Archives for posts with tag: college basketball

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

There’s no place like home for the holidays- or hope for the area men’s college basketball teams.  Each of the locals have played from 10 to 13 games…and while there’s plenty of optimism on each campus that 2019 will be a banner year, there’s a long way from December to Selection Sunday.  While everybody has at least one win to hang their hat on, every team with the exception of unbeaten Virginia has a loss that will certainly keep them up late–until the next heartbreaker.  There’s also no place like conference play– which will make November and December feel like years ago once league action begins in earnest.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange have been ranked as high as #10 by some voters, but SU looks like less than the sum of its parts in an 8-4 start.  Losses to Old Dominion and Buffalo (first time since 1962-63 season) have not been ideal and the fact that Buddy Boeheim’s name was misspelled on the back of his jersey only adds to the fun.  Bring on ACC play.

Maryland (9-3, 1-1 Big Ten)- the Terps have been on the cusp of the top 25 since winning their first six games of the season.  But before you start punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, remember they started 9-3 with a 1-1 conference mark last year.  And with the exception of the 2014-15 season, they’ve always had a worse record the second half of league play under coach Mark Turgeon.  Best Win:  the day after Thanksgiving the Terps roasted Marshall 104-67 while shooting 57% from the field and 56% from three-point range.  Worst Loss:  the 62-60 loss at Purdue saw the Terps shoot 1-for-9 with four turnovers over the final 4:20.  Player to Watch:  Jalen Smith has captured Big Ten Freshman of the Week multiple times as the forward is averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday another NCAA Team from 2018 (Radford) comes to College Park.

 

Georgetown (9-3)- the Hoyas entered their Christmas break with a 102-94 overtime win over Arkansas-Little Rock in a game where Mac McClung earned Big East and National Freshman of the Week honors by scoring 38 points.  Best Win: November 13th they beat Illinois 88-80 in Champaign despite 22 turnovers, precisely the kind of road game this team has had trouble winning in recent years.  Worst Loss: the 72-71 loss December 8th at Syracuse saw the Hoyas let a double-digit lead evaporate…and 24,002 orange-clad fans get the last laugh in the four-game series between former Big East archrivals.  Player to Watch:  yes, McClung is providing the sizzle and senior center Jessie Govan is the steak–but freshman guard James Akinjo (15 points and 5 assists per game) is the steady playmaker that every tournament team needs directing its offense.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday they wrap up pre-conference play by hosting Howard at noon.

 

Virginia (11-0)- the Cavaliers are ranked 4th by the writers and 1st by the coaches, boasting the best scoring defense in the nation and…haven’t we been here before?  Seriously.  Shouldn’t we wait until March?  Best Win:  November 24th in the Bahamas UVa held #25 Wisconsin to 18 first-half points in a 53-46 win.  Player to Watch:  sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter has bounced back from the broken wrist that kept him out of last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to UMBC, averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 44% from three-point range.  Ringing in the New Year:  New Year’s Eve coach Tony Bennett’s team hosts Marshall, a school that ranks 324th in scoring defense.

 

Virginia Tech (11-1)- the 10th ranked Hokies are one of six ACC schools currently in the top 25.  And while they’re not the defensive equal of best in the nation Virginia, Tech ranks second in the ACC in scoring and is third in turnover margin.  Could this be the year the Hokies enter the upper echelon of the conference?  Best Win:  an 89-83 November 19th triumph over then-#23 Purdue where the Hokies hit 55% of their shots.  Worst Loss:  their only defeat thus far was a 63-62 stumble at Penn State where the Nittany Lions hit 10-of-19 from three-point range.  Player to Watch:  sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker averages 19 points with 4 rebounds and 4 assists while making 47% of his three point shots.  Ringing in the New Year:  the Hokies begin ACC play by hosting Notre Dame January 1st.

 

George Mason (6-6)- the Patriots began the year 0-3 but appear to be hitting their stride with Atlantic 10 play just around the corner.  Best Wins:  victories over former CAA foes James Madison, Navy and William & Mary.  Worst Loss:  an season-opening 78-75 loss to American where Mason turned the ball over 15 times.  Player to Watch:  Otis Livingston II may be the team’s primary weapon, but Justin Kier (14 points with 5 rebounds per game) has filled the second-option role well.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday the Patriots visit a Kansas State team that’s began the year in the top 25 but has had its share of hiccups this month.

