Archives for posts with tag: Michigan State

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As March begins, Maryland and Georgetown fans can take solace in knowing that they’re members of arguably the two best conferences in the country.  Beware the Big Ten and Big East.  Both leagues are playing at a high level as we enter college basketball’s “closing month”.  Most bracket models have 10 Big Ten schools (71% of its membership) reaching the NCAA Tournament, while seven Big East schools are in the mix for the field of 68 (7/10 makes for easier math).  The Big Ten is enjoying a ridiculous run right now, with eight schools in the most recent Associated Press Top 25.  What is this, SEC football?  “The Big Ten’s always really good; it’s just unusual to have this sort of quality depth where the league performed at such a high level in the non-conference, and then seemingly everybody at least early on protected their home courts like you don’t see very often.” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said before last Saturday’s Maryland-Michigan State game. “I’m not sure that the Big Ten 1-2-3 at the top is significantly better than the ACC or the SEC.  But one through ten, I don’t think it’s a close call.  It’s the best league top to bottom and by far the most competitive.”

In a 21st century college hoops landscape where third-year juniors are a rarity and fourth-year starters are virtually extinct (Maryland’s Anthony Cowan is the exception that proves the rule),  the man wearing the suit (not always with a tie these days) becomes all the more important. “Continuity in coaches-the coaches have been there for a long time,” Bilas said.  And they have:  seven have been at their current jobs at least since 2013, with Purdue’s Matt Painter (15 seasons) and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (25 years) the longest tenured.  That leads to programs on solid footing:  with Penn State, Rutgers, and Illinois likely making this year’s NCAA field, Nebraska (2014) would be the only program not making the Tournament in the last five years.

The Big East may not have the Big Ten’s depth, but they do have what they don’t: National Championships.  Since the Big Ten won its last in 2000, the Big East has boasted six titlists (from an accounting standpoint, we count the 2013 vacated Louisville team but don’t recognize UConn in 2014 as the Huskies were in the AAC).  And this year the league has seven likely participants.  They also have the all-important continuity with six having five-plus years at their respective schools.  “Everybody’s recruiting at a very, very, very high level,” Xavier second-year coach Travis Steele said. “Every time we get a young man committed, I always tell our guys, ‘Hey-don’t forget, Georgetown’s getting the same thing. So is Marquette, so is Villanova, so’s Providence’. Everybody’s good.”  Bad news for a Georgetown that’s on the underbelly of the bubble with four straight losses, and minimal comfort for a Maryland that may lead its conference but has dropped two of three.

Alma Mater Update: the Orange played their home finale Saturday by saluting John Wallace and enabling Jimmy Fallon.  Wasn’t it neat to see Fallon pal around with Tom Brady and Julian Edelman courtside before directing the Sour Citrus Society?  Yeah, right.  Meanwhile, SU lost to North Carolina and slipped to 16-13 on the season and 9-9 in the ACC.  They still need to beat Boston College or Miami to secure that 17th victory and a winning season.  A berth in the NIT is no lock, by the way.  On the Buddy Watch:  the younger Boeheim is averaging 15.2 points per game, putting him on pace for 471 this season which would give him for 688 in his career.  Or 57 shy of his father entering the ACC Tournament.

Wow of the Week: Once again the wow comes from Charlottesville.  Virginia continues its surge up the standings in the ACC with two more wins.  Saturday’s 52-50 triumph over then-No. 7 Duke saw the Cavaliers get a career-defining game from Jay Huff (15 points, 9 rebounds and 10 blocks) as they once again win a nail biter: six of their wins in the current 9-1 stretch have come by one possession.  They’ve already locked up a double-bye in the ACC Tournament and could take third with two wins or a one victory plus help.

Player Spotlight: Sa’eed Nelson earned our first player spotlight at the beginning of January, and as we enter March the spotlight comes full circle.  The senior became American University’s all-time leading scorer last Wednesday, passing Russell “Boo” Bowers.  The guard was also named Patriot League Player of the Year as he helped power AU to a second-place finish, their highest since 2014 when they advanced to the NCAA’s.

