Archives for posts with tag: Patriot League

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

PORTIONS ALSO APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Maryland received a rude awakening in December when they lost again at Penn State. Now the eastern wing of the Big Ten neighborhood could be even dicier.  I said it here last week in this space, and I’m going to say it again. Rutgers is actually good this year.  The Scarlet Knights are 14-4 and are currently ranked by the AP for the first time since 1979: when the Top 25 was a Top 20, the shot clock was years away from being used in the college game, and the three-pointer wasn’t even used in the NBA. The Big East hadn’t even been formed and the NCAA Tournament was going from 32 to 40 schools, with the Final Four broadcast on NBC and ESPN not even created yet to broadcast the first two days.  The ensuing 40-plus years have not been kind to a school that’s logged time in five different conferences, as they’ve not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 (that was three leagues ago when they were an Atlantic 10 member).  But coach Steve Pikiell in his fourth year at the helm as built the Scarlet Knights into a defensive dynamo: they allow a Big Ten-low 58.7 points per game while ranking second in steals and fourth in rebounding margin.  We’ll know how far they’ve come Wednesday night when they visit No. 19 Iowa.

 

Alma Mater Update- back to back to back wins for the Orange have SU over .500 in the ACC for the first time all winter.  Saturday’s 71-69 win at Virginia Tech avenged a loss from the week before in the Dome as Buddy Boeheim tied a career high with 26 points.  The Buddy Watch has the sophomore at 511 career points with 13 games remaining; if he keeps up his current average of 16.2 points per game he’ll enter the ACC Tournament with 721.  His dad scored 745 career points before going on to win over 1,000 games with his alma mater.

 

Wow of the Week- Richmond (14-4, 4-1 Atlantic 10) has already surpassed last winter’s win total, and the Spiders did so by triumphing twice on the road.  Wagner transfer Blake Francis has settled in to spearhead the offense (18 points per game), allowing big man Grant Golden to focus inside and guard Jacob Gilyard to worry more about running the offense.  Coach Chris Mooney is in his 15th season at the helm, and after consecutive 20-loss campaigns appears to have the Spiders set back on a familiar course that will have them contending in the A-10.

 

Player to Watch- Virginia gave us four years of the unintentional comedy that was big man Jack Salt:  the six-foot-ten center from New Zealand, despite shooting 59% from the field during his career, notched more personal fouls than made baskets in each of his four seasons with the Cavaliers.  Salt’s exit means more run for seven-foot-one Jay Huff, who after averaging under ten minutes per game in his first two seasons has turned into a major force this winter.  He’s averaging 24.5 minutes and recorded 17 points with 8 rebounds in a win against Georgia Tech that ended a three game slide.  But Huff was back to single digits in Monday’s loss to NC State, and UVa finds itself at .500 in league play.

 

League Look- one game separates the top five teams in the Patriot League as preseason favorite Colgate (14-5, 5-1) is being chased by American and Navy, along with Boston University and Bucknell.  The Raiders won at Navy earlier this month; Jordan Burns and company visit AU Saturday.

 

Ballot Battles- this week I moved Baylor into the top spot after two more wins; I very well could have moved them there last week after the win over Kansas but I try to be less knee-jerk when it comes to number one.  This week I received grief for having Colorado in the top 20 while keeping Arizona out despite the Wildcats win over the Buffaloes at home Saturday.

 

This Week’s Starting Five (games of local interest)-

Tuesday: No. 17 Maryland at Northwestern. The Terps may be 0-3 on the road in the Big Ten, but that’s the rule as opposed to the exception in the conference this winter.  Home teams are 40-7 so far this season, but the last-place Wildcats have two of those defeats.  If the Terrapins want to stay in the top half of a very good Big Ten (ten schools in Ken Pomeroy’s top 40), they need every road win they can get.

Wednesday:  Georgetown at Xavier.  The Hoyas are also 0-3 on the road in Big East play, but home court dominance isn’t as great in a conference where road teams are 11-17 this winter.  Both teams find themselves in the bottom half of that league, with the Musketeers coming off of three straight double digit defeats.  They also have trouble scoring (seventh in shooting and ninth from three point range), making things a little easier on the Hoyas who allow the most points per game in conference.

Also Wednesday: George Washington at Fordham.  The Colonials have won consecutive Atlantic 10 games for the first time since February 2018.  Armel Potter was a big reason why, as the senior guard averaged 24 points with 6 assists in those victories.  The run can continue for first-year coach Jamion Christian, as they play their next two games against schools winless in the A-10.  First is a Rams team that ranks 345th in the nation in shooting and 348th in scoring.