 

George Washington (3-9)- this was a far from ideal season before the Colonials lost their best rebounder for the season when Arnaldo Toro went down to injury, and that issue isn’t going away:  GW was outrebounded by 18 in a loss to Harvard.  Best Win:  a 70-64 handling of Howard where they held high-octane guard RJ Cole to 4-of-19 shooting.  Worst Loss:  a 69-53 stumble against Vermont (in the Mike Lonergan Classic) where they were outscored 21-5 over the last 7:53 of the second half.  Player to Watch:  Illinois transfer DJ Williams leads the team in scoring and is tops among active players in rebounding.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday the Colonials host American.

 

VCU (8-4)- the Rams own the best RPI (28th) in the Atlantic 10, and have already exacted sweet revenge on former coach Shaka Smart’s Texas team.  Best Win: a 70-54 victory December 22nd over Wichita State in a battle between onetime NCAA Cinderellas.  Worst Loss:  an 83-79 December 15th defeat to Charleston where VCU missed 11 free throws.  Player to Watch:  Rice transfer Marcus Evans leads the team in scoring, picking up where he left off when he averaged 20 points per game over two seasons under coach Mike Rhoades when they were both with the Owls.  Ringing in the New Year:  Sunday they host Rider.

 

Richmond (5-7)- hey, they could be 2-10 like they were last year at this time.  Best Win:  anytime you knock off an ACC team there’s cause for celebration, and the 84-74 victory over Wake Forest is the early-season highlight.  Worst Loss:  a 63-58 defeat to…Longwood?  Didn’t the Lancers used to be the Washington Generals of Mid-Atlantic hoops?  Player to Watch:  forward Grant Golden is averaging 19 points with 7 rebounds…and badly needs a supporting cast.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday the Spiders host South Alabama.

 

American (6-4)- the Eagles have already equalled last year’s win total and look to contend in the always topsy-turvy Patriot League.  Best Win:  a 78-75 overtime win over George Mason November 9th where AU silenced Doc Nix and the Green Machine.  Worst Loss:  a 56-55 loss December 18th to 1-9 Mount St. Mary’s.  Players to Watch:  Sa’eed Nelson is averaging 19 points with 5 assists…while sophomores Sam Iorio and Mark Gasperini give Nelson two solid scoring options.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday they visit George Washington.  Can coach Mike Brennan’s team make it 2-for-2 against the A-10 Georges?

 

Howard (6-7)- December is often difficult for the Bison, who usually go on the road for the bulk of the month.  But the six wins are the most of any MEAC team at this time.  Can coach Kevin Nickelberry guide the program to its first winning season since 2002?  Best Win:  a 68-63 win November 16th at UMass that made this team 4-0.  Worst Loss:  a December 22nd stumble to Hampton where they coughed up 57 points in the second half of an 89-82 defeat.  Ringing in the New Year:  Saturday at noon they visit Georgetown.  Good luck.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

“I like my team”.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said that last month on Media Day.  He also said those very words in the fall of 2014 when the Terps were coming off of a flurry of transfers and seemingly an eternity away from the NCAA Tournament.  When he was quizzed by a reporter how things turned awry after saying he liked his team last year, Turgeon responded “I don’t know if I said that.”  Regardless if he did or did not, what is a coach supposed to say in October?  Media Day is supposed to be an island of optimism in a sea of late night scouting sessions, long practices and longer road trips.  Should he offer up: “Things aren’t coming together- we will be lucky to win ten games this winter”?

Turgeon had every reason not to like his team last winter…as lofty preseason expectations dwindled into a 19-13 finish that saw the team struggle on the road, trail by 30 at halftime in the regular season home finale, and watch their Big Ten Tournament run end in with a loss in the final minute at Madison Square Garden.  After three straight years of making the NCAA Tournament last March was a bitter pill to swallow.  “We’ve done everything we can do to get back to the way we were the three years before that,” Turgeon said, “so our culture is back to where it needs to be-we’ve worked really hard.  All of our veteran guys have improved tremendously-not only on the floor but in their leadership skills and maturity.”

