Archives for posts with tag: Duke

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

 

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

 

Friday’s Game:

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

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

 

Saturday’s Games:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sunday’s Game:

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

 

 

 

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PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

In college basketball, especially with the three-point shot, leads are built to be lost.  But Georgetown letting a 17-point lead wither away in Wednesday’s 81-75 loss at Xavier has the Hoyas looking for answers.  The fact that this came immediately after a final minute meltdown where they saw a five-point lead disappear in a loss to St. John’s has those bullish after an 11-3 start wondering if this program is still a year or two away.  “We just have to find a way to close out the game,” coach Patrick Ewing said after the loss to the Red Storm, “We can’t keep making the mental mistakes that we do.”  The inability to close games haunted the Hoyas in a one-point loss to Syracuse on the road and almost cost them at home against Little Rock (they prevailed in OT after losing a late lead).  Just like it takes a group effort to resurrect a once-proud program, it takes a village to lock down W’s with smart play late.  “We gotta just play,” Ewing said, “You know-everybody wants to do it themselves, instead of moving the ball and making the right plays.”  Rest assured, I’ll have my TV on Fox Sports 1 this Saturday at around 1:50 p.m.

 

Friday’s Game:

Maryland 13-3 (4-1 Big Ten) vs. #22 Indiana (12-3, 3-1), 7 p.m., FS1.  The Terps are fresh off consecutive road conference wins, which equals their total from last winter.  While the rally past Minnesota was impressive, avoiding a 40-minute letdown at Rutgers was just as huge: those were the kinds of games better Terp teams had lost in recent seasons.  The Hoosiers are coming off a double-digit loss to second ranked Michigan but boast high-scoring freshman Romeo Langford (18.2 points per game) and leads the conference in field goal percentage.  IU does the vast majority of its damage inside the arc, as the team ranks 13th in the Big Ten in three-pointers made per game.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are 2-0 in the ACC after wins over Notre Dame and Clemson with a Saturday evening game against Georgia Tech on the horizon.  While junior Tyus Battle appears to have taken a step back or at least plateaued after last season, transfer Elijah Hughes (18 points per game in league play) has been a pleasant surprise this winter.  After the Yellowjackets, buckle up as SU visits #1 Duke Monday night. And for the record–that was a block, not a charge.

Saturday’s Games:

#4 Virginia (14-0, 2-0 ACC) at Clemson (10-5, 0-2), 12 p.m., ACC Network.  One benefit of the Tigers taking College Football’s National Championship?  Back to back losses to start the conference season sneak under the radar, even though there’s no shame losing to top-ranked Duke or at the Carrier Dome to Syracuse.  It doesn’t let up as three of their next four games are against ranked teams.  The primary concern for UVa’s defense that leads the nation in scoring defense and is tops in the ACC at stopping the three-pointer?    Tiger senior Marcquise Reed averages 19.6 points per game but the Cavs held the Landover, Maryland native to 12 points on 5-of-24 shooting over two games last season.

Georgetown (11-5, 1-2 Big East) vs. Providence (10-5, 0-2), 12 p.m., FS1.  Will we ever see highly-touted freshman Mac McClung take the floor against another Big East school?  The guard with tons of sizzle hasn’t played a minute due to a sprained ankle since dropping 38 points on Little Rock the Saturday before Christmas.  After losing three of their top four scorers from last season, the Friars are in full-rebuild mode.  Ed Cooley’s team ranks last in the Big East in shooting but brings the conference’s top rebounder to DC in Alpha Diallo.  Too bad the Hoyas possess a one-two punch in the post with senior Jessie Govan and freshman Josh LeBlanc.

American (8-6, 2-1 Patriot League) at Bucknell (8-7, 2-1), 12 p.m.  Sa’eed Nelson is on fire this early conference season:  the junior guard is averaging 24 points on 58% shooting.  The Bison are three-time defending regular season champs, but minus the inside-outside combination of Zach Thomas and Stephen Brown have taken their lumps this season.  They are coming off of an 84-81 win against a Colgate team that beat American by four last weekend.