Saturday: Navy vs. Army.  It’s not the football spectacular, but this Patriot League matinee is not without relevance.  The Midshipmen have won three of four while the Black Knights have won two straight.  Army also is led in scoring by Tommy Funk, which on name value has to count for something.

Sunday: Virginia at Wake Forest.  The defending national champs knew they’d have growing pains with the bulk of last year’s producers departing, but the Cavaliers have lost four of five and are slowly slipping towards the NCAA Tournament bubble.  The Demon Deacons are to the ACC what Rutgers used to be to the Big Ten:  a school with distant Final Four history and often a tough out but a team you need to beat if you want to stay in contention.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

Welcome back everyone, and prepare to enter what has been claimed to be the best regular season in sports (amazing how many one-loss Alabama and Clemson teams make the playoff in a world where “every week matters”).  This year there’s a twist though:  Clemson is ranked first and Alabama is second!  I know, I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off of the floor.  In the current College Football Playoff era, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have combined for nine of the 20 semifinal berths.  And there’s a very good chance they’ll be joined by the two other schools with multiple CFP berths (blue bloods Ohio State and Oklahoma) while the Pac-12 champ pounds sand once again.  But it all starts this weekend.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Even though No. 8 Florida faced Miami in Orlando last Saturday, this is technically week one.  Fans of the Gators and Hurricanes got to see to underprepared teams combine for five turnovers, 23 penalties and convert a combined 4-for-24 on third down.  Heading into the showdown it was referred to as “Week Zero”, and I wholeheartedly agree.  Bring on the real season.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange begin the year ranked for the first time since 1997.  Yes, SU hasn’t been in the Preseason Top 25 since Donovan McNabb was wearing #5.  Naturally they’re opening the season at…Liberty.  I do have friends headed to Lynchburg for the game as the drive is manageable, and I’m wondering if they’re going to follow the trend and bring Spiked Seltzer to the tailgate.  I’m holding my breath.

 

Maryland vs. Howard, noon (Big Ten Network).

The Terps will start a different quarterback in their opener for the fourth straight season, as Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson gets the nod. While with the Hokies Jackson started Labor Day weekend wins over ranked foes West Virginia and Florida State.  And he never had a running threat like Anthony McFarland: the sophomore looks to continue the momentum of last November where he posted a pair of 200-yard rushing games.  The Bison counter with third-year starting quarterback Caylin Newton (yes, he’s Cam’s younger brother) and the offensive weapons that led the MEAC in scoring last fall, but they also bring a defense that allowed 34 points per game in 2018.  

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins Triumph, 45-20.

 

Navy vs. Holy Cross, 3:30 p.m (CBS Sports Network). 

The long road back from 3-10 begins with a game against a Patriot League foe. One that was picked to finish second in its conference and ended 2018 with four straight wins.  But the Crusaders lost quarterback Geoff Wade to graduation, and Emmett Clifford (under 10 yards per completion and a 1-3 touchdown to interception ratio) is just the kind of QB the new-look Navy defense wants to confuse pre-snap.  All eyes will be on the arm of Midshipman quarterback Malcolm Perry as the team has been talking all month about throwing the ball more.  It’s one thing to say you’re going to open up the offense, it’s another thing entirely to try to do so in game situations and yet another thing to execute.

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen crush the Crusaders, 38-14.

 

Virginia Tech at Boston College, 4 p.m (ACC Network).  

Of the three schools that marked the first exodus of the Big East to the ACC in 2004-05, the Hokies have been the most successful (Miami didn’t even win a Coastal Division title until last year) but for a while BC held its own against the Clemsons and Florida States in the Atlantic Division.  But since finishing first or second in the Atlantic each of their first five years in the league, the Eagles haven’t posted a winning ACC record.  Junior running back AJ Dillon rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Hokies last year.  We’ll see how revamped Virginia Tech’s defense is this year after finishing near the bottom of the conference in 2018.  The road team has won four of the last five games in this series.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies make it happen, 27-17.

 

Virginia at Pitt, 7:30 p.m. (ACC Network).