League Look:  the Patriot League gets a jump on everyone else with their tournament beginning Tuesday evening.  And unlike most other conferences, games are on campus sites.  Defending champ Colgate repeated as regular season titlist and enters as the No. 1 seed; the conference’s highest-scoring offense (76 points per game) is also the most dangerous from three-point range (36%).  They also have the conference’s top rebounder in Will Rayman (8.9 boards per game).  Perennial favorite Bucknell is conspicuous by its absence from the top of the standings.  This is the first time since 2014 the Bison haven’t finished with a share of the league’s best record, and their history of dominance with six tournament titles and 13 regular season crowns and two of the league’s three NCAA Tournament victories.  Instead, they’re playing in Tuesday’s First Round against last-place Holy Cross knowing that a win sends them to Bender Arena and a date with American on Thursday.

Ballot Battles:  Maryland was oh so close to finding its way into this week’s top five once again, but a loss to Michigan State holds the Terps back.  This week’s movers include UCLA (the Bruins suddenly atop the Pac-12) and Creighton (I’ve got the Bluejays 20th as opposed to the 11th they’re at this week), with small school shout-outs going to Stephen F. Austin, East Tennessee State, and Northern Iowa.  The biggest heat I’m getting?  BYU fans after I dropped the Cougars from 20th to 21st (they’re 15th overall) on my ballot.  While the West Coast Conference’s second place team has won nine in a row, I moved Michigan State and Ohio State over them based on quality wins by the Spartans and Buckeyes over the last eight days.

 

Starting Five:

Friday- Richmond at Duquesne.  The Spiders have won seven of eight to move onto the NCAA Tournament bubble; unfortunately most of those wins have not been of the marquee variety and most bracket models still have Richmond on the outside looking in.  The Dukes are likely the best team U of R has faced since falling to now-No. 7 Dayton in late January.  While a win won’t bolster their at-large consideration, a loss will definitely go towards deflating it.

Saturday- Georgetown vs. Villanova. Patrick Ewing is officially using paper clips and duct tape to hold his roster and rotation together, with Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven joined on the hobbled list by Malcolm Wilson.  Who’s that?  A 6-foot-11 big hoping to redshirt in peace-and he couldn’t even do that, suffering an injury in Saturday’s practice.  The Wildcats are playing for seeding in the Big East as well as NCAA Tournament and won the game up in Philly by 14 when Sadiq Bey sunk eight threes on his way to 33 points.

Also Saturday- No. 22 Virginia vs. Louisville.  The last team to beat the surging Cavaliers? The Cardinals in an 80-73 affair that saw UVa break the 70-point barrier for the first time all season.  Jordan Nwora notched 22 points and 7 rebounds that day, and containing the junior forward is key:  since the start of February he’s averaging 19 points with 9 rebounds (shooting 41% FG and 38% from three) in Louisville’s six wins, 5 points with 7 rebounds (shooting 24% FG and 13% from three) in their three losses.

Also Saturday- George Washington at No. 3 Dayton.  The Colonials try to play spoiler on Senior Day for the Flyers, who are attempting to zero in on the conference’s first number one seed since Saint Josephs in 2004.  Celebrations aside, all eyes will be on a certain sophomore.  Forward Obi Toppin leads the A-10 in shooting (63%), ranks second in scoring (19.8) and is seventh in rebounding (7.8).  GW doesn’t have the firepower to match:  the Colonials rank 13th in the conference in scoring and are also second to last in turnover margin.

Sunday- No. 9 Maryland vs. No. 25 Michigan.  The Terps begin the week one win away from a share of their first conference regular season title since 2010, and they remain in the driver’s seat to secure their first outright regular season crown since the National Championship season of 2002.  The Wolverines have yo-yoed their way through the season, going from starting the season unranked with first-time head coach Juwan Howard to making its Top 25 debut in December at No. 4.  They’ve won five straight and have lost four in a row during conference play and find themselves at .500 with two games left in the regular season.  It’s another tough test for the Terps on the perimeter; Xavier Simpson averages a conference-best 7.9 assists per game.

 

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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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2019 has been a year to remember in Charlottesville, with Virginia winning National Championships in Men’s College Basketball as well as Men’s Lacrosse. They’ve even had a chance to bask in the Nationals’ World Series run, as Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle played their college ball for the Cavaliers.  How do you top that?  There’s only one answer–and that’s a win over Virginia Tech in football that would result in a Coastal Division crown.