VCU (11-4, 2-0) at Davidson (11-4, 2-0), 2 p.m., CBSSN.  Two of the A-10’s new-money programs tangle as the Rams are less than a decade removed from dominating the CAA and the Wildcats still have fans who miss the Southern Conference.  While VCU has served as a launching pad for coaches to Power Five conference programs this century, Bob McKillop is in midway through his 30th season with the school. He also has Jon Axel Gundmundsson at his disposal:  the junior from Iceland hopes to heat up from outside Saturday (he’s 0-8 from three-point range in conference play) against a pesky Rams defense.

Navy (5-9, 2-1 Patriot League) vs. Boston University (8-8, 1-2), 2 p.m.  Home teams are 10-5 so far this conference season.  The Mids are coming off of a loss at American where they shot 12% from three-point range.  Just another night of misfiring during a season where they’ve been offensively challenged:  the team ranks last in the Patriot League in scoring, shooting, three point shooting and turnover margin.  The Terriers are led by big man Max Mahoney who leads the conference in shooting and ranks fourth in scoring.

George Washington (5-10, 1-1 Atlantic 10) vs. Richmond (6-9, 0-2), 4 p.m., ESPN+.  Both teams are looking to shake off less than ideal starts in conference play.  Somehow the Colonials let a 22-point first half lead against Dayton dissolve thanks to major droughts:  scoring just five points in the last eight minutes of the first half and going scoreless in the final 4:04 of regulation.  The Spiders are a precarious 0-2 to begin league play despite Jacob Gilyard’s 23 points per game while shooting 12-25 from three-point range.  Richmond needs the Grant Golden from the Rhode Island loss (17 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists) more than the Golden from the Dayton defeat (4 points and 4 turnovers).

Howard (7-9, 1-1 MEAC) vs. Bethune-Cookman (5-10, 0-1), 4 p.m.  The Bison snapped a six game losing streak and bounced back from their loss to Florida A&M by blasting Maryland-Eastern Shore by 40.  More impressive than R.J. Cole’s 26 points was the fact that they held the Hawks to 21% shooting.  We all know Howard can score, but if their defense can improve on the current unit that ranks 327th in Division I there may just be a decent conference campaign ahead.

 

Sunday’s Game:

George Mason (8-8, 2-1 Atlantic 10) at Rhode Island (8-6, 1-1), 5:30 p.m., NBCSN.  While the Patriots are kicking themselves after shooting 10% from three-point range in a loss at home to Davidson, coach Dave Paulsen’s team is off to its best start since joining the league earlier this decade.  Paulsen hopes Otis Livingston II returns to form after the senior shot 2-for-11 against the Wildcats.  Rams first-year head coach David Cox has big shoes to fill:  before Danny Hurley left for UConn he had guided the Rams to consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

 

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Bye weeks are often a byproduct of the conference schedule…so most schools don’t have the option of when they take their annual hiatus.  The September break always feels a little odd;  we’re just getting into the rhythm of the season and learning what team we’ll see on the field before we have to take a week off.  While Virginia (October 6th) and Virginia Tech (October 20th) have their byes next month, Maryland and Navy get to sit at home this week and evaluate a much smaller sampler size.

Maryland is 3-1 with impressive wins over Texas and Minnesota outweighing the tough-to-stomach loss at home to Temple.  Causes for confidence include a running game that averages 6.2 yards per carry and a defense that has turned into a takeaway machine in the second halves of games.  Causes for concern begin with the lack of a legitimate receiving threat and continues with the team committing too many penalties (their 37 flags for 362 yards are the most in the Big Ten).

Navy is 2-2 with a pair of one-point games in AAC play.  They’re very much in the West Division race, but after this start none of their league games will be gimmes.  Causes for confidence include the triple option offense that leads the nation in rushing (355.8 yards per game) while causes for concern include a defense that hasn’t allowed under 20 points yet this fall.

