Archives for posts with tag: Patriots

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Four days until Selection Sunday. Five more bids were claimed last night bringing the number of teams in the field to 11:  No. 2 Gonzaga, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, Northern Kentucky, and Hofstra.  The Pride’s 70-61 win over Northeastern in the CAA Championship Game was its first in four Finals appearances, and punched the school’s first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since they competed in the America East Conference as the “Flying Dutchmen”.  Their win wrapped up four days at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC; the first of three years the CAA will be coming to Washington.

Meanwhile, a pair of locals played last night with their seasons on the line as neither Virginia Tech nor Howard had a legitimate shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

The Hokies (16-16) lost to North Carolina in the ACC First Round 78-56 after shooting 29% while getting outrebounded by 15.  Who knows if the future is bright, but it’s most certainly on campus in Blacksburg: freshmen Hunter Cattoor (14 points), Jalen Cone (11 points) and Landers Nolley II (10 points) scored 64% of the Hokies’ points.  Unfortunately the rest of the team shot 6-for-29 (21%).  How will Coach Mike Young build off of that nucleus with his first complete recruiting cycle?  In an ACC that was in flux much of the winter, we’re a few years away from learning which direction this program that is going after watching its consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances streak end at three.  Never an easy night, winter, or year in the ACC.

Howard (4-28), however, showed how mad March can be sometimes.  The Bison somehow shocked South Carolina State in the First Round of the MEAC 70-63.  Let’s put this in perspective:  HU went 0-9 in November, 2-3 in December, 0-8 in January and 0-7 in February.  But they’re 2-1 in March, and more importantly they live to play another day thanks to Charles Williams (24 points), Kyle Foster (18 points), and team defense that held the Bulldogs to 2-19 shooting from three-point range.  Next up? Second seed North Carolina A&T; the Aggies went 12-4 in league play and beat the Bison by four in February.  So HU can still dream.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange ended the regular season with a loss at Miami, dropping the team to 10-10 in a soft ACC and 17-14 overall.  The team finished 1-1 in overtime games and 3-5 in regulation games decided by five points or fewer.  The 14 regular season losses is the most for the program since 1969, Roy Danforth’s first year and the last time the Orange posted a losing record (9-16).  And they face a North Carolina team that rolled them on Senior Day in the ACC Second Round.  It’s technically the “9 p.m. game”, but anybody who knows anything about the ACC realizes that the nightcap will not begin much before 10 p.m.  Buddy Update: his 12 points against Miami give the sophomore 474 for the season and 691 for his career, putting him 54 points shy of his father Jim’s career total.  If he scores his regular season average of 15.3 per game, the Orange will need to win at least two games (meaning he’ll play in four) in the ACC/NIT for Buddy to pass the other guy who once wore No. 35.

Ballot Battles- I caught heat this week from a San Diego State fan for dropping the Aztecs all the way from sixth to 15th after their loss to Utah State.  For the record they were probably overvalued while still staying unbeaten, and there is a bit of a market correction for mid-major schools losing games this late.  Power five schools may get a pass because in some leagues (Big Ten, Big East) most of the conference schedule is against potential NCAA Tournament teams; not so in the Mountain West or West Coast Conference (sorry, BYU).  Biggest differences between my ballot and the composite poll?  Oregon (I’ve got the 13th ranked Ducks 7th), Virginia (I’ve got the 17th rated Cavaliers 11th), and Creighton (I have the 7th ranked Bluejays 15th).  Small school shout-outs go to Stephen F. Austin (28-3, first place in the Southland and that win over Duke) East Tennessee State (30-4 and making me look smart with their roll through the Southern), and New Mexico State (the Aggies have won 19 in a row).

Bids up for Grabs:  just one on Wednesday, with Colgate hosting Boston University for the Patriot League Championship.  Since joining the conference for the 2013-14 season, the Terriers are 5-6 while the Raiders are 7-5 with last year’s title in their trophy case.  They also won both regular season games between the two schools and are led by facilitator Jordan Burns (15 points and 5 assists per game).  I’ll be watching wondering how AU can get back there.