The Cavaliers entered the year the lone Coastal team without an appearance in the ACC Championship Game, and with the other six schools taking turns representing the division the previous six years it almost made sense to pencil UVa in this year.  Thankfully the softest Power Five Conference division with multiple schools in rebuild or revamp mode provides the Cavaliers with the perfect avenue to complete what would be one crazy seven-year run for the Coastal.  But they have to get past their nemesis-if you haven’t heard or read before, Virginia has not beaten Virginia Tech in football since the Hokies entered the ACC in 2004.  That’s not just a small snapshot, but a tapestry of tragedy that ranges from routs (52-14 in 2005 and 52-10 in 2016) to heartbreak (17-14 in 2008 and last year’s 34-31 overtime loss).  That’s fifteen straight years of woe instead of “Wahooha!”.

At the University of Virginia, they eschew terms like “freshmen” and “seniors” for “first year” and “fourth years” because in theory you’re always learning (or at least paying tuition).  Factoring a four-year stay on “the grounds” (never “campus”), no current fourth-year student has attended the University with anyone who’s gone to school with anyone who’s been a student with anyone who’s been in classes (I hope they don’t have a special name for “classes”) with a fellow student who was at Virginia the last time they beat Virginia Tech.

Since arriving in Charlottesville in 2016, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has turned around a program that posted eight losing seasons in ten years to one that will make its third straight bowl.  He’s established stability at the quarterback position that was previously a revolving door and has the Cavaliers one step shy of a first-ever Coastal Division crown.  More than just a step, a win Friday would represent a giant leap for the program and complete a year to remember.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange wrap up the season Saturday by hosting Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are a lot like SU: a private school fish swimming in a sea of public school sharks.  The Atlantic Division will long be the domain of Clemson and Florida State as long as those schools refrain from bad coaching hires, but there is evidence that a school like Wake Forest can be competitive.  Moving forward, the Orange need to take that cue.

 

Friday’s Game:

No. 23 Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2 ACC) at Virginia (8-3, 5-2), noon (ABC).

Despite the streak being almost old enough to drive, close games have been the rule recently with four of the last seven games decided by one possession (with two more decided by ten points).  Two months ago this had all of the signs of being the year, but that was before the Hokies defense found its teeth and Hendon Hooker became the starting quarterback (the sophomore still has yet to throw an interception).  Since getting smacked by Duke 45-10 head coach Justin Fuente’s team has won six of seven, averaging 35 points per game.  They’ve gotten better in college football’s closing month, outscoring foes 109-17 the last three weeks.  You could say UVa peaked in their 48-14 October win over the Blue Devils;  they’ve coughed up 114 points in the four games since and have trailed in the first half of each game. Yes, even against Liberty.  Despite an inconsistent running game that ranks 13th in the ACC and an offensive line that allows over three sacks per game, Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins has responded down the stretch with heroics on a weekly basis.  Can he dial it up one more time?

Kippy & Buffy try to dial up some magic from the last time UVa beat the Hokies:  this week they’ll be enjoying a bottle of 2003 Chateau Lynch Bages. “Blending power, concentration, style and charm. Forest floor, cedar wood, fennel, smoke and cherry liqueur scents start off the concentration of flavor, supple, round tannins and a sweet, finish filled with ripe cherries and crème de cassis.”  Lynch Bages is a wine for patient wine lovers, as it often needs 15-20 years in the top vintages to show its best.

Presto’s Pick: Kippy & Buffy have to be a little more patient, as the Cavaliers come up short 24-14.  Can you say “back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back”?

 

Saturday-

Maryland (3-8, 1-7 Big Ten) at Michigan State (5-6, 3-5), 3:30 p.m. (FS1). 

Call this the Disappointment Bowl:  both teams were ranked in September before dropping three-point games in week three.  The Spartans can still secure bowl eligibility with a win and are coming off of a shutout of Rutgers.  They also have a senior quarterback in Brian Lewerke who they’ve been able to protect (a Big Ten-low 17 sacks allowed).  The Terps rank 14th in the conference defending the pass and are second-worst at getting off of the field on third down. They’ve also been hamstrung on offense thanks to multiple injuries at quarterback (they played four in the Nebraska loss) and runningback (Anthony McFarland was never right this fall).  Head coach Mike Locksley referred to this season as “Year Zero”, and he’ll have meetings with players and coaches Sunday and Monday.  While that won’t prevent his team from putting forth maximum effort Saturday, their limitations will prevent the sendoff they desire for their seniors.