The main veteran leading the way this winter will be junior guard Anthony Cowan.  The Preseason All-Big Ten selection led the conference in minutes last season, and while freshman Eric Ayala is expected to spell him a bit at the point the Bowie, Maryland native is more than ready to take ownership in this team.  Cowan said, “I want that.  I want to be the person that everyone looks at when they need help on or off the court.”

While Cowan runs the offense, expect further growth for sophomore Bruno Fernando. “He’s worked really hard,” coach Turgeon said,” I think you’ll see a player that plays smarter defensively.  He’s become much more skilled, a much better low block scorer.”  Fernando led the team in blocks and was second in rebounds as a freshman.  He also led the Terps in unbridled energy–and coach Turgeon said his goal this fall was to make sure the Angolan stayed out of “fifth gear”.  Fernando’s new approach?  “Pacing myself a lot, sometimes I just try to go hard the whole time.  Sometimes I gotta slow down a little bit and see how the game is going and let it flow.”

Fernando will have plenty of help inside with the addition of five-star recruit Jalen Smith…and he’s already helped bring the freshman up to speed. “He’s a great guy, he pretty much took me under his wing since I came in here,” Smith said. “His energy just keeps the team going.”  The 6-foot-10 freshman from Mount St. Joseph’s High school is expected to make immediate impact, more with his deeds than words.  “For a McDonald’s All-American and a top ten player he’s very humble.”  Turgeon said, “And he’s very long.  I think once he puts up his first double double-which could happen the first night we play-the national attention will come.”

Smith is one of six freshmen making their debuts this fall:  Aaron Wiggins scored 14 points while starting the exhibition against Lynn while Eric Ayala and Serrell Smith played major minutes off of the bench.  Ayala’s the intriguing piece to the puzzle;  if he can spell Cowan at the point while also being productive at the shooting guard position the 6-foot-5 combo guard from Wilmington, Delware can provide a major boost off the bench.  But he feels the whole class will make an impact.   “We’ve been working really hard,” Ayala said, “we’re eager to get out there and play and show that we’re capable at this level.”

This young team enters a new era of Big Ten competition- for the first time they’ll be playing 20 conference games.  Three schools- Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue- begin the year in the AP Top 25 while the Terps are one of four Big Ten teams receiving votes (Indiana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are the others).  Pesky Penn State that always gives Maryland fits comes to College Park December 1st in the league opener.  November’s non-conference tests include the Veterans Classic November 9th at Navy and a home game against Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge November 28th.  But a rebuild roster and revamped approach has the coach confident.  “I think our guys understand what it takes to win because they’ve listened.” Turgeon said. “And just because we’re young doesn’t mean we’re not talented; I like the mix.”

So… how IS your bracket faring?  Did you have Virginia playing Purdue in the championship game like I did only to put Arizona in the Final Four when you learned that De’Andre Hunter was done for the year?  Did you bet on the wrong blue-bloods to advance?  Did you out-think the system?  Welcome aboard, friends.  Far from chalk- the NCAA Regionals resemble more survive than advance.

History has a strange way of coming back to bite you.- Virginia was #1 this winter for the first time since 1982 when the top-ranked Cavaliers lost to Chaminade.  Ryan Odom (son of then-assistant and future Wake Forest coach Dave Odom) was a ball-boy for that team.  Fast-forward 35 years and Odom the younger leads UMBC over UVa in not only an upset of the ages, but a smackdown to remember.  This wasn’t just a last-second shot or an errant pass, but a 20-point beatdown.  The Cavaliers go home knowing everybody knows they’re the first number one seed to lose to a #16 (and truth be told, if we still had the old 64-school bracket UMBC would have been a #15 and the Cavaliers would have face 15-19 Texas Southern).  I attended Syracuse and we got grief for 15 years about the Orange being the first #2 seed to lose to a #15…even after other schools had followed suit.  Even after SU had finally won a National Championship.  Tony Bennett will take a long look at himself and his coaching style.  And then he’ll come out of the summer of his discontent focused and ready to lead another Virginia team to 15+ wins in the ACC and threaten again next March.

One Sorry City- so much for Skyline Chili owning the month.  Xavier and Cincinnati both blew late leads in Second Round losses.  There’s nothing the fan bases of either school enjoys more than taking delight in their inner-city rival’s misery.  This winter it goes both ways.

