Archives for posts with tag: Purdue

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 PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Finally.  After the non-conference and FCS schedule-stuffer season (also known as the apple picking & antiquing window), we’ve got a Saturday filled with showdowns.  A few are traditional matchups that have seen better days (Notre Dame-USC and Clemson-Florida State) while others carry conference and College Football Playoff implications (Penn State-Iowa, LSU-Florida).  Oklahoma-Texas checks off both boxes, while adding in the Texas State Fair for those who feared our nation’s deep-frying industry was in trouble. For example, this year’s fare includes a “Southern Fried Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo Ball” and for those who are health-conscious, the “Texas Cream Corn Casserole Fritters”.

Lost in the shuffle of rivalries, conference clashes and questionable calorie counts is a top five FCS matchup just down the road (actually two, if you take I-66 and then turn right at I-81).  Second ranked James Madison (5-1, 2-0 CAA) hosts No. 5 Villanova (5-0, 3-0) with the inside track to the conference title and a first-round bye in the upcoming FCS Playoffs up for grabs. The two teams rank 1-2 in the CAA in scoring, stopping the run, sacks and third down efficiency.  Each has been pushed to overtime on the road: JMU escaped Stony Brook last weekend while ‘Nova’s 52-45 September shootout at Towson moved the Wildcats from pretender to contender.

The program’s resurgence is especially sweet for third-year head coach Mark Ferrante;  the longtime offensive coordinator took over when Andy Talley retired after 32 seasons in 2016 and the team posted consecutive losing campaigns for the first time since the 1990’s.  But his Wildcats have yet to face the triple-back attack like the Dukes’ Percy Agyei-Obese, Solomon Vanhorse and Jawon Hamilton: the power trio combine for 1051 yards per game on 5.4 a carry.  The Dukes’ big challenge will be getting to Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith (17 touchdown passes) as the Wildcats have allowed just three sacks all season.  Kickoff in Harrisonburg is slated for 1:30 p.m., or if you’re at the Texas State Fair around the time you’ve moved on to dessert and are trying the “Deep Fried Bayou Fruit Bites”.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange drop to 3-3 with Thursday’s 16-10 loss at NC State.  Tommy DeVito got sacked eight times and averaging just over ten yards per completion.  The stat book says he threw for 300 yards, but his numbers once again feel like empty calories.  Twelve penalties didn’t help.  And now the remaining schedule is a combined 21-11, with formerly a mess Florida State looking sharp and surprising Wake Forest no longer the pushover we expected.  Can they scrape together wins against Pitt, Boston College and Louisville?

 

Friday’s Game-

No. 20 Virginia (4-1, 2-0 ACC) at Miami (2-3, 0-2), 8 p.m. (ESPN).

There was never a Hurricane warning this fall as the U got off to an 0-2 start, followed by wins over Bethune-Cookman and Central Michigan before last week’s disaster against Virginia Tech.  While the ‘Canes lead the ACC in passing yardage (315 per game), the Cavaliers boast the second best pass defense in the conference and are second best at getting to the quarterback (27 sacks in five games);  Miami has allowed a league-high 25 sacks this fall.  Head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team has had a week to digest their loss at Notre Dame and refocus, while Manny Diaz’s eyes likely fell out while watching the game film of last Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech.

Kippy and Buffy have their eyes on great tailgating as always, and South Florida means they’ll be serving Cuban pork sandwiches.  Nothing goes better with the pork than a bottle of 2016 Limerick Lane Russian River Zinfandel.  Aromas of “blackberry, raspberry, bramble, cocoa leaf and wet stones” (yes–an actual tasting note from the vineyard website) get the palate ready for the taste of “strawberry, black pepper and blueberry pie crust” (again, one cannot make this up), delivering a “long finish with laser-focused acidity”.

Presto’s Pick:  Cavaliers are laser-focused on a first-ever Coastal Division title, and come away with a 27-16 win.

 

Saturday’s Games-

Maryland (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) at Purdue (1-4, 0-2), noon (Big Ten Network).

