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Six days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up (Belmont & Utah State Saturday; Bradley, Winthrop & Liberty Sunday) while the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired (Indiana coach Archie Miller comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”).  While bubble schools cross their fingers for minimal upsets this week and ranked teams try to project their seeding, one local school gets to hang a banner in its arena.

Maryland hasn’t won or shared a regular season conference title in ten years, or since they were in the ACC.  It looked like the Terps couldn’t overcome issues on the road earlier this winter (starting 0-3 away from Xfinity Center in Big Ten play) and then it appeared as though their traditional second half of conference play slide (three losses in four games from February 23 to March 3) was going to derail a promising run.  But instead, the Terps led Michigan for most of Sunday afternoon’s 83-70 victory thanks to their two constants:  senior Anthony Cowan Jr. tallied 20 points with 8 assists while sophomore Jalen Smith added 18 points with 11 rebounds.  Cowan came back for his senior year because he wanted to be remembered as a winner; and he helps deliver a share of the regular season Big Ten Championship.  There are still the unfriendly waters of the Big Ten Tournament (they’re 2-5 with their last win coming in 2016) and the treacherous seas of the NCAA Tournament (one trip to the second week since 2003), but Cowan and coach Mark Turgeon will always have a banner at Xfinity Center they can look up to that will say “2020 Big Ten Regular Season Champions”.  And while March may be fickle, a banner is forever.

Wow of the Week- Howard avoided a winless conference season by beating Maryland-Eastern Shore last Monday.  And while the Bison dropped their season finale to Delaware State, at least they don’t have to deal with the offseason stigma that befalls Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun), The Citadel (Southern) and Chicago State (WAC).  The Bison are building under coach Kenneth Blakeney, and last Monday was the first of many steps.

Player Spotlight- Jagan Mosely was recruited to Georgetown by John Thompson III and had hoped to turn around what appeared to be a hiccup in the program.  Instead, the Hoyas posted a second straight losing season and JT3 was shown the door.  In came Patrick Ewing and a different system, along with the growing pains of a rebuild.  Mosely was all set to lead the Hoyas back to the NCAA Tournament (the school’s last trip to the big dance was in 2015) this March, but defections (four transfers in December) and injuries (Mac McClung’s foot and Omer Yurtseven’s knee) have hijacked all hopes.  Six straight losses have dropped the Hoyas to 15-16, meaning that reaching the NIT would be a major stretch.  But through it all Mosely has been a standout player for Ewing’s program, leading the Big East with 38.4 minutes played in conference games.  The Marlboro, New Jersey native deserved much better.  But just think how bad things would have been without the team’s backbone this winter.

Bids for Grabs- Just one on Monday.  The Southern Conference was created in 1921, but in the years since schools like Alabama and Auburn left to create the SEC while North Carolina and Maryland departed to form the ACC.  Another generation of schools like George Washington and Richmond marked their time before winding up in the Atlantic Ten, Marshall and East Carolina used the Southern as a stepping-stone to Conference USA and the AAC, and most recently Elon and Charleston have passed through on their way to the CAA.  All told-the Southern Conference has 34 former schools (aka Spinal Tap) with two even dropping down to Divsion III (Sewanee as well as Washington & Lee).  Tonight, regular season champ East Tennessee State (29-4) plays upstart Wofford (7th seed) for the league’s likely lone bid.  Hopefully both schools will stay a while after their title game appearance.

Locals in the Mix- the CAA Tournament comes to the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC, but the schools closest to Washington went home Sunday evening as Towson tumbled to Northeastern while William & Mary lost to Elon.  The Tribe’s loss ends the schools drive for its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.  Their first big dance banner will have to wait at least one more year.

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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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For 37 minutes Saturday afternoon the script went as it has for most of the Mark Turgeon era on a micro and macro level.  After coughing up a 15-point lead at Michigan State, the Terps trailed the Spartans 60-53 with 3:25 left.  Second half slides have been the rule as opposed to the exception over the last decade; just once in Turgeon’s tenure has the team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (the 2014-15 season saw the team start 6-3 in the Big Ten before finishing 8-1).  But instead of another February fade, the Terps turned the tables on the Spartans by holding them scoreless for the final 3:25.  Jalen Smith made a three-pointer and helped hold Michigan State to one shot by notching three late rebounds while Anthony Cowan finished the deal with back to back to back threes (he’d add two free throws with seven seconds left for the icing on the cake) as Maryland emerged with a 67-60 victory.  All of a sudden the team that couldn’t win on the road all season has won four straight away from home in the toughest conference.  And all of a sudden the Terrapins find themselves in position to capture their first regular season league title since 2002.