Conference Call- the Big 12 and ACC each have four schools remaining, while the Big Ten and SEC have two teams left in the bracket.  The Pac-12?  Gone midway through the first round.  Mad props to the Summit, Mountain West and West Coast Conferences for having a school still in the field.  Rumor was the Big East was thinking about taking credit for Syracuse and West Virginia, but it would also mean they’d be saddled with Pitt.

Planting Seeds- they say figures do not lie but liars do figure.  While we’ve lost a pair of #1’s and two more #2’s, seven of the top 16 schools are still in the field.  And if you go one step further, there are three #5’s–meaning 10 of the top 20 schools are still around and as the difference between a #4 and a #5 is often microscopic you could make the case that 10 of the top 16 teams are still around.  While Loyola (Chicago) is a true Cinderella as a #11 (and needed a couple of miracle plays thanks to their 90-something year old Chaplain), Syracuse is far from an upstart despite their place as “the last at-large team in the bracket”.  Just like two years ago when they made the Final Four as a #10 seed, this is a case of a school that is peaking at the right time after a less than awesome regular season.

Different Paths- Kentucky may have been upset at their #5 seed with Virginia, Cincinnati and Arizona in their region one week ago.  Today those three schools have all been eliminated and the talented-but-young Wildcats are the favorites to win the South.  If you go by seeding numbers (5+7+9+11) of the survivors the South has a Madness rating of 32, highest of the bunch (for comparison, the West has a M rating of 23 while the Midwest owns a 19–and the East is one over chalk at 11).  Michigan looks to continue its incredible run (11 straight wins) in a West that has the tournament darlings-Loyola-as well as the gold standard of Cinderellas:  Gonzaga.  But this Bulldogs team is one that knows how to get to a Final Four (see last year).  Kansas is playing in Omaha–but is in ACC country with Duke, Clemson and Syracuse rounding out the regional–and has memories of being upset in tournament games close to home (Kansas City last year, Omaha in 2015, St Louis in 2014, Oklahoma City in 2010).  Villanova has the roughest road with West Virginia looming in a true contrast of styles–and I’m only referring to Jay Wright’s Italian suits against Bob Huggins’ tents and khakis.

Sunday Night Hoops- I still wish they got rid of the late Sunday game.  Did we need to see West Virginia meet Marshall at 9:40 p.m. on a Sunday?  After four days of great hoops, couldn’t we have ended after the 8:40 tilt?  All one has to do is shuffle the times and move the 7:10-9:40 doubleheader to 2:10-4:40.  It would give fans more hoops in the afternoon (especially if one of the early stand-alone games becomes a dog like Saturday) and put a nice bow on the weekend.

Maryland Women’s Season- the Terps ended the 2017-18 campaign with a 74-60 loss at North Carolina State in the Second Round this past Sunday.  This was hardly an ideal campaign:  not only did coach Brenda Frese have to compensate for losing two All-Americans to graduation, but the Terrapins also lost their best returning player to transfer (Destiny Slocum) while three others left the program.  Of those departures, one came back to haunt the Terps:  Kiara Leslie after graduating in three years at Maryland wanted to finish her career near her hometown of Holly Springs, NC.  She finished second in scoring this season for NC State before scoring 21 points against her former team.  Leslie sat out last season with an injury and had already made plans to transfer when Slocum, Kiah Gillespie and Jenna Staiti decided to go elsewhere.  If Leslie had stayed she would have been a big piece on a shorthanded team that lost Blair Watson to injury in January, but that’s why hindsight remains 20-20.  The Terps have another great recruiting class (#3, #32 and #33 prospects are headed to College Park) coming in and if Watson returns healthy this crew will challenge for the Big Ten title again next winter.

 

 

Who’s enjoying the First Four?  Me neither, even though my alma mater is playing in one of the “games that are not play-in games but have the lowest ranked automatic qualifiers and at-large teams”.  All eyes are on the brackets as one tries to figure out which teams will surprise, which ones will underwhelm and which schools will reach the final weekend of the month.  Yes, we’re back to the “Bold, Fold & Gold Picks”.  The “Bold” picks a team that advances far beyond its seed while the “Fold” selects a school that underwhelms.  Gold naturally is the pick to win the regional.

 

SOUTH- Leave it to #1 overall seed Virginia to suffer the injury bug again this March.  The ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter, is out for the rest of the season with a broken wrist.  The freshman averaged 10 points and 4 rebounds during the ACC Tournament.  Before the injury I had the Cavaliers going all the way to the championship game.  Now…not so much.