Could this be the Cavaliers’ year?  The other six Coastal Division schools have each taken turns advancing to the Conference Championship Game since 2013.  Last year’s representative was a Pitt team that reached Charlotte behind 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall; both are trying to stick with NFL rosters this summer.  The Panthers also have four new starters on their offensive line and a quarterback in junior Kenny Pickett who has plenty of experience but also a very low ceiling.   Cavaliers QB Bryce Perkins is coming off of a spectacular season where he was one of two FBS players to pass for at least 2,600 yards while rushing for 900+.  The other? Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

My UVa tailgating pals Kippy & Buffy are back for another exciting season, and just like their team that’s dreaming big in 2019 my favorite couple begins big: a bottle of 2013 Joseph Phelps Insignia. “Focused and fresh, this exceptionally concentrated wine showcases elegant tannin structure and a silky mouthfeel layered with dark fruit, sweet vanilla bean, cracked black pepper and bittersweet chocolate.”  Nothing bittersweet about the season ahead.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers are focused, fresh, and find a way to win, 27-20.

 

Georgetown falls at Davidson, Towson tops The Citadel, James Madison makes FCS proud with an upset win at West Virginia, William & Mary wins at Lafayette.

Last Year: 69-44, including a 1-8 week where I should have pulled a George Costanza and went the opposite.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

From Friday–

There are givens on this planet.  The sun will rise and set.  The Rolling Stones will go on tour for what might be the final time.  Hallmark Holiday Movies will somehow feature a twist yet arrive at a happy ending.  And since 2004, Kansas has secured at least a share of the Big 12 men’s basketball regular season championship.  That’s 14 straight titles…and whether the Jayhawks win the national title or get upset in the first weekend of the NCAA’s, they annually hang a banner marking their conference dominance.

It’s been somewhat of a perfect storm for the Jayhawks in that time;  when looking at how conferences have fared come Final Four time the Big 12 has been decidedly lacking.  Just four appearances in the National Semifinals, with Kansas (2008, 2012 and 2018) nabbing three of them (the 2016 Oklahoma team led by Buddy Hield is the other).  Meanwhile, three leagues (Big East, Big Ten and SEC) have sent ten schools to the Final Four while the ACC has had eight schools reach the final weekend (disclosure: the league the school was in that year gets the credit, so Conference USA gets credit for Louisville in 2005 while the Big East gets Louisville’s 2012 and 2013 trips).  Simply put, Kansas hasn’t had a ton of heavyweights to punch past during this stretch…even to the point that the Big 12 now has only ten schools-meaning they only have to be better than nine others, as opposed to the ACC’s 15 (Duke hasn’t shared a conference title since 2010).

But this year it finally appeared as though the Jayhawks would wind up looking up somebody in the standings for the first time since 2004…I mean they were barbecued by Texas Tech 91-62 last Saturday in Lubbock.  All we needed was for a Kansas State team that has been ranked all season to go into Allen Fieldhouse and finish the job.

Only they didn’t.  The Jayhawks 64-49 win sets coach Bill Self’s team up perfectly:  they’re now 10-5 in the conference- just one game off the pace set by the Wildcats and Red Raiders while their three remaining Big 12 foes are a combined 18-27 in league play, easily the worst in the four teams that are in the mix for first place (Baylor is also 10-5 in the league).  Are you kidding me? Prepare yourself for another year under Pax Jayhawka.  The Big 12 sun refuses once again to set on the Kansas basketball empire.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange try to bounce back from two tough losses to Duke and North Carolina…with the antidote known as Wake Forest next on the schedule.  SU can still reach 20 regular season wins…a loss to the Demon Deacons almost drags them down to the land of the NIT.

Saturday’s Games:

Navy (10-18, 7-10 Patriot League) at Boston University (14-16, 7-10), 12 p.m.  The Midshipmen are coming off of an upset of first place Bucknell thanks to 17 points and 8 assists from senior Hassan Abdullah;  they also held the Bison to under 30% shooting at Alumni Hall.  Unfortunately the Mids have not been the same team away from Annapolis:  they’re currently 1-7 on the road in league play.  BU won the previous meeting this winter 75-69 behind 22 points from Max Mahoney.  There’s plenty on the line as the loser is assured of playing in the Patriot League Tournament’s first round while the winner has a shot at fourth place and a home quarterfinal game.

American (14-14, 8-9 Patriot League) at Holy Cross (15-15, 6-11), 1:05 p.m..  Speaking of Patriot League positioning, the Eagles can wrap up home court for the quarterfinals with a win or losses by Army, Lafayette and Navy.  That’s the good news;  the bad news is that AU has lost four of five.  They did defeat the Crusaders in DC February 2nd on their best defensive day of the season (49 points allowed).  Jacob Boonyasith led AU in scoring that afternoon, an aberration this winter as Sa’eed Nelson has been the Eagles’ top scorer in 12 of 17 Patriot League games.