 

Tipping off Today/Tonight:

The Atlantic 10, Big Ten and Big East begin their tournaments in Brooklyn, Indianapolis and New York City.  Meanwhile, the MEAC continues in Norfolk as does the ACC in Greensboro (without Virginia Tech).

1 p.m. – George Mason (16-15 overall, 6-12 A-10) vs. St. Joseph’s (6-25, 2-16). What a difference a few months and a key injury makes.  The Patriots began the season 11-1 even with Justin Kier’s early injury issues but when the senior re-injured his foot the team went into a tailspin (that will happen when you lose the previous season’s leading scorer).  Coach Dave Paulsen’s team has lost five of seven, with the two wins coming against tied-for-last Fordham and St. Joe’s.  Mason’s 62-55 win over the Hawks saw Javon Greene score 20 points; the St. Joseph’s player to watch is junior guard Ryan Daly who leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He’s slacking in the blocked shots department (fourth).

3:30 p.m. – George Washington (12-19, 6-12 A-10) vs. Fordham (8-22, 2-16).  Newsflash: teams that play in the “dreaded first round” are not hot entering March.  The Colonials have lost five straight, with one of those defeats coming to the Rams.  Actually GW is the only A-10 team Fordham has been able to beat this winter, so the last-place Rams have the bracket right where they want it.  It’s also a matchup of the two lowest-scoring teams in the conference:  while GW’s 65.6 points per game ranks 313th the Rams’ 58.1 is 349th.  Somehow Fordham also found a way to post November wins against UConn (now 19-12) and Bradley (MVC Tournament winner).

7 p.m. – Georgetown (15-16, 5-13 Big East) vs. St. John’s (16-15, 5-13), 7 p.m.  If this feels familiar, it’s because this is the third meeting in the eight-nine game between the Hoyas and Red Storm in the last four years.  Since the revamping of the “New Big East”, the old powers have had it rather rough:  this is the fifth straight March the Johnnies have played in the first round while Gtown is making its sixth appearance in seven years on the first night at MSG.  The Hoyas swept the regular season series, rallying from 17 points down at the Garden on Super Bowl Sunday.  They’ve won just twice since, while St. John’s won two of three to end their regular season.

8:30 p.m. – Howard (4-28) vs. North Carolina A& T (16-15, 12-4 MEAC).  Can the Bison keep the dream and its season alive?  As impressive as last night’s upset of South Carolina may be, HU has not won consecutive games all season.  NC A&T won four of five to conclude the regular season, with the only loss coming to regular season champ North Carolina Central.  The Aggies are led by senior forward Ronald Jackson, who tallied 18 points with 10 rebounds against the Bison last month and averages a double-double.  Howard senior Charles Williams may be averaging 25 points over his last three games, but the guard shot 4-11 and 0-2 from three point range against the Aggies last month.

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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.

Hindsight is 20/20, unless you’re former Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier (the ol’ ball coach said it was “50-50”, only adding to his legend while here).  As 2020 begins there’s plenty of hindsight, foresight, long and short sight regarding the local college basketball teams.

I don’t think anybody expected that Maryland’s high-profile recruits, the Mitchell twins, would be gone by New Year’s Eve.  And I hazard a guess that few would have thought that Georgetown would win six straight after losing James Akinjo and three other players.  Just like nobody saw Stephen F. Austin-Duke or Evansville-Kentucky ending the way they did; Gonzaga became the sixth school to reach number one this season during Christmas week and the Bulldogs remain atop both polls.

Alma Mater Update- after spending the last few winters on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Orange need to get hot this month just to play their way onto the bubble. At 8-6 and 1-2 in the ACC, they’ve lost games against every quality non-conference foe and Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame was a great opportunity missed.  SU plays Virginia Tech and Virginia this week; two more losses and they’ll be on a different bubble. As in the one that has the bottom six ACC teams playing the first day of the Tournament.