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins tumble, 38-14.

 

No. 24 Navy (8-2, 6-1 AAC) at Houston (4-7, 2-5), 7 p.m. (ESPN2). 

The Midshipmen will know by kickoff if this game is for the AAC West;  No. 18 Memphis meets No. 19 Cincinnati Friday afternoon and if the Tigers tumble there will be a window of opportunity open to the Mids for their first division title since 2016. The Cougars won the inaugural AAC Championship Game in 2015 but that was two head coaches ago:  Tom Herman bolted to Texas, and his successor Major Applewhite was fired after 2018’s 8-5 finish.  When Applewhite was hired, University President Renu Khator told faculty and staff at her annual holiday party, “The winning is defined at University of Houston as 10 and 2…we’ll fire coaches at 8 and 4”. That’s a tall order for a program that’s produced five nine-victory campaigns seasons since 1990.  Even a taller order for first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, who posted one such season in his last seven years with West Virginia.  He’s been accused of tanking his first season on campus by having his best players redshirt. This is the kind of program Navy wants to share the field with?

Presto’s Pick: Mids make it happen, 44-20.

Last Week: 5-4.

Overall: 82-34.

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

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

 

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

 

Sweet Sixteen Showdowns–

South-

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

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

 

West-

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

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

 

East-

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

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

 

Midwest-

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

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

 

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

 

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

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

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

Locals-

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Locals-

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Conference Tournament week has the area schools scurrying to locations like Charlotte, Chicago, New York City, Brooklyn and Norfolk.  Even though conference expansion has changed these tourneys from tight three-day affairs to bloated five-day album cuts, the little dances before the Big Dance will provide plenty of thrills, chills, and spills leading up to Selection Sunday.

Tournaments with DC area schools:

ACC- Spectrum Center, Charlotte.  Sure the SEC had a tournament in the 1930’s and 40’s, but the Atlantic Coast Conference created the mold for league tourneys.  And sure, it’s a major hike to Blacksburg and Charlottesville–but there are plenty of alums who reside inside the beltway and either pop their collars or talk about turkey legs and a 15-year football streak.  Beware of the bluebloods:  Duke or North Carolina have won 13 of the 19 tournaments this century–and either the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels have played in the Finals every year since 1997 (the trivia answer would be Wake Forest-Georgia Tech).

#2 Virginia (28-2, 16-2 ACC)- the Cavaliers (10-3 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years) await the winner of Clemson-NC State in the #8 vs #9 game.  The Tigers-Wolfpack noon showdown will have the feel of an NCAA Play-in game, as both  schools are squarely on the bubble.  UVa routed Clemson 63-43 January 12th (holding the Tigers to 26% shooting and 3-19 from three-point range); they needed overtime to edge NC State 66-65 January 29th in their sloppiest game of the season (16 turnovers).  The Wolfpack beat the Tigers during their lone regular season matchup 69-67 and won three of five to wrap up the regular season;  but those three wins came against Boston College (2) and Wake Forest (1), who both lost in Tuesday’s bottom-of-barrel-scraping First Round.  UVa  meets the winner at noon Thursday.

#16 Virginia Tech (23-7, 12-6 ACC)- the Hokies (2-5 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years) face Miami at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Second Round, five days after beating the Hurricanes 84-70.  They also beat Miami 82-70 in their January meeting and in the sweep hit over 50% of their three-point shots against the Canes.  Primary offensive weapon Kerry Blackshear Jr. did not play well in either game: scoring 1 point in January, 8 last Friday, while shooting 4-for-20 over both games.  Hurricane to watch:  senior Anthony Lawrence II notched 20 points with 10 rebounds against Wake Forest and averaged a double-double against the Hokies this winter.  Achilles’ Heel to watch:  Miami ranked last in the ACC in rebounding margin.  A win sets up a rematch against #12 Florida State in the quarterfinals, a little over a week after blowing a double-digit lead in a loss at the Seminoles.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are a less than beautiful 19-12 after Saturday’s loss at Clemson…and even though most models have them “in” the NCAA Tournament, I won’t sleep unless they dispose of last-place Pitt in Wednesday’s Second Round.  A win means a third game this winter against Duke–and I’m not expecting any miracles.  Plus, coach Jim Boeheim is more of a Temptations fan than Smokey Robinson anyways.