There’s a switch at quarterback-sort of. Josh Jackson was listed as the starter in the press notes, but head coach Mike Locksley said that Jackson’s ankle injury suffered at Rutgers has the junior day-to-day and Tyrrell Pigrome would start against the Boilermakers.  Pigrome may not have the passing polish Jackson possesses, but he’s a much better runner and with an offensive line that’s banged up might be just the right fit for the present.  Purdue has long been called the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” thanks to All-Americans like Bob Griese, Mike Phipps and Mark Hermann; Drew Brees was shut out by the likes of Chris Weinke, Josh Heupel and George Godsey(?).  This year’s team was no different, until quarterback Elijah Sindelar and his top target Rondale Moore were injured on the same play against Minnesota.  Neither saw the field last Saturday against Penn State.  Defensively, Purdue ranks 13th or 14th in the Big Ten in every category (except in sacks where they’re currently ninth).

Uniform note:  the Boilermakers will be wearing special uniforms commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  Not only is the late Neil Armstrong an alumnus, but the late Gene Cernan (the Apollo 17 astronaut who was the last person to leave the lunar surface) was as well.

Presto’s Pick:  the Terrapins make another small step towards bowl eligibility with a 38-14 landing.

 

Virginia Tech (3-2) vs. Rhode Island (1-4), 4 p.m. (ACC Network).

There are complaints from many in the area who don’t have the ACC Network on their local cable system, but for the Hokies this fall that might be a good thing.  Even in their wins, this team has been one tough watch.  Only this year’s team could turn a 28-0 second half lead at Miami into a fourth quarter nailbiter.  Enter a Rams team that may be 0-3 in the CAA, but one that has lost three one-possession games.  One week after coughing up 28 second half points to Miami, the Hokies will have their hands full as URI quarterback Vito Priore completes 65% of his passes.  Priore’s top two targets, Aaron Brooks and Isaiah Coulter, each average over 100 yards per game receiving and are just the kind of tandem that turns suspect secondaries into sludge.  After a September saw a torrential downpour of turnovers, the Hokies dried things up last week with redshirt sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker.  The dual-threat (184 yards and three touchdowns passing plus 76 yards and a touchdowns rushing against Miami) didn’t throw an interception or lose a fumble, and no giveaways means Hooker stays first-string.  He’ll face a rather accomodating Ram defense, one that allowed 41 points in their other game against an FBS school.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies make it two straight, 34-24.

 

Navy (3-1, 1-1 AAC) at Tulsa (2-3, 0-1), 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU).

Last Saturday’s win over Air Force was exactly the kind of game last year’s Midshipmen would lose.  The other nightmare from 2018 involved an 0-6 road record (0-8 in games not played in Annapolis).  For those curious, Navy’s last road win was September 30, 2017 against…Tulsa.  The Golden Hurricane went 2-10 that year and have already equaled that win total in the first month of this season.  But they still can’t stop the run (11th in the AAC) and if there’s one thing that the Mids do well it’s move the ball on the ground (an FBS-best 312 yards per game).  But they also lead the conference in offensive passing efficiency as well as rushing and total defense.  Head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team is also the least-penalized unit in the league; as fate would have it the most-flagged Golden Hurricanes commit twice as many infractions per game.

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen make it happen on the road, 28-20. 

Howard loses to Norfolk State, Georgetown gets by Fordham, James Madison beats Villanova, Richmond edges Maine, Towson tops Albany, Morgan State loses to Delaware State.

 

Last Week: 7-3. Overall: 39-14.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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

Tournaments with DC area schools:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Who’s enjoying the First Four?  Me neither, even though my alma mater is playing in one of the “games that are not play-in games but have the lowest ranked automatic qualifiers and at-large teams”.  All eyes are on the brackets as one tries to figure out which teams will surprise, which ones will underwhelm and which schools will reach the final weekend of the month.  Yes, we’re back to the “Bold, Fold & Gold Picks”.  The “Bold” picks a team that advances far beyond its seed while the “Fold” selects a school that underwhelms.  Gold naturally is the pick to win the regional.

 

SOUTH- Leave it to #1 overall seed Virginia to suffer the injury bug again this March.  The ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter, is out for the rest of the season with a broken wrist.  The freshman averaged 10 points and 4 rebounds during the ACC Tournament.  Before the injury I had the Cavaliers going all the way to the championship game.  Now…not so much.