Ballot Battles- this is the second winter I’ve voted in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.  For the most part fans are cool even though the website collegepolltracker.com leaves me open for emails from San Diego State fans for not having the unbeaten Aztecs ranked higher.  Each week there are questions as one puts together the top 25, and this week’s deal was how the bottom third (my 16th through 25th ranked teams) didn’t lose.  It’s tough to break a new team in, although I did so with VCU.  The Rams have been in and out of my Top 25 all season.

Roster Rotations- Georgetown (10-5) may have wrapped up non-conference play with six consecutive wins, but the Hoyas are 0-2 to start Big East play not because of the December defections but Mac McClung’s eye injury suffered against American December 28.  The sophomore missed the loss at Providence and shot 7-20 from the field in the defeat at Seton Hall.  On the bright side, three of their next four games are at home.  No. 12 Maryland (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) plays four of its next six games on the road, and the Terps are still getting adjusted to the absence of twin towers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell.  Even though the duo averaged a combined 16 minutes per game, their absence means more time in the pivot for sophomore Jalen Smith.  At least until seven-footer Chol Mariol gets in gear.

Wow of the Week- VCU (12-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) played solid basketball in the pre-conference slate, losing games to schools (Purdue, Tennessee, Wichita State) that have all been ranked at some time this season.  The Rams made a major statement in the first week of A-10 play, with the exclamation point a 72-59 win at George Mason (11-3, 0-1) where they held the Patriots scoreless for the game’s first 4:20.  Marcus Santos-Silva scored a career-high 26 points for the Rams while Mason received a wake-up call as to what play will be like in a league where five other schools won at least ten non-conference games.

Player Spotlight- American University’s Sa’eed Nelson was the preseason pick for Patriot League Player of the Year, and the senior has not disappointed in averaging 16 points with 5 assists per game for the Eagles.  Nelson’s 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists helped AU pull past Boston University 67-63 for their first conference win of the winter. He’ll need the supporting cast to step up this week with games at Army and Lehigh.

 

Starting Five- as in games involving local schools I will keep my eyes on this week:

Tuesday at 7 p.m.- No. 12 Maryland (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) plays No. 11 Ohio State (11-3,   1-2).  Both teams have been in the top five at times this season; each have suffered tough losses as well.  Buckeyes big man Kaleb Wesson has held to 3-12 FG last winter, but that was with Bruno Fernando on his back.  This year Jalen Smith draws that assignment.

Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.- Georgetown (10-5, 0-2 Big East) plays St. John’s (11-4, 0-2).  We can’t even play this up as the coaching matchup of legends Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin; Mike Anderson has guided the Red Storm to wins over Arizona and West Virginia, but they’ve dropped their two league games by a combined ten points.  Neither school can start 0-3 in the conference if they want to keep the dream of playing in March alive.

Thursday at 6 p.m.- Towson (7-9, 1-3 CAA) meets Drexel (9-7, 2-1).  The Tigers have looked good in spots (a victory over Tulane) and less than ideal on other nights (45 points in a loss to Northeastern).  Do they have a chance to make their way back up the league standings?  Senior Brian Fobbs is averaging 14 points in two games since being held to a combined 15 the previous two.

Saturday at 2 p.m.- George Mason (11-3, 0-1 Atlantic 10) visits La Salle (10-4, 1-1).  The Patriots go on the road for the first time in league play.   The Explorers have already matched last season’s win total.

Saturday at 2 p.m.- Virginia Tech (10-4, 1-2 ACC) hosts NC State (10-4, 1-2).  The Hokies and first-year coach Mike Young are enjoying a stellar freshman season from Landers Nolley II, but the 6-foot-7 guard could use some help as he scored 18 of the team’s 39 points in their loss at Virginia.  The Wolfpack know exactly what it’s like being the “other” state school in the conference.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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Since joining the Atlantic 10 Conference, VCU immediately made its mark on the league.  Five straight appearances in the Conference Tournament Championship Game and five consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.  So last year when the Rams finished 18-15 (most losses since the 1998-99 season) and 9-9 in the A-10 (first non-winning conference season since 2000), coach Mike Rhoades realized he needed to go back to basics. “The summer-we just went old school. (I told them) We gotta get back to increasing our workload and hard we work,” Rhoades said.  And while the summer conditioning program made his players stronger physically,  “The best thing about it is we got mentally tougher-period,” Rhoades said. “We got mentally tougher and they did all the work together. So they’re playing together and they’re fighting through it together.”  Together the second-year head coach and his team have risen to the top of the Atlantic 10.