Bold-  Loyola (Illinois) finished third in the nation in shooting percentage (50.7%) and they’re facing a Hurricanes team that’s minus senior guard Bruce Brown Jr.  Be wary of the Ramblers.

Fold- Virginia should have no problem with UMBC in the First Round (although it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Cavaliers trailing at the half).  But minus their top reserve who provides energy at both ends of the floor for an extended run?  My original National Runnerup might not make it out of the first weekend…and will definitely have its hands full with Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Gold- Arizona instead of depending on a freshman role-player put all of their chips on the shoulders of a freshman phenom.  And 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayton is a hitting his stride with seven double-doubles in his last eight games.  They also have the steady hand of senior point guard Parker-Jackson Cartwright directing the offense.

 

WEST- Xavier is the #1 seed;  the Musketeers have never been to the Final Four- their 27 appearances is the second most of any school (behind BYU) without a National Semifinal appearance. Will this be the year they finally break through?

Bold Providence bullied its way to the Big East Championship only to lose in overtime to Villanova after coach Ed Cooley split his pants.  The Friars knocked off top-5 teams ‘Nova and Xavier, so North Carolina won’t be too intimidating before the Tar Heels experience their customary basketball amnesia.

Fold- Ohio State played above its talent all season long under first-year coach Chris Holtmann, but got swept by Penn State and struggled down the stretch.  The early Big Ten Tournament means they will have played one game in 20 days when they face South Dakota State-and the Jackrabbits have a red-hot Mike Daum who averaged 26 points and shot 40% in their run through the Summit League Tournament.

Gold- no team finished the season playing better than Michigan.  Mo Wagner is a big who can stick threes…and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman can go off when necessary.  John Beliein is the best coach nobody talks about…and this year the veteran grinder (stops at Lemoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia) gets his due.

 

EAST- Villanova gets the top seed…and this is the fifth straight year they’ve been a #1 or #2 seed.  While they won it all in 2016, the Wildcats were bounced the first weekend in 2014, 15 & 17.  Talk about feast or famine…

Bold- St. Bonaventure’s bolstered by the backcourt of Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams.  Guards get it done in March and the Bonnies have the duo to become tournament darlings.

Fold- West Virginia defends very well for 94 feet over 40 minutes.  Unfortunately they have stretches where they forget how to use the basketball for scoring purposes.  Coach Bob Huggins’ teams have a history of flaming out on Fridays.

Gold- Purdue hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1980.  They knocked on the door for years with Gene Keady’s combover, and since have become a factor with Matt Painter.  He’s got skilled bigs who can make shots…and they’ll cut down the nets in Boston.

 

MIDWEST- #1 seed Kansas has an easy path to San Antonio; the Jayhawks play the first weekend in Wichita and the Regional is in Omaha.  What-they couldn’t put the Final Four in Kansas City? 

Bold-New Mexico State ranks fifth in the nation in rebounding margin and San Diego is a short trip from Las Cruces. Aztecs guard Zach Lofton averaged 24 points per game during the WAC Tournament.

Fold-Rhode Island lost three of four entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament, could have lost to VCU, should have lost to St. Joe’s and did lose to Davidson.  The trend continues against the Sooners Trae Young.

Gold- Michigan State and Duke both were #1 during the regular season, but the bracket is once again set up for Kansas.  For the record last year the Jayhawks played the first weekend in Tulsa before losing in the regional at Kansas City.

So much for the “Beltway Basketball Bonanza”.  None of the schools in and around the beltway made the NCAA Tournament- and the area is Marchless for the first time since 1978.  Not even an NIT bid!  So the as the winter of our discontent concludes…we move on to being interested observers of the Madness.

Atlantic 10 Tournament Thumbnails- despite being one of those five-day affairs that are the result of leagues ballooning to 14+ teams where fans don’t get to see the #1 team in the conference until the seventh game of the week, the A-10 put on a pretty good show at Capital One Arena.  Eleven of the 13 games were competitive and only the Davidson-Saint Louis Friday night 3 vs 6 game was bad from the beginning.  While the four local schools didn’t reach the weekend, each team posted a victory before being bounced.  And we got a nail-biter of a victory by Davidson on Sunday where the Wildcats won despite going over 13 minutes without a basket.  Deservedly, three schools advance to the Big Dance (truth be told I was a little nervous about St. Bonaventure after their semifinal loss).  And while the media dining wasn’t as elegant as two years ago when the ACC rolled into town (nobody does the tournament like the Cadillac of Conferences), it was MUCH better than the Big Ten last March.  Here’s hoping we get the Atlantic 10 back in Washington sooner rather than later.