Meanwhile, there’s a strange occurrence in Central New York…not unlike the Cicadas that show up in the DC Metro area once per generation.  Syracuse is 4-0 for the first time since 1991 and for just the fourth time since World War II.  Just like the ’91 edition the Orange have a September home win against a school from the sunshine state (although upsetting Steve Spurrier’s Gators was a little more impressive than beating a bad Florida State team).  And just like the squad that dared to start 4-0, SU heads into the deep south for a game against a top-5 school.  Let the record show that Marvin Graves & company actually led #1 Florida State 14-7 before the bottom fell out in a 46-14 loss at Doak Campbell Stadium.  This time it’s a trip to #3 Clemson–a school that won’t be looking past the Orange after last year’s upset win in the Dome.

 

Saturday’s Games:

Virginia (3-1, 1-0 ACC) at NC State (3-0), 12:20 p.m. (ACC Network).  The Cavaliers’ defense is much improved this fall–and Coach Bronco Mendenhall feels they’re making better in-game adjustments as well, allowing just 16 second-half points over four games.  They’ll be hard-pressed to contain this week’s foe:  Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley leads the ACC in passing yardage and NC State converts 58.5% of their third downs to lead the conference.  UVa has also had issues on the road in league play lately: 2-18 since the 2012 season…when they went into Raleigh and beat the Wolfpack by 27.  This is the first meeting between these two founding ACC members since that game, so Kippy & Buffy go with the Founding Father inspired “Federalist Bourbon Barrel-Aged Zinfandel”.  The 2015 vintage possesses “aromas and flavors of black fruit, smoke, caramel and vanilla”.  Despite the portrait of university founder Thomas Jefferson’s rival Alexander Hamilton on the bottle, “the finish is long and smooth making this a thoroughly enjoyable wine.”  Enjoy with aged cheddar on club crackers.  Cavaliers come up short, 38-31.

 

Virginia Tech (2-1, 1-0 ACC) at #22 Duke (4-0), 7 p.m., (ESPN2).  Entering the season the secondary was a primary concern, which made the team’s shut-down of Florida State in Tallahassee all the more impressive.  Since then we’ve seen the Seminoles convert 1-of-14 third downs against a Syracuse team that allowed 42 points to Western Michigan, while the Hokie D earned an F in coughing up 35 second half points at Old Dominion.  They also lost quarterback Josh Jackson with a fractured fibula in that game…and former Kansas QB Ryan Willis gets the start Saturday in Durham.  The Blue Devils are also going with plan B at that position with Quentin Harris tossing six touchdowns to no interceptions in two starts after taking over for the injured Daniel Jones. Hokies suffer another September stumble, 31-26.

Georgetown slips at Brown, James Madison beats Richmond, William & Mary falls to Colgate, Towson tops The Citadel.

Last Week: 4-5.  Contemplating firing my offensive coordinator…

Overall: 20-13.

 

 

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.

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The first few weeks of March always brings us back to fundamental questions.  What do you value in an at-large college basketball team?  Do great wins outshine bad losses?  And how many Shamrock Shakes can we knock down before McDonald’s stops offering the seasonal treat?  Thirty-six invitations will be extended in four days…and as always there are more than fifty schools who think they should be in the mix.  But what criteria should be used?

There is the school of thought that you want the 36 “best” teams in the tournament, meaning if two schools played ten times the one that would prevail more often should get the bid.  That’s similar to the “eye test” that allows analysts to say a “team is much better than their record” and takes into account playing in a tough conference.  These people would tell you that an ACC school finishing 9-9 or 8-10 is a better fit for the field than the runner-up of the MAC or MVC Tournament.  So the teams with talent and ten home games in November and December that couldn’t prove in January and February that they belonged in the big dance get another shot?

