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The final week of February brings two phrases back to the college basketball scene:  “seeding line” and “the bubble”.  Even with their 79-72 loss at Ohio State Sunday, Maryland is competing for a top-three seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament.  Why is three a magic number?  Because as a top-four seed they’d be protected and sent closer to the Terps natural region (likely New York City and Madison Square Garden for the East Regional), but they wouldn’t have to face the region’s top seed until the round of eight.  Right now the Terps (22-5, 12-4 Big Ten) are projected to be a No. 2 seed by the “Bracketologists”; with regions varying from South (ESPN), Midwest (CBS Sports), East (USA Today), and Midwest (NBC Sports).  But three of the four have Maryland going to Greensboro (USA Today the outlier with Tampa as their first weekend destination) to begin the tournament.  Virginia (19-7, 11-5 ACC) is a potential second-round foe for the Terps according to ESPN and CBS, as the Cavaliers are a No. 7 and No. 10 seed in those models (UVa is No. 9 seed according to USA Today and NBC).  On the other side of the seeding coin is the bubble:  right now Georgetown (15-12, 5-9 Big East) is squarely on the underbelly thanks to consecutive losses with USA Today listing the Hoyas as one of the “first four teams out” while ESPN and CBS have them in the “next four out”.  Richmond (20-7, 10-4 Atlantic 10) is also on the bubble, with CBS having the Spiders playing in the First Four while the other three models have them in the “first four out”.  Meaning Coach Chris Mooney’s team can ill afford another misstep between now and the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Alma Mater Update: SU rallied to beat Georgia Tech Saturday, which returns the Orange to 8-8 in a soft ACC and returns them to three games over .500 with four dates remaining.  Three are on the road and the fourth is against a North Carolina team that can’t be this bad…right?  Actually, all four schools are currently under .500 in league play so an 18-win campaign isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  Sound familiar?  Since Syracuse’s first winter in the ACC, they’ve finished the regular season with either 18 (twice) or 19 wins (three times).  Not ideal for a program that was accustomed to winning a lot over a long time.  Buddy Watch: the recent rough patch (38 points over his last four games) drops the sophomore’s average to 15.5 points per game, putting him on a pace of 481 for the regular season which would have this No. 35 at 698 for his career entering the ACC Tournament. Or 47 points shy of his father.

Wow of the Week: defending National Champion Virginia owns the longest winning streak in the ACC; four straight victories have moved the Cavaliers off of the bubble and into the NCAA field.  Coach Tony Bennett’s grinders actually enjoyed a breather when they beat Boston College; the 78-65 triumph was just their second double-digit win since January 1.  While offense can leave for the NBA early (Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome) but the rock that this program has been built upon is defense; and the Cavaliers lead the NCAA in scoring defense while ranking second in defensive field goal percentage.  But the schedule ratchets up over the final two weeks with a pair of road games along with home matchups against teams currently in the top ten.

Player Spotlight:  Maryland sophomore Aaron Wiggins led the Terps with 20 points in Sunday’s loss at Ohio State while making 6 of 13 from three-point range.  In his five other games this month, the guard is averaging seven points with four boards and two assists while shooting 36% and 5-23 from outside the arc.  For the Terrapins to shine in March and get to Saturday’s Semifinals in the Big Ten Tournament and the second week of the NCAA’s, they need more than Jalen Smith inside and Anthony Cowan outside.  With Eric Ayala (26% from three after making 41% as a freshman) still looking for his shot, that may fall to Wiggins in the coming weeks.

League Look:  the Big Ten has four schools ranked in the Top 25 with six others likely making the tournament field if today was Selection Sunday (and obviously it is not, but still…).  Two more are on the bubble, with Minnesota and Purdue needing to microwave their way down the stretch to get into the postseason conversation.  While Maryland owns a two game cushion with four to play, there’s a five way tie for second place at 10-6 and then one game separates seventh from tenth place.  Talk about fluid standings.

Ballot Battles:  Saturday saw three of the top four teams in the nation tumble; and that bled over to Sunday when then-No. 7 Maryland fell at Ohio State.  Kansas is the new No. 1 thanks to its victory at previously top-ranked Baylor.  Small school shout-outs this week welcome Liberty (26-3) to the party, with Stephen F. Austin, East Tennessee State, and Northern Iowa remaining in the mix.  Toughest decision was how far to drop the Terps–I slid them three spots after the defeat, behind Duke and San Diego State to the dismay of a few.  After last Monday when my Washington Post Sunday Magazine Crossword became twitter fodder, I’m happy to be roasted by fans from all offended schools this week.