Bold-  Loyola (Illinois) finished third in the nation in shooting percentage (50.7%) and they’re facing a Hurricanes team that’s minus senior guard Bruce Brown Jr.  Be wary of the Ramblers.

Fold- Virginia should have no problem with UMBC in the First Round (although it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Cavaliers trailing at the half).  But minus their top reserve who provides energy at both ends of the floor for an extended run?  My original National Runnerup might not make it out of the first weekend…and will definitely have its hands full with Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Gold- Arizona instead of depending on a freshman role-player put all of their chips on the shoulders of a freshman phenom.  And 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayton is a hitting his stride with seven double-doubles in his last eight games.  They also have the steady hand of senior point guard Parker-Jackson Cartwright directing the offense.

 

WEST- Xavier is the #1 seed;  the Musketeers have never been to the Final Four- their 27 appearances is the second most of any school (behind BYU) without a National Semifinal appearance. Will this be the year they finally break through?

Bold Providence bullied its way to the Big East Championship only to lose in overtime to Villanova after coach Ed Cooley split his pants.  The Friars knocked off top-5 teams ‘Nova and Xavier, so North Carolina won’t be too intimidating before the Tar Heels experience their customary basketball amnesia.

Fold- Ohio State played above its talent all season long under first-year coach Chris Holtmann, but got swept by Penn State and struggled down the stretch.  The early Big Ten Tournament means they will have played one game in 20 days when they face South Dakota State-and the Jackrabbits have a red-hot Mike Daum who averaged 26 points and shot 40% in their run through the Summit League Tournament.

Gold- no team finished the season playing better than Michigan.  Mo Wagner is a big who can stick threes…and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman can go off when necessary.  John Beliein is the best coach nobody talks about…and this year the veteran grinder (stops at Lemoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia) gets his due.

 

EAST- Villanova gets the top seed…and this is the fifth straight year they’ve been a #1 or #2 seed.  While they won it all in 2016, the Wildcats were bounced the first weekend in 2014, 15 & 17.  Talk about feast or famine…

Bold- St. Bonaventure’s bolstered by the backcourt of Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams.  Guards get it done in March and the Bonnies have the duo to become tournament darlings.

Fold- West Virginia defends very well for 94 feet over 40 minutes.  Unfortunately they have stretches where they forget how to use the basketball for scoring purposes.  Coach Bob Huggins’ teams have a history of flaming out on Fridays.

Gold- Purdue hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1980.  They knocked on the door for years with Gene Keady’s combover, and since have become a factor with Matt Painter.  He’s got skilled bigs who can make shots…and they’ll cut down the nets in Boston.

 

MIDWEST- #1 seed Kansas has an easy path to San Antonio; the Jayhawks play the first weekend in Wichita and the Regional is in Omaha.  What-they couldn’t put the Final Four in Kansas City? 

Bold-New Mexico State ranks fifth in the nation in rebounding margin and San Diego is a short trip from Las Cruces. Aztecs guard Zach Lofton averaged 24 points per game during the WAC Tournament.

Fold-Rhode Island lost three of four entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament, could have lost to VCU, should have lost to St. Joe’s and did lose to Davidson.  The trend continues against the Sooners Trae Young.

Gold- Michigan State and Duke both were #1 during the regular season, but the bracket is once again set up for Kansas.  For the record last year the Jayhawks played the first weekend in Tulsa before losing in the regional at Kansas City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday’s Second Round-

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

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

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

John Thompson III’s firing on paper almost makes sense.  Consecutive losing seasons for a school that once ruled the Big East.  A ninth-place finish this year in a conference that only has ten schools (and a home loss to lowly DePaul to boot).  A 69-62 mark over the last four years…with first weekend losses in the NCAA Tournament (Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio) the rule and not the exception since their Final Four run ten years ago.  You could even make the case that JT3’s Final Four team was built with his predecessor Craig Esherick recruits (Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert).  Forget about those who were shouting “Fire Thompson!” at Verizon Center…think about the 5,158 who actually showed up to watch the Hoyas host St. John’s.  But we don’t exist in a vacuum…and Georgetown’s heart and soul will have to find itself over the next few months as the parting with the son of Big John will need a while to take hold.