Alma Mater Update:  the Orange led Florida State until late in the second half, falling  80-78 in Tallahassee when a road victory would have been a signature win for a team that desperately needed one.  Instead, another rough outing saw SU slip to .500 in the ACC and closer to .500 for the season.  Next up? A Louisville team that’s dropped two in a row and is just as angry as the Florida State team they fell to last weekend. When does lacrosse begin?

Wow of the Week: Georgetown beat No. 19 Butler 73-66 Saturday despite being minus their top two players, as Omer Yurtseven had yet to fully recover from a badly sprained ankle and Mac McClung has missed four straight games with a foot injury.  Somehow the Hoyas went into Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims are still ten feet off of the court) and hit 10 of 15 three-pointers while Terrell Allen (not even a starter until James Akinjo left the program) scored a career-high 22 points. At 15-10 and 5-7 in the Big East, Georgetown still has a window of opportunity (however slim) to make the NCAA Tournament.

Player Spotlight:  Richmond’s resurgence this winter saw the Spiders avenge their January loss to VCU by routing the Rams 77-59.  This winter they’ve been sparked by high-scoring Blake Francis and anchored by big man Grant Golden while Jacob Gilyard pilots the offense.  But every so often an unsung hero comes up big:  Saturday it was Nick Sherod who scored 23 points while hitting 5-of-7 three-pointers.  The junior has done a lot of the little things this winter to help the Spiders bounce back from consecutive 20-loss seasons, and at this time coach Chris Mooney’s team is making its way towards the NCAA Tournament bubble.

League Look: despite Clemson’s recent success on the gridiron and Virginia’s men’s lacrosse title, the ACC is first and foremost a basketball conference.  Former Duke player Gene Banks said during an era when a maximum of two schools per conference made the big dance that “if the ACC got six teams into the NCAAs, they’d all make the Final Four.”  Six schools have made the field every season since the league expanded to 15 during the 2013-14 season, but this year they’ll be hard-pressed to get five.  Back to back wins by Virginia (one in overtime, another on a last-second shot) have the Cavaliers on the right side of the bubble, but after that there’s a hot mess where fifth and 12th place are separated by a total of two games. Perhaps quality instead of quantity is this year’s mantra:  the league’s  soft center will help upper tier schools like Duke, Florida State, and Louisville likely land top three seeds next month.

Ballot Battles:  last week’s turnover has been rectified, as Pac-12 leader Colorado makes the Top 25.  Maryland moves up three spots on my AP ballot from 10 to 7 this week, while Seton Hall and West Virginia both slide down the teens.  Butler (once as high as number five) drops out after falling to a depleted Georgetown at home.  Small school shout-outs this week go to the usual suspects:  Wright State, East Tennessee State, Stephen F. Austin, and Rhode Island.  Just missing the cut:  Iowa and New Mexico State.

Starting Five:

Wednesday- Georgetown vs. Providence.  The Hoyas lost to the Friars by 16 on the road last month, and while they were hurt by the absence of Mac McClung (eye injury) they were hurt just as much by Alpha Diallo’s 20 points and 8 rebounds.  PC has beaten three ranked teams this month, but has lost road games at Xavier and St. John’s.

Also Wednesday- George Mason at Richmond.  The Patriots are smarting after getting swept by George Washington, but let the record show they went into the Siegel Center last week and beat VCU.  The Spiders shot 67% in a January win at Fairfax, while Mason’s Javon Greene scored 39 points in defeat.

Thursday- William & Mary at Towson.  Both schools are chasing first-place Hofstra in the CAA, with the second place Tribe one-half game ahead of the Tigers, who took the January meeting by 12 thanks to a career-high 21 points from freshman Jason Gibson.  They also lead the conference in scoring defense and rebounding margin.

Sunday- American at Boston University.  AU enters the week one game behind the Terriers for second place in the Patriot League;  in a conference where the tournament is played on home courts tiebreakers are all the more important. The Eagles won the previous meeting by four in DC thanks to Sa’eed Nelson; the senior is the only active NCAA D-1 player to have recorded 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists in his career.