#2 Virginia (25-2, 13-2 ACC) vs. Pitt (12-16, 2-13), 2 p.m., ACC Network.  Will there be thank-you notes sent to Blacksburg?  Virginia Tech’s win over Duke means the Cavaliers control their path to the ACC Regular Season title and #1 seed in the conference tournament (as UVa owns the head to head tiebreaker with North Carolina).  Speaking of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Cavaliers conclude their league schedule with Pitt,  Syracuse and Louisville.  I know–still feels kind of weird.  Can’t wait for next winter’s 20-game schedule.  Pitt has lost eleven straight and is 0-9 on the road this season.  One of the bright spots in Jeff Capel’s first season has been Arlington, Virginia native Xavier Johnson:  the freshman from Bishop O’Connell is averaging 17 points with 5 assists.  By comparison, UVa has three players on its roster from the Commonwealth–and the trio of Austin Katstra, Jayden Nixon, and manager Grant Kersey (who suits up for home games) have played a total of 13 minutes in ACC action.  The way this year has been going for both teams, don’t be surprised to see Kersey take to the floor late in the second half.

George Mason (16-12, 10-5 Atlantic 10) at Saint Louis (17-11, 8-7), 3 p.m., NBCSN.  The the Patriots are coming off of a 77-63 win over Richmond that clinches a winning conference record for the first time since Mason joined the A-10.  For comparison, it took three seasons for the program to record its first ten victories in league play.  The Billikens were the preseason favorites but have fallen on tough times since starting 5-0 in the conference-although there’s nothing to be ashamed about losing consecutive road games at Dayton and VCU.  SLU is the best rebounding team in the Atlantic 10, with Hasahn French (8.5 boards per game) the main culprit.  Cause for Patriots confidence?  Coach Dave Paulsen’s team is 4-3 on the road in A-10 play this winter.

George Washington (8-20, 4-11 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Bonaventure (14-14, 10-5), 4 p.m., ESPN+.  It’s been one rough winter for the Colonials who have lost six of seven– with all of their losses coming by double digits.  Tuesday’s defeat at Rhode Island saw GW begin with a bang (54% shooting in the first half) and end with a whimper (24% after intermission) while missing all 11 of their three-point attempts.  While the Colonials are likely ticketed to the dreaded first round of the A-10 Tournament, the Bonnies have won five straight to move into contention for a double-bye.  They also have a big man named Osum Osunniyi who leads the conference in blocked shots.  GW has enough trouble generating offense without this ominous obstacle planted in the paint.

VCU (22-6, 13-2 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (12-16, 6-9), 4 p.m., CBSSN.  The Rams can wrap up their first regular season title since joining the Atlantic 10 with a victory plus a loss by Davidson.  The hottest team in the conference (nine straight wins) is piling up W’s thanks to their D: coach Mike Rhoades’ bunch leads the A-10 in scoring defense, field goal defense and defending the 3-pointer.  Richmond ranks last in the conference in rebounding, and the Spiders are also looking to rebound from a double digit loss at George Mason.  They led 37-35 before the Patriots went on a 15-4 run to take the lead for good.  VCU took the February 13th matchup thanks to a 21-5 first half run at the Siegel Center.

Howard (14-15, 8-6 MEAC) at Savannah State (10-18, 7-7), 6 p.m.  Can the Bison somehow post their first winning record since 2002?  That may be a tough task with first place Norfolk State on the slate Monday, but coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team does have a legitimate shot at a double-bye in the upcoming conference tournament. The Bison and Tigers rank 1st and 2nd in the MEAC in scoring…while also ranking 11th and 12th in scoring defense.  Howard has the stars- with RJ Coles (21.1 points per game) and Charles Williams (18.2) holding down the top two spots in the league.  Savannah State has the depth- six Tigers average between eight and 13 points per game.

Georgetown (17-11, 7-8 Big East) vs. Seton Hall (16-11, 7-8), 6:30 p.m., CBSSN.  Senior Night may have arrived a couple of evenings early as Jessie Govan scored 26 points in the Hoyas’ 82-73 win over lowly DePaul (yes, after the Blue Demons flirted with as high as third place in the Big East they currently are back residing in the conference basement).  Can the Hoyas win consecutive league games for just the second time this winter?  “Our problem is we’ll have a great game today, and then exhale and take a step back for the next one-and we can’t do that,” coach Patrick Ewing said, “Especially going down the stretch–everyone is fighting for seeding right now.”  Case in point- the Hoyas and Pirates are tied with Xavier for fourth place in the conference, one game behind third place St. John’s and one game ahead of the Butler-Creighton seventh place duo.  Back to Govan- the senior scored 20 points the last time these two teams played, but the Pirates Myles Powell poured in 30 as the Hall led by 20 in the first half of an 80-75 triumph.