Think about where the program was when John Thompson, Jr. took over in 1972.  A private, catholic university that was near the White House but far from relevant.  A paltry postseason history that included one NCAA Tournament berth plus a pair of trips to the NIT.  Fresh off a 3-23 season.  Enter a 31-year old high school coach with a couple of NBA Championship rings.  Sounds like a bad sitcom on the CW, right?  But Big John turned around a program that was fighting for fourth place inside the beltway behind Maryland, George Washington and American (remember, this was during the Kermit Washington era) into a national power.  The 1980’s Georgetown teams ran through a newly created Big East conference and more often than not were cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden each March.  Unforgettable stars ranging from slippery guards like Sleepy Floyd and Allen Iverson to giants ranging from Patrick Ewing to Alonzo Mourning.  Fantastic supporting players from Victor Page to Jaren Jackson.  Under Big John, Georgetown became a Big Deal locally and nationally.

Thompson was more than just successful on the court- the first African American coach to win a national title was also a vocal supporter of student-athletes, once walking off the court before a 1989 game to protest the NCAA’s Proposition 42 that took scholarships away from academic non-qualifiers.  Thompson also went toe-to-toe with a D.C. area drug dealer to stay away from his players.  Big John provided a lifeline for many underprivileged young men…all while winning six Big East Tournament titles and a National Championship.  He’s still around the program to this day…sitting on the baseline near the home bench at Verizon Center.  And even seated, John Thompson, Jr. will always cast a shadow.

The transfer from the elder Thompson to longtime assistant (and former player) Craig Esherick in the late 1990’s was less than smooth.  One trip to the NCAA’s in his five full seasons…and no Big East finals appearances.  When John Thompson III came over from Princeton (with two NCAA appearances and an NIT berth) to succeed the fired Esherick in 2004, it felt natural to move from one heir apparent to the namesake.  And for a while it was amazing.  DePaul never got to the Final Four under Joey Meyer…and Sean Sutton was quickly disposed of at Oklahoma State.  Pat Knight?  A sub-500 record at Texas Tech.  JT3 won (albeit with Esherick recruits) and did so by staying true to his Princeton offense roots.  People recall the first round flameouts and recent winters of discontent, but I’m going to remember the John Wallace-Jeff Green-Roy Hibbert team that upset Ohio State in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen, advanced to the Final four in 2007 and ran into a hot-shooting Steph Curry and Davidson the following March.  Little did we know that would be the peak of the JT3’s thirteen-year tenure.

I always dreaded “Parent Observation Day” in elementary and middle school.  Tough to be “cool-at-school-Dave” when your parents are sitting in the back row.  And that was for two hours once a year.  John Thompson III has enjoyed the wisdom and guidance of his Hall of Fame father, but has also had his dad in the classroom with him for most of the last thirteen years.  Big John is not shy when sitting in the back row at press conferences, from calling out referees for sloppy efficiency or kissing former conference rival Syracuse goodbye after a 61-39 thumping at Verizon Center.  He’s also protective of his son, having sent someone to pipe down students chanting “Fire Thompson!” at a recent game. One can imagine despite however beneficial-how uncomfortable it was for JT3 trying to become a successful coach in his own right under a legend he couldn’t hope to match let alone eclipse.

Off the air with WTOP’s digital sports editor Noah Frank this week I mentioned how “it’s always easier to perform the autopsy than the diagnosis”.  There will be post-mortems on Thompson-the-Younger’s success and failures.  And reasons why recruiting wasn’t as successful the last few years.  There will be discussions about how the Hoyas play in a half-full NBA arena instead of a Cameron 2.0.  There will be short lists of who’s next, from Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley (not to be confused with brother Bobby) to current Charlotte associate coach Patrick Ewing (if you’ve read this far, you might have heard of him).  There will be a search led by Athletic Director Lee Reed and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.  But until one hears what John Thompson, Jr. has to say, the final word has yet to be spoken.