Selection Show Thoughts- well, it was definitely different.  TBS took the reins and kind of fell flat, from a studio audience that wasn’t necessary to naming the at-large teams in alphabetical order.  Hopefully that’s a one-year experiment.  It doesn’t help that they force announcers on us who don’t cover the college game and expect us to buy into their expertise.  Would you take Jim Spanarkel or Bill Raftery seriously if they jumped on board for the NBA Playoffs?  The easy solution for this would be if TBS simply had a game of the week (hello, Southeast Conference).  You could rotate Charles & Kenny in with a regular college hoops analyst in the studio, have Ernie’s March backup be the primary host and voila–Turner could swat down any accusations about how they don’t devote one second of effort until March.

Bracket Racket- I was surprised to see a 15-loss Alabama, an Oklahoma team that lost 11 of its last 15 games and a Syracuse squad that went 8-10 in the ACC (and that’s with two wins over Pitt) make the field.  Who was robbed?  Oklahoma State went 2-1 against the Sooners and swept Kansas.  USC finished second in the Pac-12 and played in the conference championship game.  Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary’s were sent to the NIT despite rolling up gaudy win totals.

Planting Seeds- nothing really egregious, although it is amusing to see North Carolina and Duke no matter where they finish in the national rankings find their way to a #2 seed.  Midwest #1 Kansas starts in Wichita and plays the regional at Omaha?  Just remember last year the Jayhawks lost in Kansas City.  Overall number one Virginia has a less than appetizing potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky or Arizona.  The biggest question is how will the four Big Ten schools in the bracket fare with at least ten days off- and Ohio State will take to the court Thursday having played just once in 20 days.

Destination Dayton, or Here Comes the First Four!- at least they’re not referring to it as the “first round” anymore.  Somehow there is sanity somewhere in the NCAA.  Eight schools fly to the middle of the country to play one game…and then four of them fly to other cities to play two days later.  At least three of the four cities aren’t too far from Dayton:  Pittsburgh, Detroit and Nashville are all short hops (Dallas being the exception).  Part of being in the tournament is BEING IN THE TOURNAMENT.  That means rubbing shoulders with the other members of the sub-regional.  In a perfect world we’d have only 64 teams in the tournament;  in a world I wouldn’t mind I’d settle for sending the two play-in schools to that weekend’s subregional site while still having them play there on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Coming up Wednesday- Bold, Fold and Gold Picks…

 

 

Somewhere on paper this seemed like a great idea…especially with that “grow the footprint” guy in the conference office.  What better way for the Big Ten to grow its brand than to plant the flag at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden?  Forget that New York City is within 300 miles of just three of the 14 Big Ten schools (for those counting, Maryland is actually closer to the Big Apple than Penn State by about 14 miles).  Never mind that instead of waiting for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to open up or choosing to play in the usually available Prudential Center in Newark, they had to move the tournament a week early because the Big East has MSG locked up through 2025.  That’s why we had conference games played the first weekend of December.  And that’s why there will be teams potentially working on a two-week layoff going into the NCAA Tournament.  And let’s not realize the residual effect of the men’s tournament sucking all of the oxygen out of the room while the women’s tournament takes place in Indianapolis at the same time (the league should have considered moving the women’s tournament to next weekend to give it maximum exposure).  Of course, if the conference lands an extra at-large team than expected and if the Big Ten dominates the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament this will turn out to be the stroke of genius.  Thank goodness the tournament returns to Chicago next March.

Fun Fact- while the top seed has won the tournament eight times, don’t sleep on the #6 seed which is 29-19 over the years with one title and three finals appearances.  More recently, the #8 seed has more tournament wins (7) than the regular season champ (6) over the last five years.