Sunday’s Game:

#17 Maryland (21-8, 12-6 Big Ten) vs. #9 Michigan (25-4, 14-4), 3:45 p.m., CBS.  The Terps return home after their annual February Foulup:  if it feels like every year they have a confounding road loss around this time, it’s probably because this is the third straight February they’ve lost to the Nittany Lions on the road.  While this winter’s team is probably not headed to the NIT (Penn State beat Utah at MSG in the finals last year), they have won five of seven after an 0-10 Big Ten start (and with Illinois and Rutgers coming up they could go 7-3 over the second half of league play).  The last time the Terps faced the Wolverines it was Michigan that was trying to bounce back from a loss in Happy Valley.  One expects that one of the keys Sunday will be ball security:  Maryland turned the ball over 16 times in their February 9th loss at Ann Arbor.  It was so bad in the first half they had issues simply getting the ball to midcourt.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Sometimes the street signs take your attention away from the road. Selection Sunday is less than four weeks away-and that means the annual elevation of “Bracketology”.  I used to do it as a kid with the weekly AP poll–and as a cottage industry it’s been around for about 20 years.  Where projecting the field was once the near-exclusive domain of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS, FOX and Yahoo! have gotten into the act as well.

And it’s not just an in-season thing:  you can find projected brackets as early as the week after the Final Four–updated over the summer! (seriously, people- go to the beach or do the crossword by the pool).  The women’s tournament even has ESPN’s Charlie Creme to set that field of 64.

So prepare to have each and every win and loss by the schools in the NCAA mix be talked about in terms of not what happened during the game, but how the result might move a  school up or down a line.  Or-heaven forbid- into the “First Four Out”, “Next Four Out” and “Further Four Farther Out”.  Sometimes it feels as though the analysts are more focused talking about the projected bracket shift than the actual game.

How do teams deal with the extra noise? Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said, “Well I know the guys watch it…the good thing is we’re being mentioned in it. But there’s so much basketball left-and we’re really trying to get better.”  After missing the NCAA Tournament and the NIT last March for the first time since 2014, the Terps are projected as a #6 seed by ESPN, CBS and FOX.   “The good thing is that we’re being mentioned that we’re going to be in it right now.” Turgeon said, “Now we’re not in it for sure–we’ve got work to do…but that’s a good sign that we’re headed in the right direction.”

For comparison, the networks have Virginia a #1 seed, Virginia Tech a #5 or #6, and VCU (taking the Atlantic 10 automatic bid) anywhere from a #9 to a #11.  Even Georgetown has been listed as one of the “First Four Out” on Yahoo! Sports’ latest bracket.  But not like anyone’s watching…just ask Mark Turgeon: “Of course I don’t pay attention to anything except my team-and watch film”.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange host #1 Duke three days after Zion Williamson sprained his knee…and the Blue Devil freshman won’t be playing Saturday.  Jim Boeheim will be coaching–just three nights after being involved in a car accident that killed a pedestrian on I-690.  One thinks of the deceased man’s family and friends at this time.

Saturday’s Games:

#3 Virginia (23-2, 11-2 ACC) at #18 Louisville (18-9, 9-5), 12 p.m., ACC Network.  Can the Cavaliers somehow win the conference despite getting swept by Duke?  The Blue Devils’ loss Wednesday to #8 North Carolina evens matters in the loss column, and who knows how long they’ll be without freshman phenom Zion Williamson (according to coach Mike Krzyzewski it’s a sprained knee)?  Duke’s finishing kick also involves three road games in Blacksburg, Chapel Hill and Syracuse.  Don’t tell Louisville about the Carrier Dome:  the usually potent Cardinals (fourth in the ACC in scoring) shot 26% while putting just 49 points on the board there Wednesday.  UVa has to contain forward Jordan Nwora, who notched a double-double against Duke and leads Louisville in scoring and rebounding.  A reasonable task for the top defensive team in the ACC.

#24 Maryland (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten) vs. Ohio State (17-9, 7-8), 2 p.m., ESPN.  The Terps took the January 18th matchup in Columbus by 15 despite 19 turnovers thanks to 20 points from Anthony Cowan Jr.; Tuesday the junior guard scored 17 points with a season-high 8 assists in a 66-65 win over #21 Iowa.  That victory was the first for the Terps on the road against a ranked foe since January 2008 when they upset then-#1 North Carolina.  The Buckeyes are 0-5 against ranked teams this winter-and are less than one week removed from scoring 13 points in the second half of a loss to #10 Michigan State.  But if scoring in the forties (they posted 44 in East Lansing) is a disease, then OSU most certainly passed it on to Northwestern in their 63-49 win Wednesday.

