scoring and shooting) emerged when they were held to 18% from three-point range.  Tommy Funk had 22 points that day for Army; after a drought where he was held to single-digit scoring in four of six games the junior appears to have regained his swagger by netting 17 in Wednesday’s win over Boston University.

American (13-11, 7-6 Patriot League) vs. Colgate (16-10, 8-5), 4 p.m.  The difference between third and fourth place in the conference is a 73-69 win by the Raiders January 6th in Hamilton, NY.  Sophomore guard Jordan Burns tallied 18 points with 6 rebounds and 10 assists that afternoon;  an ankle injury sidelined him for five games and he’s just getting back into rhythm–scoring 9 points on 2-of-13 shooting over the Raiders’ last two games.  AU is coming off a heartbreaking 86-84 loss at Bender Arena to Loyola (MD) where they were outscored 17-6 over the final three minutes of regulation and the Greyhounds’ winning points came thanks to free throws with one second left.

Howard (12-13, 6-4 MEAC) vs. North Carolina A&T (13-11, 8-2), 4 p.m.  Two straight wins move the Bison into the upper half of the league as R.J. Cole is fresh off of a season-high 32 points at Bethune-Cookman.  While Cole leads the league in scoring (and is 30th in Division I) with 21.2 points per game, junior Charles Williams isn’t far behind at 18.8.  The Aggies are focused more on quality than on quantity, ranking seventh in scoring while leading the MEAC in field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.  And they don’t have a player averaging even ten points per game.

VCU (18-6, 9-2 Atlantic 10) at Dayton (16-8, 8-3), 4 p.m., NBCSN.  Immovable object meets unstoppable force as the Rams allow the fewest points per game in the A-10 while the Flyers lead the league in scoring.  Defense prevailed in the January matchup as VCU won 76-71 as they held Dayton to one basket over the final four minutes of regulation.  Marcus Evans scored 17 points that night, including the Rams’ last seven points.  Flyers leading scorer Josh Cunningham scored 13–but is shooting 64% against VCU during his career.  Coach Mike Rhoades’ Rams are coming off of an 81-60 rout of Richmond that snapped a two game losing streak to the Spiders.

#12 Virginia Tech (19-5, 8-4 ACC) at Pitt (12-13, 2-10), 4:30 p.m., ACC Network.  The Hokies are one win shy of a fourth consecutive 20-win season, their longest such streak since the early 80’s against Charles Moir.  Coach Buzz Williams also knows they are less than a week removed from stubbing their toe at Clemson, and even though the Panthers have dropped eight straight let the record show their two conference wins have come against teams currently in the top 20 (Louisville and Florida State).  Tech remains the best three-point shooting team in the conference (42% from outside the arc) and is coming off a win over Georgia Tech where they notched 20 assists on 25 field goals.

Sunday’s Game:

George Mason (15-10, 9-3 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (10-14, 6-5).  If you’re desiring a compelling conference race as the regular season winds down, look no further than the A-10:  one game separates first from fourth place and a half game is the difference between sixth and ninth.  The Patriots needed late-game heroics at home to put away La Salle (a 14-7 finishing kick) and UMass (down four with a minute left in regulation).  The Bonnies have won four of six, losing only to A-10 co-leaders VCU and Davidson.  Mason took the January meeting after outscoring St. Bonaventure 26-9 over the game’s final ten minutes.  Justin Kier notched 15 points and 14 rebounds in the win, one of his seven double doubles this season.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM:

At the beginning of February, most conferences have set their course for 2019.  The ACC (seven ranked teams) and Big Ten (five schools in the top 25) have earned top-heavy reputations, while the rest of the Big 12 is getting in position for Kansas to win the league yet again (I think the Jayhawks could spot anybody a three-game lead Super Bowl weekend and still find a way to capture the conference’s regular season title).  Even the Pac-12 has effectively fallen off the west coast (they’ll wash back in with the next high tide, I believe).  The Big East?  While it  remains the dominion of defending national champ Villanova (Wildcats after early stumbles currently stand atop the league) and while Marquette is a top 10 team, there’s a rugby scrum among the bottom eight.  The week began with one-half game separating third from last place.  Seton Hall and St. John’s have both had turns in the top 25, and are now both securely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, while recent tournament regulars like Providence, Creighton and Xavier are in danger of seeing their respective streaks of making the Big Dance end.  If things hold, be prepared to break out the conference tiebreakers for seeding the upcoming Big East Tournament in March.  And beware– the fifth tiebreaker is a coin flip.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are a part of a top-heavy ACC one month into the schedule…and have a chance to make a move with five straight games against schools at .500 or below in the conference.  Problem is, two are currently ranked (Florida State & NC State) and there are no easy outs in this league this winter.  Hopefully coach Jim Boeheim won’t be tossing his jacket in frustration anytime soon (he’s done it six times this winter according to nunesmagician.com).

 

Friday’s Game:

#21 Maryland (17-5, 8-3 Big Ten) at #24 Wisconsin (15-6, 7-3), 9 p.m., Big Ten Network.  The last time these two teams played we saw the ceiling and floor of this winter’s Terrapins:  they led the Badgers 33-15 at the half before shooting 5-for-19 with five turnovers after intermission while hanging on to a 64-60 victory.  Since that night the Badgers have won four straight (including an upset of then-#2 Michigan) while holding opponents to 52.8 points per game.  Ethan Happ has been averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists during that stretch and one hopes this battle of big men will be better than the one in College Park:  Happ was held to 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting while Bruno Fernando was hampered by foul trouble (21 minutes played).  Fernando’s more than bounced back from that effort, posting four straight double-doubles.