 

Regional Roundup- Thursday gave us three nailbiters and a blowout…not bad for the second weekend when your viewing options are fewer than the first two rounds.  And even the Kansas-Purdue game was competitive for 24 minutes…at least until the Jayhawks turned a 53-51 game upside-down by going on a 45-15 closing run.  They’ll meet an Oregon team that held Michigan scoreless for the final 2:04 as the Wolverines’ season ends with just three shots (all misses) in the last two minutes of their season.  Finishing droughts wasn’t the exception, as West Virginia didn’t score for the final 1:48 and miss 5 shots plus 2 free throws in that span in their loss to Gonzaga.  Arizona?  Nothing to show for the final 2:40 as Wildcats coach Sean Miller won’t have the chance to experience heartbreak in the Elite Eight this year.  The Musketeers move on to their first Regional Final since 2008–when Sean Miller was their coach.

Tonight’s Games- in Memphis it’s the bluebloods plus a team that wears blue.  Butler meets North Carolina in the early tipoff (try to tell the Tar Heels they’re the warmup act) while UCLA meets Kentucky (19 NCAA titles combined) in the nightcap.  Madison Square Garden is still recovering from losing both the Big East and ACC Tournament winners last weekend:  minus Villanova and Duke, the South Carolina-Baylor and Wisconsin-Florida matchups have a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl feel about them.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

There was quite a bit of excitement when the Big Ten announced that their men’s basketball tournament would be held at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.  But instead of a conference that had four top ten teams entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament or even the 2016 batch that yielded four schools in the top 20, there’s Wisconsin at #11 (after losing to Northwestern) while Purdue is 16th.  And before you get involved in the whole “strength of schedule” thing, look at the “projected top 16 seeds” released by the Tournament Selection Committee:  NO BIG TEN TEAMS.  While I’ve compared this made-for-TV exercise to tasting cookie batter, there is still some validity to the process.  And that process points to the Big Ten and say they’re pretenders instead of contenders in a world where the teams to beat range from bluebloods (Kentucky and Duke) to upstarts (Gonzaga and Butler).

Blame the name schools having off-seasons:  Michigan State has yet to really recover from a rough non-conference slate and Indiana’s December loss to Nebraska was more of a trend than a hiccup.  Ohio State and Michigan are bubble afterthoughts.  It’s also tough for the national media to get their heads around Northwestern and Minnesota as contenders.  Add in a Maryland team that lost four starters while playing a less than ambitious non-conference record, and you have a below-the-radar season for a school used to being above-the-fold on the front page.  Who’s ready for a first round that features 14th place Rutgers?

Bracket Racket- now that we are less than one month away from Selection Sunday, we’ll be including the ESPN and CBS NCAA Tournament projections.  Remember that the field of 68 is fluid…and has the attention-span off a hummingbird.

Alma Mater Update- two straight close losses have the Orange slipping down the bubble at 8-6 in the conference.  Remaining games on the road to the NCAA’s have Duke at home and Louisville on the road…with a home-and-away series against fellow Bubble resident Georgia Tech.  SU hasn’t had a comfortable win in exactly one month…and one hopes they respond to the latest bump in the road.

#23 Maryland (21-4, 9-3 Big Ten)- Anthony Cowan stepped up Saturday in the Terps’ 86-77 win over Ohio State with 19 points after scoring 19 in the team’s previous three games (and shooting 2-15 during the two-game losing streak).  The bench also outscored the Buckeyes’ reserves 33-0.  But up next are two tough tests on the road against conference contenders Northwestern (yes, I know…try not to chuckle) and Wisconsin.  Both models have the Terrapins a #6 seed:   CBS tickets them to the South Region and a first round game against the Georgia Tech/Wake Forest winner while ESPN has them in the East bracket against Clemson or Marquette.