George Washington (8-18, 4-9 Atlantic 10) at VCU (20-6, 11-2), 2 p.m., ESPN+.  The Rams have won seven straight to go from underwhelming contender to perhaps a likely at-large contender-last year the A-10 received two such bids (Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure).  They also won the February 6th matchup between these two teams in Foggy Bottom by ten; it was a game where GW had 17 turnovers to 15 made baskets. D.J. Williams scored 16 points that night- he’ll need more help this time (his teammates shot 9-for-34 and 0-for-9 from three-point range that night).  The Colonials are coming off their first win in five games this month:  Maceo Jack tallied 20 points with 7 rebounds in the 79-67 win over UMass.  They’ll need more than Jack and Williams to play well Saturday.

Richmond (11-15, 5-8 Atlantic 10) at La Salle (8-17, 6-7), 2 p.m., ESPN+.  The Explorers took the February 2nd meeting 66-58 as Pookie Powell tallied 18 points; after a minor hiccup (a season-low two points in a loss last weekend to Saint Louis) Powell produced 20 in La Salle’s 62-60 loss to St. Bonaventure Wednesday.  First-year head coach Ashley Howard is less than a year removed from cutting down the nets as part of Villanova’s national championship staff; growing pains are to be expected in the A-10.  Just ask Chris Mooney, who posted losing seasons his first two years in Richmond.  Unfortunately the Spiders of the present are on the verge of a second straight losing season for the first time since 2006 (Mooney’s second season).  But they do head to Philly having won four of six.

Navy (9-17, 6-9 Patriot League) at Colgate (13-10, 10-5), 2 p.m., CBSSN.  While the Midshipmen’s game with Loyola of Maryland was pushed back a day due to the winter weather, the Raiders have been storming up the standings with a five game winning streak-a streak that includes victories over conference co-leaders Lehigh and Bucknell.  The Midshipmen took the January 3rd matchup in Annapolis by six on a day where they hit 45% of their shots (their season average is 31%).

Georgetown (16-10, 6-7 Big East) at Creighton (14-13, 5-9), 2:30 p.m., FOX.  The Hoyas’ 85-73 win over #17 Villanova was huge not just because it snapped a nine game losing streak to the Wildcats but it was also coach Patrick Ewing’s first victory against a ranked opponent in his head coaching career.  It was the best 40-minute effort of Ewing’s team this winter–on both ends of the floor.  The defense that’s coughed up points early and often?  Held Nova to 39% shooting and 24% from three-point range.  The offense that squandered double-digit leads?  Freshman James Akinjo notched nine assists to three turnovers while piloting the Big East’s highest scoring attack.  Getting from this win to the NCAA Tournament is a major leap, but at least 20 wins remains a possibility for Ewing’s second season at the helm.  The Bluejays have made the tournament each of the last two seasons; barring a major miracle that won’t happen this March for coach Greg McDermott’s team.  It’s been an aggravating slide, with two overtime losses plus a pair of two-possession defeats before their win over DePaul.

#20 Virginia Tech (20-6, 9-5 ACC) at Notre Dame (13-13, 3-10), 4 p.m..  The Hokies attempt to bounce back from another loss to Virginia, although this one was much closer than the 22-point drubbing they were dealt last month in Charlottesville.  How soon will Justin Robinson return from his foot injury?  The team is 3-3 this month without the senior guard, scoring more than 70 points just once.  They began league play the first weekend of January with a 15-point win over the Fighting Irish in Blacksburg.  Since that day things have not been ideal for Mike Brey’s team: their three league wins have come against sub-500 squads Boston College (twice) and Georgia Tech.

George Mason (15-11, 9-4 Atlantic 10) vs. Duquesne (17-9, 8-5), 4 p.m., ESPN+.   Both teams have lost three of their last five games while having the entire week to prepare for this battle for fourth place…and while each team still has five conference games remaining it’s never too early to think about playing for the double-bye in the upcoming A-10 Tournament (and even if it is, we’re already dissecting brackets for the Big Dance).  Mason has won four straight at home…while the Dukes’ Eric Williams Jr. has been heating up in February (shooting 51% from the field and 56% from three-point range).