 

Saturday’s Games:

#12 Virginia Tech (17-3, 6-2 ACC) at #23 NC State (16-5, 4-4), 12 p.m., ACC Network. Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts led the program to the NCAA Tournament in his first year at the helm;  this winter despite losing four players to graduation and three more to transfer he has the Pack ranked for the first time in six years.  The overtime loss Tuesday to #3 Virginia was just the appetizer in the “Are the Pack for real?” meal; after Saturday’s entree against the Hokies they get dessert next Tuesday at a #9 North Carolina team they lost by to by eight at home.  And rest assured, coach Buzz Williams’ team is more than mere filler between UVa and UNC:  five of their six league wins are by double-digits.

 

#3 Virginia (19-1, 7-1 ACC) vs. Miami (9-11, 1-7), ACC Network.  The Hurricanes are led by Mitchellville, MD product Chris Lykes (16.6 points and 3.5 assists per game) but they won’t have big man Dewan Hernandez Saturday or any other day for that matter.  The 6-foot-11 center was the team’s returning leading scorer and rebounder but has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for the rest of this year and 40% of next season for entering into an agreement and accepting benefits from an agent.  His absence is one of the reasons why coach Jim Larranaga’s team ranks last in the ACC in rebounding, and as Hernandez heads to the NBA Draft he takes whatever remaining postseason hopes the Hurricanes had with him.

 

American (11-9, 5-4 Patriot League) vs. Holy Cross (12-10, 3-6), 2 p.m.  It’s an iron man matchup as AU’s Sam Iorio and Sa’eed Nelson along with Caleb Green and Josh Grandison comprise the conference’s top four players in minutes per game (Green’s #1 with 37.7 while the other three each average 34+).  The Eagles have won three straight and enter a stretch where they play four of five at Bender Arena.  While Crusaders senior Jehyve Floyd leads the conference in shooting (69%) and blocked shots (2.3 per game), the 6-foot-8 forward doesn’t get a ton of help on the glass as Holy cross ranks last in rebounding.  And AU’s great at making their opponents miss, leading the league in field goal defense as well as defending the three.

 

Howard (10-12, 4-3 MEAC) vs Norfolk State (12-10, 7-0), 4 p.m.  The Bison have won three straight conference games thanks in part to the emergence of junior Chad Lott (18 points per game on 57% shooting), a fantastic compliment to the 1-2 punch of R.J. Coles and Charles Williams (the most recent MEAC Player of the Week).  But they’ll find the first-place Spartans a little tougher than the trio that is a combined 3-18 in league play.  Junior Nic Thomas may lead NSU in scoring, but Derrik Jamerson Jr. has been red-hot from three-point range, making 49 percent of his shots from outside the arc.

 

Richmond (8-13, 2-6 Atlantic 10) vs. La Salle (5-14, 3-4), 6 p.m., ESPN+.  Perhaps the snooze alarm the Spiders hit last winter after a 2-10 start was delayed a month this year: Wednesday they defeated A-10 preseason favorite Saint Louis 84-81 thanks to 58% shooting and going 17-of-18 at the free throw line.  The Explorers have won two straight, but two of their three league wins have come against 13th place UMass and the other was against last place Fordham.  La Salle also sports the toxic combination of being the conference’s worst shooting team with allowing the most points per game. They do have an all-name team guard in leading scorer Pookie Powell, however.

 

George Mason (13-8, 7-1 Atlantic 10) at VCU (14-6, 5-2), 6:30 p.m., NBCSN.  It’s one thing to play well in the A-10, quite another to go down to the Rams’ home gym and leave with a victory.  But hold on–the Patriots did just that last year in an 81-80 thriller at the Siegel Center.  Ian Boyd was the hero that day, hitting a game-winning shot with one second left.  Boyd’s back, and so is Otis Livington II who has a buzzer-beater to his credit  against Fordham earlier this month.  Can Boyd, Livingston and breakout star Justin Kier get good looks against a Rams team that leads the conference in field goal defense as well as containing the three?

 

Navy (6-14, 3-6 Patriot League) vs. Loyola (Maryland) (8-14, 4-5), 7 p.m.  Two teams headed in opposite directions meet as the Greyhounds have won four of six while the Midshipmen have lost six of seven.  Loyola also brings the league’s leading scorer to Annapolis in Andrew Kostecka, although the junior hasn’t had a ton of success against the Mids (25 points over four games on 9-19 shooting) in his career.  If Kostecka and the Greyhounds get hot, the Navy offense that ranks last in the Patriot League in shooting and scoring will be ill-pressed to keep up.

 

Sunday’s Game:

Georgetown (14-7, 4-4 Big East) at #18 Villanova (17-4, 8-0), 12 p.m, FS1.  The Hoyas’ come from behind 80-73 win over Xavier puts Patrick Ewing’s team in sole possession of third place in the conference…but still one and a half game out of league basement.  Even with the consistently uneven season thus far (including a loss to Furman), the Wildcats are the team to beat in the conference.  For the Hoyas recently, Nova’s been the team they can’t beat:  since the re-formation of the “New Big East” they’ve lost 10 of 11 to the Wildcats (eight by double digits).  The defending national champs are led by fifth-year senior Phil Booth in scoring and assists (the Baltimore native also connects on 42% of his three-pointers) who if he needs any motivation can recall a 20-point loss to the Hoyas his team suffered when Booth was a freshman in 2015.  And for the record, Hoyas freshmen James Akinjo (23 points in the second half against the Musketeers) and Mac McClung (27 points against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden) have never lost to Villanova in their careers.