 

Big Ten Tournament- United Center, Chicago.  After playing 2017 at Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center and 2018 at Madison Square Garden (a week early) in New York City, the league returns to its roots with a week in the Windy City.  Although to mix things up, this year for the first time the conference instituted a 20-game schedule (don’t worry, the ACC will follow suit next winter).  Sixth ranked Michigan State may enter as regular season champ, but #10 Michigan has won the last two Big Ten Tournaments and nobody is paying attention to #13 Purdue and the league’s leading scorer Carsen Edwards.

#21 Maryland (22-9, 13-7 Big Ten)- at 3 p.m Thursday the Terps (2-4 in the tournament since joining the conference) face the winner of  Rutgers and Nebraska (6:30 p.m Wednesday).  They beat both schools during the first week of January:  Jalen Smith’s last-second bucket gave Maryland a 74-72 win over the Cornhuskers in the kind of tight game they were getting the reputation of losing lately, and the road win at the Scarlet Knights (where they held Rutgers to 19 first-half points) showed that there would be no road woes this winter like last season.  Rutgers took the regular season matchup 76-69;  one game later Nebraska’s second-leading scorer and rebounder (and Georgetown transfer) Isaac Copeland Jr. went down with a torn ACL and the Huskers haven’t recovered. Rutgers remains Rutgers, however:  ranking 12th in the conference in points allowed, shooting and turnover margin; 13th in scoring and three-point shooting; and last in defending the three.  A Terps win Thursday would set up a rubber match with Wisconsin, the home team prevailing each time during the regular season.

 

Big East Tournament, Madison Square Garden, New York City.  The league nobody wants to win holds its postseason affair with plenty of possibilities.  Top seed Villanova lost its last five road games while Marquette dropped its last four games overall.  St. John’s moved from third to seventh place over the last week with three straight defeats.  Even Georgetown found a way to lose to DePaul by 32 (since the Blue Demons swept the Red Storm and bubble team Seton Hall along with that rout of the Hoyas, we’ve dropped the traditional “Lowly” prefix from their name).  Good luck figuring this one out.

Georgetown (19-12, 9-9 Big East)- the Hoyas play third seed Seton Hall Thursday in the last quarterfinal of the day, and while the schedule reads “9:30 p.m.”, both you and I know better (more like 9:45-9:50 start-if there’s no overtime).  Home court prevailed during the regular season, with the Pirates Myles Powell averaging 32.5 points against the Hoyas.  Jessie Govan scored 20 and 21 points against Seton Hall, but went scoreless in the first half at Capital One Arena before catching fire:  the senior scored all 11 Hoya points in double-overtime of the 77-71 win.  The freshman duo of Mac McClung and James Akinjo had rough nights in both games, shooting a combined 2-for-11 in the road loss and 9-for-28 in the home win.  The winner likely faces #23 Marquette in the semifinals, barring a continued collapse by the Golden Eagles (a distinct possibility).

 

Atlantic 10 Tournament, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.  I actually enjoyed having the A-10 in DC last March, and can’t wait for it to return in 2022.  It was a shame all four area schools had down years in 2018:  VCU, George Mason and Richmond each finished 9-9 in league play while George Washington played on the first day of the tournament.  This year, the Rams are on a roll with 12 straight wins and the Patriots are enjoying their best-ever conference season since leaving the CAA.  The Spiders and Colonials…not so much.

George Washington (8-23, 4-14 Atlantic 10)- the Colonials (5-5 since re-alignment in 2014)  play UMass in the first game of the tournament Wednesday at 1 p.m. GW took the regular season matchup 79-67 on February 20 as Maceo Jack scored 20 points;  that’s their only win since January.  The current five game losing streak involves four double-digit defeats.  UMass may have two wins in their last five games, but are winless away from Amherst against A-10 competition this winter.  They also have a hobbled leading scorer as Luwane Pipkins has played in just three of the team’s last nine games due to a hamstring injury.