Howard (12-15, 6-6 MEAC) at Coppin State (6-21, 6-6), 4 p.m.  The Bison play their final four games of the regular season on the road-and that might not be a bad thing.  R.J. Coles and company are 4-0 away from Burr Gymnasium in league play.  The Eagles have already won more games this winter than in coach Juan Dixon’s first season;  they’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with the most prolific offense in the MEAC-especially with a unit that ranks last in the conference in turnover and rebounding margin.

 

Sunday’s Game:

American (13-13, 7-8 Patriot League) at Army (12-16, 7-8), 2 p.m.  The Eagles can make the case for being the snakebitten area team of the month with three straight losses coming by two points.  This battle for fourth place carries extra weight because the Patriot League plays its tournament games on the campus of the higher seed.  AU beat the Black Knights 71-68 February 9th thanks to freshman Jacob Boonyasith’s 20 points:  that may have been an isolated incident, because in the three games since that afternoon the guard has scored a combined 19 points.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

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

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

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

Saturday’s Games:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday’s Game:

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

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP:

Maryland may have the upcoming weekend off game-wise but they can’t escape what is beginning to settle in the world of college hoops: the dog days of the regular season where conference play is no longer new, yet the postseason feels a year away.  Under coach Mark Turgeon the Terps have been known for February fades: in his eight years at the helm, only the 2014-15 team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (that wasn’t always the case as his last three teams at Texas A&M each had better marks in the second half of Big 12 play).  How does the coach plan to keep this team rested but not rusty?  “We’ll take a little more time off,” Turgeon said, “but when we get together we’ll practice hard.”  They could use a breather after a Big Ten schedule that gave them 10 games over a 31-day stretch between January 2nd and February 1st.  “We take care of our bodies–I think really do that on a high level,” sophomore forward Bruno Fernando said, “Even on our days off we’re coming in here trying to do recovery as much as we can.”

Things get lighter this month:  after Wednesday’s win at Nebraska, seven games remain over the final five weekends of the regular season.  “This is where teams fold or where teams get better,” said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, “we don’t want to be the team that folds this year.”  Last year’s team lost seven of eight road games after the new year;  this year’s edition is 5-1 on the road since conference play resumed.  And they’ll have six days off before #15 Purdue comes to College Park next Tuesday.  “It gives us more time to watch film, which is what we really need,” Turgeon said, “and I think down the stretch we’ll probably do a little more with film than we will on the floor.”  After finishing the first half of Big Ten play 7-3, the Terps have won two of three.  They’ll have more time off, but after the Boilermakers come to Xfinity Center the Terps visit #7 Michigan and #20 Iowa.  One rough/ruff road, indeed.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange began Tuesday’s game with #22 Florida State by getting outscored 36-14, rallied to within one point of the Seminoles, and then was outscored 34-17 the rest of the way.  Suffice it to say this is one streaky team…and the Louisville-Duke-UNC gauntlet is a couple of weeks away.  Hopefully coach Jim Boeheim won’t be tossing his jacket Saturday when Boston College comes to the Carrier Dome.  Bring on the bubble once more…

 

Saturday’s Games:

Georgetown (15-8, 5-5 Big East) vs. Butler (13-10, 4-6), 12 p.m.,

The Hoyas are coming off of their first sweep of Providence since the conference realigned thanks to dominating the glass (a 50-33 rebounding advantage).  Road court advantage has held lately in this series:  the Hoyas have won three in a row at Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims remain ten feet above the court) while the Bulldogs have won three straight in DC.  Coach Patrick Ewing’s team shot 55% from three-point range in the two team’s meeting January 2nd–and that was a game they played minus Mac McClung.  Kamar Baldwin was the only Butler starter to score in double figures that night, and the junior lit up the Hoyas for 31 points the last time he came to Capital One Arena.  For the record, two years ago these two teams went to overtime in Washington–and last year’s game went to double-OT.  We politely ask that if you’re attending the game not to make an early dinner reservation.

#11 Virginia Tech (18-4, 7-3 ACC) at Clemson (14-8, 4-5) 12 p.m., ESPN2.  The Hokies come a home loss to Louisville where they allowed more points in the first 13 minutes than they did in 40 minutes at NC State.  Seriously, the Wolfpack sent the game back to the 19th century by shooting 9-for-54 and resembling teams playing the cartoon Harlem Globetrotters. The Tigers’ win over Georgia Tech Wednesday was its first on the road in league play and their third straight–but before you start looking at first and second round NCAA sites, remember the Yellowjackets are 3-7 in league play and the other two wins in the streak have come against Pitt and Wake Forest (a combined 4-16 in the ACC).