Georgetown (14-12, 5-8 Big East)- Now that was the Jessie Govan we thought we might see.  The six-foot-ten sophomore tallied 23 points and 8 rebounds in the 80-62 win over Marquette.  After their team defense was described as “lazy” by the Golden Eagles JuJuan Johnson in December, the Hoyas responded by holding Marquette to under 40% shooting for most of the game and 3-for-14 from three-point range.  Now the question is:  can this team get back to .500 in conference play and merit at-large consideration in March?  They still have Creighton and Villanova on their schedule…plus road games at St. John’s and Seton Hall.  ESPN has the Hoyas as the eighth team to miss the tournament.

#14 Virginia (18-6, 8-4 ACC)- It’s cloudy in Charlottesville after an 80-78 double-overtime loss to Virginia Tech.  Cassell Coliseum is a very difficult place to get a win…no matter how good you might be.  But blow a 14-point halftime lead?  When you’re one of the best defensive teams in the nation, let alone the ACC?  Their starting forwards shot 2-for-10 from the field against the Hokies…and UVa missed 10 of 24 free throws.  London Perrantes can continue to dazzle from the perimeter, but if he doesn’t have help inside the rough and tumble world of the best conference in the game can be a little unforgiving.  The latest models both have the Cavaliers as a #4 seed playing Akron in the round of 64;  ESPN has UVa in the East while CBS places them in the Midwest.

Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-7 ACC)- now THAT was a big program win.  How do you rally from 14 down against your in-state rival?  How do you come back from 17 turnovers?  Somehow they forced the Cavaliers into a 2-for-9 shooting funk over a six-minute stretch in the second half…and got a gift when London Perrantes’ last-minute layup died on the backboard rim, resulting in a jump ball that went the home team’s way.  Seth Allen’s 20 points off the bench were punctuated by his game-winning jumper in the lane with 3.2 seconds left.  Sophomores Justin Robinson (4 rebounds, 6 assists and a blocked shot) and Chris Clarke (7 boards and 3 assists) continue to do the little things that an NCAA Tournament team needs.  Up next?  Back to back road games against the likes of Pitt and #8 Louisville.  CBS has the Hokies a #9 seed in the Midwest, facing VCU…while ESPN has them seeded 9th in the West and a first-round game with USC.

George Mason (17-8, 7-5 Atlantic 10).  Saturday’s 73-67 victory over Fordham was one of those games the Patriots would have lost earlier this winter or last year:  somehow they survived going scoreless for over seven minutes in the second half.  Sophomore guard Otis Livingston II has turned it on as of late, scoring 18 points while playing 37 minutes per game during the three-game winning streak.  The current surge has coach Dave Paulsen’s team pushing for a double-bye…but in order to be the best, you have to beat the best.  And over the next month the Patriots play conference co-leaders Dayton and VCU plus third place Richmond and fourth place Rhode Island.  Buckle up…

George Washington (13-12, 5-7 Atlantic 10).  How do you bounce back from the heartbreak of a last-second loss to VCU?  Feed Tyler Cavanaugh the ball early and often, which is what GW did in their 76-70 triumph over St. Bonaventure.  They also locked up on the perimeter, holding the Bonnies to 22% shooting from three-point range.  Remember the double-bye I mentioned earlier?  There’s also the dreaded first round of the A-10 Tournament that matches up the bottom four schools…and the Colonials are one game ahead of Fordham and Saint Louis for tenth place.  They own the tiebreaker with the Billikens and visit the Rams March 1st…ending a stretch where they play four of five games against teams that are sub-500 in league play.

American (6-19, 3-11 Patriot League).  The Eagles can also avoid playing in the first round of their conference tournament, but they’ll need to win the rest of their regular season games while getting help.  And even then they’d be in a tiebreaker at 7-11.  Let’s just give AU a chance to enjoy their 61-58 win over Army where they turned over the Black Knights 21 times.  They go for a season sweep of Lafayette Wednesday.  If you can’t avoid the dreaded first round, you may as well try to host it.