Teams to Beat-  Michigan State won its last 12 games to earn the #1 seed for the first time since 2012.  The Spartans led the conference in scoring, shooting and rebounding–the only thing they don’t do well is take care of the ball (last in the league in turnover margin).  Purdue was in first place for most of the season before some late hiccups and there’s no better team in the Big Ten at shooting the three.  They’re also a year older than the team that went one and done as the #1 seed last March.  Ohio State under Coach of the Year Chris Holtmann beat both the Spartans and Boilermakers but somehow got swept by Penn State.

Players to Watch- the Buckeyes’ Keita Bates-Diop was a big reason for OSU’s resurgence;  the junior ranked second in the conference in scoring and rebounding on the way to being named Big Ten Player of the Year.  Myles Bridges may not have the numbers, but the Michigan State Sophomore is arguably the most talented player in the league and is the most productive one when necessary.  Purdue forwards Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas are the typical skilled but gritty big men Midwest teams seem to run off of the assembly line each winter (perhaps we can get a few shipped to College Park).

Bubble and Bench Watch- Nebraska is in an odd spot as the #4 seed.  Despite winning 8 of 9 down the stretch the Cornhuskers don’t have a great at-large profile: credit a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 297th in the nation as one reason why ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them one of the “first four out” in his latest field.  They’re likely going to face #15 Michigan in the quarterfinals, and the Wolverines bring a five-game winning streak into Madison Square Garden while looking beyond awesome in their dismembering last Saturday of Maryland.  An early exit from MSG for coach Tim Miles’ team could mean banishment to the NIT.  Meanwhile, the Nebraska bench has become a lightning rod for their antics that depending on your age and mentality could be called “creative” or “obnoxious”.  It’s cute the guys at the end of the pine pantomimed Olympic bobsledding after a big bucket…but beware:  the last team to pull such shenanigans was Monmouth and they were left out of the field despite a 27-7 mark that included wins over UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Wednesday’s “First Round”-  one of the costs of doing business in a 14-team league is the unfortunate bracket where the first day features a doubleheader of despair:  unlike a 12-team format where you potentially have bubble teams battling and at worst a 5 vs 12 game where one of the schools is headed somewhere we get the “dreaded first round”.  (I’m checking with legal on the rumor that we have to refer to it as “dreaded” at all times, like “Lowly Rutgers”).  Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and “Lowly Rutgers” went a combined 15-57 in league play and these four schools will square off in a doubleheader of depression:  two of those schools’ fan bases get 40 more minutes of watching their sub-500 squads fumble around on the court (although 6th seed Indiana isn’t much to talk about).  The ACC, SEC and Atlantic 10 subject us to this as well; it’s commonly referred to by the media as “the day we pick up our credentials and test the phone lines while watching as little actual hoops as possible”.

 

Thursday’s Second Round-

Maryland (19-12, 8-10 Big Ten) vs Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), noon.  The Terps won the lone regular season meeting between the two schools 68-63 on Super Bowl Sunday in a game where they blew a ten point halftime lead.  Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 23 points in 39 minutes that afternoon–and for the record, the sophomore has played in 234 of 240 possible minutes since.  In a season where injuries and last-minute losses have all but dashed the Terps’ NCAA hopes (a bid is coming only if they cut down the nets at MSG Sunday), Cowan has been the major bright spot–ranking in the top three of the Big Ten in assists and steals while leading the conference in minutes played.  His play along with Kevin Huerter (the two combined for 14 of the team’s 23 baskets in the win over the Badgers) will be paramount if the Terrapins want to be playing in the quarterfinals Friday.

Wisconsin has endured a winter of discontent as well:  instead of thinking about a potential third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen under coach Greg Gard, the team that received votes in both preseason polls is likely going to finish with a losing record for the first time since 1998.  But they did conclude the regular season with four wins in six games (and their two losses were against Michigan and Michigan State).  The Badgers’ bright spot is junior Ethan Happ;  the 6-foot-10 forward scored 18 points in College Park earlier this month and paces leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks (but is a 9% shooter from three-point range-slacker).  Freshman guard Brad Davison has given them feast (30 points against Michigan State) and famine (5 on 1-4 shooting earlier in the week at Northwestern) in varying doses but is their number two option.  At the beginning of February it appeared as though Wisconsin was a year away from being a factor;  there’s no reason not to expect they’ll be a handful Thursday.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday’s First Round:

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

 

Thursday’s Quarterfinal:

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