American (12-10, 6-5 Patriot League) at Army (11-13, 6-5), 2 p.m.  Two of the league’s three 6-5 teams get to this point from opposite directions:  AU has won four of five while the Black Knights have dropped three straight.  Despite having the conference’s best rebounder in Matt Wilson (8.6 boards per game), Army ranks seventh in the league on the glass.  The Eagles received a nice boost from Patriot League Freshman of the Week Jacob Boonyasith last week, only to see the guard experience growing pains (2 points on 1-6 shooting in the loss at Navy) this week.

VCU (16-6, 7-2 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (9-13, 5-4), 2 p.m. CBSSN.  Double-digit wins over George Mason and George Washington put the Rams one game out of first place in the conference at the halfway mark;  unfortunately they won’t play league-leading Davidson again in the regular season (the Wildcats took the January matchup at Belk Arena).  The Bonnies have won three of four, but losing three players to graduation and three more to transfer have forced coach Mike Schmidt to lean on freshman Kyle Lofton big-time this winter (the guard’s 38 minutes per game leads the A-10).

Howard (10-13 4-4 MEAC) at Florida A&M (9-14, 6-2), 4 p.m.  The Bison take to the floor for the first time since blowing a 24-point lead to Norfolk State in an 80-78 loss that saw a postgame scuffle brew out of the handshake line.  Three players will be suspended: Princewill Anosike, Jalen Jones and Andre Toure-of which only Anosike averages over 15 minutes per game this season.  The Rattlers provide a metaphorical one-two punch in being the best three-point shooting team in the MEAC while also allowing the second-fewest points per game in the league.  They also beat Howard in DC by ten January 5th thanks in part to turning them over 20 times.

Navy (8-14, 5-6 Patriot League) at Lehigh (15-7, 8-3), 4:30 p.m.  Consecutive wins over Loyola (MD) and American take the Mids from flirting with last place to one game out of third in the conference.  The Mountain Hawks are coming off of a loss to Colgate where they turned the ball over 21 times.  Lehigh did take the January matchup in Annapolis as senior Lance Tejada hit five three-pointers en route to 22 points.  The Mids need to get Evan Wieck the ball more:  the junior leads the Patriot League in field goal percentage (.708) but takes under five shots per game.

#3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) vs #2 Duke (20-2, 8-1), 6 p.m., ESPN.  The Cavaliers were done no favors when the league schedule their home game with the Blue Devils two days before a roadtrip to North Carolina.  The makeup call?  Seven days to prepare for Coach K’s crew.  The meeting in Durham saw the two teams combine to shoot 67% from inside the arc and 5-for-31 (16) from three-point range.  Can UVa find a way to contain Zion Williamson & RJ Barrett (the duo tallied 57 points on 21-of-35 shooting)?  And will point guard Ty Jerome’s back (he sat out the Miami win) be good enough for him to keep pace with the healthy Tre Jones (14 points and 5 assists per game since his return from injury)?

George Washington (7-15, 3-6 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (9-14, 3-7), 6 p.m.  Good news for those who enjoyed the A-10 Tournament at Capital One Arena last March- the league’s postseason tourney returns to DC in 2022.  Even with none of the local schools reaching the weekend it was a great five days, with just one blowout (naturally the late Friday 3-vs-6 Quarterfinal) and a thrilling Final (Davidson upsetting Rhode Island 58-57).  The January meeting between these two schools saw the Spiders win by 20.  While rebounding (Richmond held a 38-25 edge on the glass) was a major factor that day, the major mismatch between these schools is ball security:  GW ranks 12th in the league in turnover margin while the Spiders’ Jacob Gilyard leads the conference in steals.

Sunday’s Game:

George Mason (13-10, 7-3 Atlantic 10) vs La Salle (7-14, 5-4), 2 p.m.  The Explorers are attempting to be this year’s Richmond:  last winter the Spiders bounced back from a 2-10 non-conference mark to post a .500 record in league play and almost upset NCAA Tournament at large team St. Bonaventure in the Quarterfinals.  The Patriots are trying to avoid becoming this year’s VCU:  the Rams lost six of eight last February to finish without a winning record for the first time since they joined the A-10.  Mason’s coming off a disaster in Richmond where they turned the ball over 20 times and allowed 57% shooting.  La Salle has won four straight–but those victories have all come against the bottom four schools in the league.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM:

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

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

 

Friday’s Game:

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

 

Saturday’s Games:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sunday’s Game:

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