Howard (6-20, 3-8 MEAC).  The offensively challenged (338th in shooting and 331st in assists) Bison didn’t go down quietly at Hampton…but still have a way to go before righting the ship.  Of course the ship would be sailing a lot better if the injured James Daniel III had played more than two games this winter.  Instead, fellow senior James Miller and a nucleus of unseasoned young talent tries to fly on one engine.  Thank goodness they got a Monday night win at Morgan State…Miller leading the way with 24 points and a crucial block in the final minute of a 70-67 win over the Bears.  They next face winless in the league North Carolina A&T.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

Super Bowl weekend means we can officially go from enjoying the NFL to being force-fed pro football.  I love the draft…and free agency is intriguing, but one does not avidly anticipate every OTA and minicamp.  The first weekend in February also means the men’s college basketball teams of the area are well into their conference schedule.  For most of the teams in multi-bid conferences there’s still hope, and for the single-bid league schools there’s hope that the top three teams in the standings catch the measles in March.  But there is good basketball to be had this month as teams get in position to be in position.

 

Game of the Week that Was- VCU beat Richmond 81-74 Wednesday night in a duel that we’ve grown accustomed to between these two schools.  The contrast in styles led to another contentious affair, with ten ties and ten lead changes between the co-residents of the Commonwealth’s capital city.  The Rams were just a little bit better that night and get the reward of a share of first place in the A-10.  We look forward to round two…while knowing a round three could be in the mix.

Alma Mater Update- what to make of the Orange?  Just when I was mapping out possible stops on the NIT road to MSG, SU decides to win three straight and rally on the road against NC State.  Saturday Jim Boeheim will coach in a game that could lead to the 1,000th defeat of a Syracuse opponent since the 1976-77 season.  In other news, there are more than a few ways to get a University of North Carolina degree.

Saturday’s games-

Noon-

#17 Maryland (20-2, 8-1 Big Ten) vs #23 Purdue (18-5, 7-3), ESPN.  The Terps are off to their best start in program history thanks to the ability to close on the road:  Tuesday’s 77-71 victory at Ohio State improves coach Mark Turgeon’s team to 5-0 away from Xfinity Center in conference play.  Freshman forward Justin Jackson has been on fire lately, averaging 25 points with 11 rebounds while shooting 9-for-12 from three point range in the Terps’ wins at OSU and Minnesota.  The Boilermakers bring 6-foot-9 forward Caleb Swanigan to College Park:  the sophomore leads the Big Ten in rebounding and is second in scoring.  Purdue’s also annoyingly efficient, ranking second in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio, shooting and scoring while owning the belt as the league’s best three-point shooting team.  These are the games Maryland joined the Big Ten to play in.

Georgetown (13-10, 4-6 Big East) vs Seton Hall (13-8, 3-6), FOX Sports 1.  Someone forgot to tell the Hoyas their season was in shambles.  While beating Creighton had the caveat of the Bluejays being minus the nation’s leading assist man in Maurice Watson Jr., topping the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse last weekend was a season-salvaging victory.  And it all could have come undone at DePaul…but five points in the final minute from L.J. Peak gave coach John Thompson III’s team a 76-73 escape and the longest winning streak in the league.  The Pirates are headed in the other direction with four losses in five games…but boast a big man from the Dominican Republic named Angel Delgado who just happens to lead Division I in rebounding.  Will the 6-foot-10 tower of power be too much for Bradley Hayes and Jessie Govan to handle?

#9 Virginia (17-4, 7-2 ACC) at Syracuse (14-9, 6-4), ESPN2.  The Cavaliers answered their heartbreaking loss at Villanova with an old-fashioned thumping of Virginia Tech, holding the Hokies to 36% shooting while turning them over 14 times in a 71-48 rout.  They face an Orange team that somehow rallied from 16 points down in the second half to beat NC State in overtime.  It’s tough to figure out Jim Boeheim’s bunch that found ways to get throttled by St. John’s and Boston College yet was able to outlast Florida State last weekend.  John Gillon (43 points against the Wolfpack while shooting 9-10 from three point range) is still cooling off from Wednesday’s win.  Oh, and there’s the “Cavaliers collapse in the Regional Finals last year” thing.  Should be a fun watch…

 

1 p.m.-

American (5-17, 2-9 Patriot League) vs Lehigh (12-10, 6-5).  The midweek loss at conference-leading Bucknell was expected, but the fact that the Eagles somehow lost to Colgate last Sunday despite shooting 59% from the field has to still sting.  Especially with three straight games against the league’s elite.  The Mountain Hawks have dropped two straight but have the best player in the league;  Tim Kempton averages 21 points and 10 rebounds…and notched 36 & 11 in a January 8th win over AU.  I joked in the preseason with coach Mike Brennan about sending the Eagles-killer overseas on a Rhodes scholarship this winter;  he grimaced.  Coach Brennan will need to get solid efforts from freshmen Sy’eed Nelson and Mark Gasperini…and hope the two aren’t shell-shocked from the rude awakening they’ve received in conference play.