The other viewpoint is that the NCAA Tournament should have a “representative field”, meaning that even though an Illinois State would probably lose to Michigan State more times than not, the Redbirds deserve to be in the field because they dominated their regular season.  Just as you will be told “there are no nights off in the Big Ten” (obviously nobody’s watched Rutgers this winter), the Missouri Valley Conference is loaded with schools whose sole purpose is to scout, prepare for and beat Illinois State.  And even though ISU failed their final (no shame in losing to #21 Wichita State), they aced the rest of their classwork.  MSU?  The Spartans struggled before Big Ten play (losing to Northeastern) and went 2-7 on the road in the league.  Of course everything changes if Tom Izzo is able to coax a run through the bracket in DC (and the Spartans are 12-2 in the last five Big Ten Tournaments). 

 

Alma Mater Update- Syracuse’s stay in the ACC Tournament was as short in Brooklyn as last year’s was in DC…a tough loss in the 8-9 game.  The Orange put down their blue-books as an 18-14 team that’s 2-11 in road/neutral games…and await the committee’s decision.  Coach Jim Boeheim in his press conference after teh 62-57 loss said that the ACC Tournament should be played in major markets like Brooklyn, Atlanta and Washington…as opposed to Greensboro, NC and thus earning the ire of the city.  While I agree with having the ACC rotate between top-ten markets, I would have waited until SU had actually won a game in the tournament before proposing to move it.

 

Automatic Berths Captured-

#4 Gonzaga wins the West Coast Conference title game over #19 St. Mary’s; it will be interesting to see where the committee seeds the Bulldogs and the Gaels given the “body of work” and “strength of conference schedule”.  South Dakota State captures the Summit League, Northern Kentucky wins the Horizon, and Mount St. Mary’s takes the Northeast Conference.  They’re still celebrating in Emmitsburg, MD, as the Mountaineers make their first trip to the big dance since 2008.

 

Bid on the line tonight-

Patriot League:  Lehigh at Bucknell, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network.  I’ve seen Tim Kempton terrorize the conference for four years, and even though he didn’t win a third straight player of the year award the senior still averaged a double-double this winter.  Bison big man Nana Foulland took the honor this March, and while the junior averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds in Bucknell’s two games against the Mountain Hawks this season-Kempton and Lehigh still came out on top twice.  The difference in those games was three-point shooting:  Lehigh shot 59% and 47% from outside the arc to 30% and 26% for Bucknell.

 

Tonight’s Games-

Big East First Round-Georgetown (14-17) vs St. John’s (13-18), 7 p.m. FS1.  There was once a time where the 8-9 game in the Big East was reserved for the likes of Seton Hall and Providence;  tonight the Hoyas and Red Storm are in that less than ideal place.  Which St. John’s team shows up tonight- the one that shot 5-for-25 in the second half of a loss in DC or the one that hit 54% from three-point range last month?  And which Georgetown team do we get- the one that outrebounded the Red Storm by 20 in January or the unit that turned the ball over 22 times at MSG?  And the reward for whichever one of these consistently uneven teams wins is a lunch date tomorrow at noon with regular season and defending national champ Villanova.

ACC Second Round-

Virginia Tech (21-9) vs Wake Forest (19-12), 7 p.m. ESPN2. The Demon Deacons held off a pesky Boston College team to keep its NCAA bubble hopes alive, while the Hokies still have the fresh memory of Wake coming to Blacksburg last Saturday and leaving with an 89-84 victory.  John Collins might merit most of the attention as the sophomore led the ACC in field goal percentage, was second in rebounding and third in scoring.  But Bryant Crawford was the one who scored a team-high 26 points at Cassell Coliseum;  and when BC doubled Collins early and often yesterday the sophomore from Silver Spring led WF with 20 and 6 assists.  Seth Allen scored 20 points in the regular season finale;  does the senior have one more week of miracles in his pocket?