Tuesday’s 71-36 dismemberment of George Mason was the team’s 24th, their most in the regular season since 2011-12 (their final winter in the CAA).  Tuesday was the rule and not the excption as the difference this year has been defense:  Rhoades’ Rams allow the fewest points per game in the A-10, while also allowing the lowest percentage of shots made and three-pointers.  In addition, they’re second in turnover margin.  “I wanted to press, I wanted these guys to have freedom-going for steals and make plays on the freedom to make plays on the ball,” Rhoades said. “But if you want to win a championship, there’s times where you just gotta sit down five guys in half-court…and get stops.”

The team’s 11th straight win clinches the top seed in the Atlantic Ten Tournament and also delivers something previous coaches Shaka Smart and Will Wade did not:  the school’s first regular season title.  “Everybody picked is seventh–some people picked us ninth. Nobody gave us a shot.  And I told these guys if they stick together and work really hard that stuff doesn’t matter-we can do this,” Rhoades said after Tuesday’s clinching win, “It wasn’t our only goal-we’ve got a lot ahead of us.”  Ram on…

 

Alma Mater Update- SU wraps up the regular season with a trip to Clemson. It’s a chance to win 20 games in the regular season for the first time since 2014.  Yes, you read me correctly.  The Orange can finish sixth in the ACC with a victory over the Tigers, who are locked into the 8-9 game next week with NC State.  Somehow it feels as though nothing says 8-9 game in the ACC like Clemson-NC State.  Pulling for first day regulars Boston College and Wake Forest to meet up Tuesday.

 

Friday’s Games-

#24 Maryland (21-9, 12-7 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (19-11, 9-10), 7 p.m., FS1.  The Terps can ill afford to enter the Big Ten Tournament with three straight losses…while the Golden Gophers have won two straight behind the scoring of Amir Coffey (32 points in wins over Northwestern and #11 Purdue).  They also boast the conference’s leading rebounder in Jordan Murphy (11.7 per game).  The Terps were somehow able to neutralize the senior in their January win over Gophers, holding Murphy to 9 points and 5 rebounds in an 82-67 win.  Two other notables from that night: Maryland closed the game on a 21-6 run and Anthony Cowan Jr. scored a season-high 27 points.  Cowan’s coming off of a rough effort against Michigan (he started the day shooting 1-for-11) and can use all the positive reinforcement he can get.

#15 Virginia Tech (22-7, 11-6 ACC) vs Miami (13-16, 5-12), 7 p.m., ESPN2.  So much for the major momentum of last week’s upset of then-#1 Duke.  So much for getting a double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament.  The Hokies let a 14 point halftime lead dissolve into a 73-64 overtime defeat at #14 Florida State Tuesday.  Don’t expect any sympathy from the Hurricanes, who were virtually locked in to playing in the First Round since beginning league play 1-8.  In those early stumbles was an 82-70 loss to Tech January 30th where coach Buzz Williams’ team shot 59% and Nickeill Alexander-Walker scored a season-high 25 points.  Miami senior Anthony Lawrence scored a career-high 27 points in a Senior Night victory over Pitt;  they’ve needed his production recently with leading scorer Chris Lykes netting just 12 points on 4-of-23 shooting over his last two games.