Sunday- No. 7 Maryland at Ohio State.  The Terps took the January meeting after falling behind 8-0 and going scoreless into the game’s first media timeout.  The sibling tandem of Kaleb & Andre Wesson combined for 29 points and 14 rebounds that night, but their teammates shot a collective 10-for-43 (23%).  The Buckeyes boast the Big Ten’s best scoring defense and are tops at defending the three;  should the Terps find themselves down seven with three minutes left on this time they might not find a comeback as easy in Columbus as it was in East Lansing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week’s Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five-

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Great expectations can be both a blessing and a curse in men’s college basketball. During the Mark Turgeon era, high hopes have more often than not led to misery in March for Maryland:  twice before they’ve been ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, and each time at the end of the season the Terps have finished below those November expectations (from third to 18th in the 2015-16 season, from 25th to unranked the following year).  This year they’re seventh in the AP;  time will tell if the AP stands for “Accurately Projected” or “Another Problem” for these Terps.

Unlike last November, head coach Mark Turgeon returns most of his talent:  seven of the eight players who averaged 10+ minutes per game last year are back, including four of his five starters.  That gives the coach a little bit of a luxury when it comes to working his talented freshman class into the mix.  “We have so much depth some guys are going to learn by sitting,” Turgeon said. “Last year we had to play guys through mistakes, turnovers, there really wasn’t an answer.  I think we’ll get better because of that.  Guys will correct things quicker because of that.”

The biggest piece added to the Terrapin puzzle is 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial; the big man comes to College Park from South Sudan through Compass Prep in Arizona.  He’s also going to have the most-delayed impact after having surgeries to correct stress fractures in both of his legs this past September.  Marial is expected to be on the shelf at least until December.  “He feels good but still has a little bit of swelling in the knees.  He’s lifting, he’s shooting, he’s doing some things on the floor,” Turgeon said. “We’ll do another appointment on November 25th. We’re hoping on that day he gets clearance.” Fans won’t have to wait long to see the other four freshmen:  6-foot-10 twin big men Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Washington D.C. plus the Philadelphia pair of swingman Donta Scott and guard Hakim Hart are already making an impression in practice.  “Very talented (group), very physical and a good feel for the game,” Turgeon said. “They’ve fit in well-our guys really like them. What they do give us is some physicality.  Our practices are much more physical, and they need to be for us to play at the highest level.”

While freshmen contributing to a top-25 team is nothing new in 2019, a four-year senior starter is.  But look for yourself:  Anthony Cowan Jr. is back for one more winter.  And it’s not just to pursue his Masters of Professional Studies in Technology Entrepreneurship (Anthony earned his degree in Communication this past summer).  “Anthony came back to win. Anthony’s done a lot with scoring points and assists,” Turgeon said. “He wants his legacy to be winning and winning at a high level. He knows he’ll be remembered more if our team wins at a high level.”  That means not just winning 20+ games during the regular season but also making things happen in March.  Cowan’s led the team in scoring and assists the last two years;  what he hasn’t done is led them to Saturday (and the Semifinals) of the Big Ten Tournament or the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

While Bruno Fernando moves on to the NBA, the Terps cupboard inside is far from bare.  Jalen Smith is back for his sophomore season after ranking third on the team in scoring and second in rebounds and blocked shots.  Turgeon acknowledges that the Baltimore, Maryland product has bulked up, jokingly referring to the player commonly known as “Sticks” as “Logs”.  In all seriousness, they’ve looked to bulk up 6-foot-10 forward’s offensive game. “We really worked hard on him to score in a lot of different ways. He’s (already a) pretty good on the right block, a catch and shoot the three guy,” Turgeon said.  “We tried to a lot of different areas on the floor, played a ton of one on one since the season ended.”  There’s also the anticipation and the expectation of improvement on the other side of the floor. “His perimeter defense got so much better as the year went on last year it was all new to him— now I’m very confident in his perimeter defense and what he can do,” Turgeon said. “Post defensively he struggled when he had to guard a five last year. Hopefully the weight helps, hopefully the experience helps.”

With returning starters Eric Ayala Jr. and Darryl Morsell back in the fold along with role-players Aaron Wiggins, Serrell Smith Jr., and Ricky Lindo Jr.; the proverbial ceiling is high.  But if there’s anything his previous eight winters in College Park have taught Mark Turgeon, it’s that November is more than four months away from March–those two months are a lifetime apart for a team, no matter how talented.  Can this team be special?  “We’ll see. If they continue to be coachable and selfless. Those two things are really important,” Turgeon said. “Talent-wise and depth wise, yeah we got a chance, but if they’re coachable and they’re selfless then we’ll continue to get better and do some great things.”

 

 

 

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“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.”