Virginia (21-9) vs Pitt (16-16), 9:30pm ESPN2.  Another rematch from last weekend has the Cavaliers playing the Panthers for the third time this winter:  Pitt prevailed in the first game 88-76 (shooting 63% from three-point range while outrebounding the Cavs by 18)while UVa took the regular season finale 67-42 (holding Pitt to 20% from outside the arc and winning the battle of the boards by 7).  The Panthers are not your garden-variety ten games under .500 in the conference team:  Michael Young and Jamel Artis both finished in the top five in the ACC in scoring and they returned two other starters from last year’s NCAA squad.  The transition from Jamie Dixon to Kevin Stallings has been less than ideal…but they ended Georgia Tech’s bubble hopes last night in a 61-59 win over the Yellowjackets.  The Cavaliers are already in the field…but a loss here might knock them down from a 5 to a 6 seed.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

Conference expansion has made Championship week unwieldy at best and unwatchable at worst.  For years the ACC had to deal with having the “Les Robinson Game” that pitted the 8th and 9th place teams…adding drama to the late-season for the bottom-feeders.  Everybody dreaded playing in the Les Robinson Game, even the NC State coach the game was named after (fittingly his final win with the Wolfpack came in the Robinson game).  The expansion of the SEC, Big East and creation of the Big XII meant that 12-team brackets would become commonplace…and by the time the ACC had finished its first round of picking the bones of the Big East the dozen felt natural:  four first round games to feed the back end of the quarterfinals.

But expansion to 14 (and 15 in the ACC) schools mandates another round, and since we already have the “first round” that precedes the quarterfinals one wants to call the first day of these tournaments the “opening round” or “day of dreck”.  Instead of a first round that gave you bubble teams fighting for bids, you have bottom-feeders playing for their coach’s contract.  For a while the 16-school Big East didn’t invite the 13th through 16th place teams to Madison Square Garden, if only to spare us of having to watch Rutgers or DePaul play one more time (if there’s any bonus to recent realignment, it’s that we will never have to see Rutgers-DePaul again in a conference tournament).  Unfortunately cooler heads did not prevail-thus creating a double-bye, a five-day tournament and a difficult to draw bracket.

At least the current Big East with its ten-school membership is down to semi-workable numbers (I like the round-robin and the lack of double-bye).  If you’re an ACC fan and want to see North Carolina, you’re going to have to wait until the third day of their tournament.  Same case with Kentucky and the SEC.  Maryland fans who are excited to be able to make the short trip to Verizon Center will have to wait until the 10th game of the Big Ten Tournament to see the Terps in action.  The new first round features the usual suspects:  so get ready for a Boston College team that hasn’t won since mid-January, a Rutgers team that’s made the opening day in the Big Ten their home just like they did in the Big East, and a Duquesne that’s hosting the A-10 before being shown the quick door.  Even in the SEC, the first round is a bit of a drag because at this point 12 of the 14 schools are all focused on spring football anyways.  Actually, the day of dreck makes me yearn for spring football…

Alma Mater Update- so the Orange need a win over Miami to secure an NCAA Berth, right?  Just like they needed a victory over Pitt last March in DC?  I had SU out after a 19-13 campaign that included losses to Georgetown and St. John’s plus a finishing slide of five losses in six games, only to be proven wrong by the committee.  I still think they need a 19th win this year to get in.  We’ll find out as they tip off against the Hurricanes at noon Wednesday.

ACC Tournament (Barclays Center, Brooklyn)- you can’t get further away from the land of Bojangles than Brooklyn.  The top-heavy league has ten potential NCAA Tournament teams with the usual bluebloods (North Carolina and Duke) expecting their annual coronation.

Matchup I want to see:  Louisville-Duke in the Quarterfinals.  Two schools playing for high seeds in the big dance.  New ACC money against the old guard.  Pitino back in the Big Apple…and don’t forget Coach K played at Army and the Blue Devils previously made the Meadowlands their home away from Durham.  The winner likely faces North Carolina.

Bold Pick (which school will surprise the experts):  Wake Forest is playing in the opening round for the fourth straight year, but Danny Manning’s team boasts a big man extraordinaire in John Collins (3rd in ACC in scoring, 2nd in rebounds, 4th in blocked shots).  Potential second-round foe Virginia Tech ranks 15th in the conference in rebounding and the Deacons are playing for an at-large bid.