2 p.m.-

George Washington (12-10, 4-5 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (13-9, 7-3), NBC Sports Network.  The Colonials lost by seven to the Spiders in DC last month, with T.J. Cline tallying 19 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists.  GW’s fresh off a late collapse at Rhode Island where the Rams went on a 13-1 finishing kick to win by 12 while the Spiders are dealing with a tough loss to the other Rams- crosstown rival VCU.  Tyler Cavanaugh and company need to exploit their advantages on the glass (they’re the second best rebounding team in the A-10 while Richmond is second to last in rebounding margin) and keep Cline from dominating the game on multiple fronts like he did in January.

Navy (13-10, 8-3) at Colgate (7-17, 5-6). There’s no team around the beltway on a longer winning streak than the Midshipmen, now winners of eight straight and in sole possession of second place in the Patriot League.  It all began on January 8th when a Tom Lacey double-double helped propel the Mids past the Raiders in a 67-55 win that left both teams 1-3 in conference play.  The 6-foot-7 junior has remained a presence in the pivot since, averaging 13 rebounds over the team’s last four games.  Colgate dominated the glass in their most recent game, but a 36-25 rebounding advantage against Holy Cross wasn’t enough to overcome 19 turnovers.  Navy sophomore Hasan Abdullah (2nd in the conference in steals) is on notice.

 

4 p.m.-

VCU (17-5, 7-2 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (14-7, 6-3), CBS Sports Network.  This is the Rams’ reward for their win over cross-town rival Richmond?  A trip to Olean?  The Bonnies are ready for a little home-cooking, as they’ve played three of their last four away from Reilly Center.  Prepare for a pairing of premiere point guards:  Jaylen Adams leads the A-10 in assists while ranking third in steals–VCU’s JeQuan Lewis is fifth and fourth in those categories.  One should also expect a track meet with plenty of pressure all over the court between two of the top three scoring teams in the conference. 

 

6 p.m.-

Howard (5-17, 2-5 MEAC) at Florida A&M (5-16, 3-5) .  Remember the James Gang?  The classic rock band that gave us Joe Walsh before he went to the Eagles?  The Bison had one brief shining moment two winters ago when their version of the James Gang went 16-16 (the first non-losing season in more than a decade for HU).  Unfortunately injuries robbed James Miller of last season and James Daniel III of this year.  James Carlton?  He may be healthy but has no eligibility remaining as he graduated in 2015.  Coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team begins February in the bottom reaches of the conference after being picked to win the league in the preseason. The Rattlers won the January matchup in DC by 12 thanks to dominant play from Derrick Dandridge:  the 6-foot-8 junior tallied 20 points and 10 rebounds for his only double-double of the season.  That game was also one of the two that oft-injured James Daniel III was able to play in this winter.  Trying to replace 27 points per game can be difficult…

 

7 p.m.-

George Mason (14-8, 4-5 Atlantic 10) vs LaSalle (12-8, 6-3).  For all of the progress the Patriots have made this season, somehow they’ve gotten swept by Saint Louis.  As in 3-7 in the league Saint Louis.  Some matchups are just bad for some teams…and this weekend’s duel will be intriguing.  The Explorers bring the highest-scoring offense in the conference to Fairfax, but they also allow the most points per game in the league.  Senior Jordan Price and junior transfer B.J. Johnson supply a lot of firepower from the perimeter…can the Patriots undersized duo of Marquise Moore and Otis Livingston II keep pace?  Expect plenty of rebounds for Moore (the 6-foot-2 dynamo leads the A-10 with over 10 rebounds per game) and more than a few assists from the Green Machine (best pep band around the beltway).