George Mason (17-14, 11-7 Atlantic 10)- the Patriots (2-5 in the tournament over the last five years) play the winner of George Washington and UMass in Thursday’s Second Round (2:30 p.m.);  somehow this Patriots-Colonials-Minutemen sub-bracket is kind of amusing for history majors (though not as cool as the potential VCU-Rhode Island-Fordham Rams Regional would be).  Mason swept both teams during the regular season, with their  January 16 win at UMass (an 18-9 finish over the last 6:40 delivering a five-point margin) setting the tone for a 7-2 start in league play.  Freshman Jordan Miller could be an X-factor this week:  the Middleburg, VA native averaged 14 points (on 58% shooting) with 9.5 rebounds over his last four games.  The winner takes on St. Bonaventure in Friday’s Quarterfinals (2:30 p.m).

Richmond (12-19, 6-12 Atlantic 10)- the Spiders (4-5 with one tournament finals appearance since 2014) face Fordham in Wednesday’s other First Round game (3:30 p.m.).  It’s been a rough finish for both teams:  Richmond has lost four straight while the Rams have dropped five of six.  The Spiders took the lone regular season meeting 72-69 February 20;  Grant Golden scored 16 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds left.  Freshman Nick Honor paced the Rams with 23 points that day—a sign that the future is bright.  The present is another matter for the league’s last-place team.

VCU (25-6, 16-2 Atlantic 10)- the Rams are 13-5 in the A-10 Tournament since leaving the CAA, and with the exception of last March have advanced to the Finals every year.  Their run this year begins in the Quarterfinals Friday at noon against the winner or Rhode Island and La Salle.  While the Rams beat the Explorers 69-63 in early January, they fell 71-65 to Rhode Island on a night where they coughed up 50 second-half points, turned the ball over 18 times and shot 17% from three-point range.  Coach Mike Rhoades’ team hasn’t lost since.  URI beat La Salle in the regular season 78-67 thanks to 20 points from Fatts Russell.  Let the record show the A-10 has some sweet names this year, from the Explorers’ Pookie Powell to my favorite:  Duquesne guard Sincere Carry-who naturally just happens to lead the conference in assists.

 

MEAC Tournament, Norfolk Scope, Norfolk.  This league runs its men’s and women’s tournaments concurrently, meaning Monday’s First Round winners often next play Wednesday or Thursday.  While the #1 seed has won five titles in the last ten years, there have been upsets like last March when #6 seed North Carolina Central beat regular season champ Hampton in the Finals.

Howard (16-15, 10-6 MEAC) reached the Semifinals as a #11 seed two years ago;  the Bison have just two other wins in the tournament this decade.  The lead the league in scoring but play a defensive style that can sometimes be referred to as “matadorish”; but when you have the conference’s top two point producers in R.J. Cole and Charles Williams you take your chances.  Coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team is also riding a ridiculous 8-0 road record in conference play to Norfolk-where they wrapped up the regular season by beating top seed Norfolk State.  The #4 seed Bison battle Bethune-Cookman Thursday in the Quarterfinals at 8 p.m.;  the Wildcats boast the league’s best big man in Cletrell Pope (#1 in rebounding, #2 in shooting percentage and #3 in blocked shots).   The winner likely gets an angry Norfolk State in the Semifinals Friday.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday’s Second Round-

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

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

 

 

Maryland is in its fourth Big Ten season, meaning every fourth-year senior attending the school (I know not everybody gets out in four–aka “seven years of college down the drain”) has known no other conference.  But there’s still an ACC feel to the university on gamedays–as the men’s and women’s basketball crowds are robust and the football crowds are lacking.   Instead of a “blackout”, whiteout” or a “gold rush” it appears as there have been “gray ghost” games–where the fans are disguised as stadium seats.