Fold Pick (which team will exit earlier than expected):  Virginia may have won three straight to finish the regular season, but the team lacks offensive consistency outside of London Perrantes and can be had inside.

Gold Pick (who cuts down the nets):  During a season where North Carolina’s talent, Duke’s discipline, Syracuse’s last-second shots, NC State’s implosion and Virginia Tech’s perspiring coach have hijacked the headlines nobody is talking about Florida State.  Same case with the second-longest tenured coach in the league Leonard Hamilton and sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon.  At a tournament played in New York’s “other” borough, shouldn’t an underdog shine?

 

Big Ten (Verizon Center, Washington D.C.)- at least they don’t begin their expanded tournament until Wednesday.  Fittingly Rutgers plays in one first round game while Penn State plays in the other…I think eventually their first-day presence may be mandated.

Matchup I want to see:  Maryland-Northwestern in the Quarterfinals.  Both schools have plenty to prove:  the Terps want to fare better than their last conference tournament in DC (a first round loss to Clemson) while the Wildcats look to cement their NCAA Tournament worthiness despite six losses in their last nine games.  Their journalism schools like to brag as well…

Bold: Iowa wrapped up the regular season with four straight wins…and they’re led by the conference’s leading scorer in Peter Jok.  The senior’s supporting cast is finally growing up (only two other scholarship upperclassmen dot the roster) and Fran McCaffery’s team

Fold:  Michigan State.  Tough to sell Tom Izzo short when he’s led the Spartans to the Big Ten title three times this decade, but the 5th seed is the school’s lowest this decade.  For whatever reason MSU didn’t benefit from it’s rough pre-conference schedule and turned into a bubble team that probably needs two wins to be secure in the field.

Gold: Purdue has long languished in the shadow of Indiana University (one can still hear the Hoosier faithful chant “Banners!”).  Not so this winter…and the one-two inside punch of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas looks to be too formidable to stop.

 

Atlantic 10 (PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh)- somebody had to move to give the ACC their week in Brooklyn.  One benefit from conference realignment is the A-10 is no longer being looked down upon by only the Big East.

Matchups I want to see: VCU-George Mason and Richmond-George Washington in the Quarterfinals.  If the 6th seeded Colonials and #7 Patriots win as expected, we’d have a Friday doubleheader featuring the conference’s southern wing…heating up the Orange Line and I-95.

Bold: Rhode Island heads to Pittsburgh on a five-game winning streak and has lost its games to regular season champ Dayton by a combined three points.  Danny Hurley’s team doesn’t dazzle you, but the steak far outweighs the sizzle.

Fold: Even with two of the league’s top four scorers and #1 assist man in Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure will draw a less-than-ideal matchup in round two…as both UMass and Saint Joseph’s have played them to two-possession games this winter.

Gold:  VCU has dominated the Atlantic 10 Tournament since joining the league, playing for the championship each season.  JeQuan Lewis and company have unfinished business with regular season champ Dayton.

 

Big East (Madison Square Garden)- finally, a tournament location where the league’s fans won’t get lost finding the arena.  I’m still bummed they play Wednesday-Saturday as opposed to Thursday-Sunday, but I’ll take the tournament that only lasts three and a half days.

Matchup I want to see:  Villanova-Butler in the Finals.  Nobody has been as good this winter as the Wildcats…and nobody has their number like the Bulldogs.

Bold:  Seton Hall. Angel Delgado leads the nation in rebounding, and in the conference of Patrick Ewing, Derrick Coleman and Walter Berry that has to count for something-even in a perimeter oriented 21st century game.  The Pirates also beat Villanova last year at MSG.

Fold: Providence.  The Friars are facing a Creighton team that may have finally recovered from losing Maurice Watson, Jr to injury.  They are also coming off wins against DePaul and St. John’s-and that is no way to prepare a team for the tournament.

Gold: Villanova is the best team in the league for the second straight year…plus they’ll have the extra motivating having lost in the championship game last March.  And I don’t think this is a team that needs motivation.