VCU (24-6, 15-2 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Joseph’s (13-17, 6-11), 9 p.m., ESPN2.  Do not overlook Phil Martelli’s team:  the Hawks have won two of their last four with each of the two losses coming by one point.  He also has the A-10’s top scorer in Charlie Brown Jr. But while the sophomore forward averages 19 points per game, he’s not getting a ton of help:  the team ranks 12th in the league in shooting and is last at defending the three.  That’s one of the few things VCU does not do well this year (13th).   In addition, do not overlook St. Joe’s road record in the A-10: it’s 1-7.  And the Siegel Center is not an easy place to play.

Saturday’s Games-

George Mason (16-14, 10-7 Atlantic 10) at George Washington (8-22, 4-13), 2 p.m.  The Orange Line Rivalry is renewed with the Patriots making the trek into the district and Foggy Bottom.  When GW has been good, there’s no place inside the beltway that rocks like the Smith Center:  the fans are right on top of the court (and media row) and it’s a great vibe.  This year’s Colonials have not been good, having lost eight of nine.  Can Mason rebound from getting blasted to bits at home on Senior Night?  “Twenty-five years as a head coach I’d like to say I’ve never had a game like this, but I have,” coach Dave Paulsen said, “I’ve had teams have this game: a rivalry game, at home, get embarrassed… and I’ve had that team bounce back and win a conference championship. I’ve also had teams that get embarrassed like that kind of put their head down and have a ‘woe is me’ attitude.”  Otis Livingston II needs to find a way out of his recent slump (averaging six points on 5-of-24 shooting over the last three games) for GMU to find its way back.

Georgetown (18-12, 8-9 Big East) at #16 Marquette (23-7, 12-5), 2:30 p.m., FOX.  Whatever vibe the Hoyas had after last weekend’s thrilling double-overtime win over Seton Hall, it’s gone.  As well as likely any hope of an at-large bid.  Losses to DePaul are not ideal; a 101-69 thumping is beyond disastrous.  A win would have kept coach Patrick Ewing’s team in third place–and instead they begin the weekend in seventh.  Now they face a Golden Eagles team that has lost three straight to hand first place to Villanova.  Marquette took the matchup in DC 74-71 thanks to 31 points from Sam Hauser, as the conference’s leading scorer Markus Howard left the game with lower back tightness after three scoreless minutes.  As Jessie Govan goes, so go the Hoyas:  the senior averages 20 points and 9 rebounds in the team’s Big East wins, while netting 15 points with 7 assists in their conference defeats.

Richmond (12-18, 6-11 Atlantic 10) vs. Davidson (22-8, 13-4), 6 p.m., ESPN+.  The Spiders take a three game losing streak into the final weekend, needing a victory or a St. Joseph’s loss to avoid playing in the dreaded first round of the A-10 Tournament.  A less than effective defense is a major reason why they’re going to finish under .500 for the second straight year:  Richmond ranks last in defensive field goal percentage and are 11th in stopping the three-pointer.  The Wildcats are led by Kellan Grady and Jon axel Gudmunsson who rank second and third in the conference in scoring; while Richmond held both in check earlier this winter it was freshman Luke Frampton who came alive with 24 points in a Davidson 75-62 triumph.  Frampton leads the A-10 in threes per game and the Wildcats are the league’s best three-point shooting team.

#2 Virginia (27-2, 15-2 ACC) vs. Louisville (19-11, 10-7), 4 p.m., ESPN.  The Cavaliers are coming off of a 79-53 thumping of Syracuse where they used a 27-3 run in the second half to take the lead for good, blow the game open, and lastly give the Orange a major inferiority complex.  UVa still needs a need a win to wrap up the top seed in the ACC Tournament, as they’d lose the tiebreaker with Duke and North Carolina in the case of a three-way tie.  The Cardinals haven’t won consecutive games since January 30th, and those consecutive wins were against Pitt and Wake Forest.  Just to show that stifling defense isn’t just a VCU thing, coach Tony Bennett’s team leads the ACC in scoring defense, field goal defense and stopping the three.  UVa won the previous matchup this winter 64-52 after holding Louisville to 15 second-half points.  They also got 26 points from De’Andre Hunter that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.