Attendance this fall has averaged 37,636–which ranks 13th in the Big Ten, just ahead of Northwestern.  One could point to the small stadium size as Maryland Stadium is the third-smallest in the conference, but when grading for percentage of capacity the Terps’ 72.7% is only ahead of Illinois.  Since its inaugural season of 2014, the school has gone from 10th to 12th to 13th in putting people in the seats.   No longer having ACC rivals like Virginia on the slate can’t help as there’s a generation of fans who now feel a disconnect and can’t really get motivated for the likes of Northwestern and Purdue.  And for the opponents with big fan bases like Ohio State and Michigan, College Park becomes “Ann Arbor South” or “Columbus East”.  Last Saturday against the Wolverines there was a flood of Maize and Blue in the stands.  One could even hear UCF fans shout “Knight” during the National Anthem when they came to College Park in September.  Brace yourselves, because Penn State fans will likely be holding a “white-out” of their own at Maryland Stadium next Saturday.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange need a win over Louisville to stay in contention for a bowl game.  Yes, the Cardinals that are currently carving their way through the back end of a schedule after early stumbles.  Last year Lamar Jackson led Louisville to 62 points at the Carrier Dome–and he’s found that groove again this fall.  Meanwhile, there’s basketball.

 

Virginia (6-4, 3-3 ACC) at #2 Miami (9-0, 6-0), noon (ABC).  The Cavaliers November gauntlet continues with the resurrected Hurricanes:  how will their 11th best in the ACC run defense hold up against Travis Homer (146 yards rushing against Notre Dame and a 6.7 yards per carry average for the season)?  UVa quarterback Kurt Benkert has thrown an interception in four straight games- he’ll be facing a Hurricane secondary that leads the conference with 16 picks.  Kippy & Buffy pick a red blend for the tailgate, and against the “Convicts” school of the Catholics & Convicts what better to enjoy than a 2016 bottle of The Prisoner: “enticing aromas of Bing cherry, dark chocolate, clove, and roasted fig. Persistent flavors of ripe raspberry, boysenberry, pomegranate, and vanilla linger harmoniously.”  Cavaliers win the tailgate but lose the game, 38-15.

 

Virginia Tech (7-3, 3-3 ACC) vs Pitt (4-6, 2-4), 12:20 p.m. (ACC Network).  The Hokies need to get right before their annual Commonwealth clash with Virginia.  Quarterback Josh Jackson hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since before Halloween-he’ll face a rather accommodating Panthers defense that allows the most passing yards in the ACC.   Despite allowing 28 points in each of the last two weeks, the Hokies defense remains first against the pass and in points allowed as well as in getting off of the field on third down.  They’ll be tested on the ground as Darrin Hall is averaging 162 yards over his last three games.  Hokies make it happen, 28-16.

 

Navy (6-3) at #9 Notre Dame (8-2), 3:30 p.m. (NBC).  This isn’t the walkover it used to be:  The Mids have won four of the last ten meetings and came within a touchdown on two other occasions.  The Fighting Irish can still secure a New Year’s Day bowl berth with wins this weekend and at Stanford, while Navy appears to be bound for the Military Bowl in Annapolis–leave it the USNA to save the government money in travel expenses.  Navy’s had a pair of quarterbacks run for over 200 yards this fall, but both Zach Abey (shoulder) and Malcolm Perry (ankle) are questionable for Saturday–potentially placing Garret Lewis in the driver’s seat of the option offense.  The junior has 46 total yards rushing this fall.  Midshipmen come up short, 44-17.

 

Maryland (4-6, 2-5) at Michigan State (7-3, 5-2), 4 p.m., (FOX).  The Terps need a win to keep their bowl hopes alive, while the Spartans are smarting after a 48-3 loss to Ohio State.  MSU’s offense may be middle of the road (seventh in the 14-school Big Ten in rushing, passing and total yardage), but Maryland’s defense has been roadkill over the last two months-allowing 31+ points in six league games while coughing up 38+ twice in non-conference play.  Quarterback Max Bortenschlager (still not specified if it’s a shoulder, head or hangnail injury) remains a question mark for the Terps;  and while Ryan Brand played better as the Michigan game progressed there’s something to be said about instability (even injury-induced) at the game’s most important position.  Terrapins tumble, 31-17.

Howard makes Mike London the MEAC Coach of the year with a victory at Hampton, Georgetown ends its autumn by falling to Colgate, Richmond edges William & Mary, Towson tops Rhode Island, James Madison escapes upset at Elon…and enters the FCS Playoffs as the #1 seed.
Last Week: 6-2.

Overall: 64-23.