 

Starting Five:

Wednesday- Virginia at Virginia Tech.  The Cavaliers took the January meeting by 26, and the Hokies have lost seven of eight to fall out of NCAA contention.  Freshman Landers Nolley II has officially hit the wall, also known as that time of the season when first-year players have logged more minutes and games than they did during their high school career.  The team’s leading scorer is averaging 9.3 points with 8 rebounds over his last three games while shooting 18% from the field and 1-for-17 from three point range.  He’s going to find scoring against the Cavaliers even more difficult.

Also Wednesday- No. 9 Maryland at Minnesota. Beware late February, Terrapin Nation.  How many times have we seen a highly-regarded Terps team go on the road and get shocked in Lincoln, State College, or Minneapolis?  The Golden Gophers may have lost five of seven and rank third-worst in the Big Ten in shooting, but still boast a big man to be reckoned with. Daniel Oturu’s 11.4 rebounds per game leads the conference and his 19.7 points per game is second-best behind Luka Garza. Jalen Smith, just a few days removed from dealing with Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, will have his hands full once again.

Also Wednesday- American vs. Lafayette.  The Eagles own a one-game lead in the race for third place in the Patriot League, but the Leopards currently own the tiebreaker thanks to their 12-point win in Easton at the beginning of the month.  It was a day where AU shot 15% from three-point range and couldn’t contain Justin Jaworski (32 points on 11-17 shooting).  Sa’eed Nelson is two points away from becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer; he’ll need help from his supporting cast after they shot 14-42 (33%) in Sunday’s loss at Boston University.

Saturday- George Washington at VCU.  It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Rams, who have lost four straight and five of six to light a match to their at-large hopes.  The coveted double-bye is also almost gone for Mike Rhoades team.  GW has won two of three to position itself away from the A-10’s dreaded first round for the first time in three years.

Sunday- Georgetown vs Xavier. Schools with 8-10 conference records have made the NCAA Tournament before, but four games under .500 is almost the at-large kiss of death.  That’s where the Hoyas are on track to land, unless they get things in gear quickly.  The Musketeers are on the top half of most bubbles.  They also lead the Big East in rebounding margin and defending the three; the Hoyas lead the conference in crucial injuries with Mac McClung (eight minutes played this month due to a foot injury) and Omer Yurtseven (five points and eight rebounds in the loss at DePaul after missing the previous two games with a sprained ankle) question marks moving forward.

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Charlottesville and Blacksburg may not share in basketball success equally, but 2019 was a banner year for both schools.  Virginia won its first-ever National Championship while Virginia Tech earned a third straight NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in program history and advanced to the Hokies’ first Regional Semifinal since 1967.  But 2020 vision is far from ideal, with both schools still trying to find their way in February.  Defending National Champion Virginia (15-7, 7-5 ACC) finds itself squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble thanks to an offense that ranks in the bottom ten of Division I due to the early departures of the likes of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome to the NBA.  The Cavaliers have shown signs of life lately with an upset of then-No. 5 Florida State, but came up short in an upset bid of current No. 5 Louisville.  On the bright side, they posted 70 points for the first time all season.

Virginia Tech (14-10, 5-7) has lost six in a row (two to BOSTON COLLEGE!?!) and hasn’t scored 70 points in regulation since January 15. Their only victory since was a double-overtime defeat of North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are in danger of their third losing season since the creation of the ACC.  New head coach Mike Young knew it wouldn’t be a turnkey operation, but it looks like the Hokies’ streak of NCAA berths will end at three.  UVa’s made the field every year since 2015, but missing the tournament the March after cutting the nets down wouldn’t be an aberration. Four defending champs in the last 13 years (Florida in 2008, North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013, and UConn in 2015) have failed to return to the big dance.

 

Alma Mater Update- somehow the Orange were able to beat Wake Forest on a late putback by freshman Brycen Goodine.  That’s where we are at this time as SU is off the Bracketology board despite a 7-5 ACC mark.  They host NC State before traveling to a pair of top ten teams in Florida State and Louisville in the final chances to notch signature wins this winter;  none of the team’s final five regular season foes own a winning ACC record.  On the Buddy Boeheim beat, the sophomore scored 23 points against the Demon Deacons to give him 381 for the year and 598 for his career.  At his current pace of 16.56 per game he’s likely to land at 513 for the season and 730 for his career, meaning Buddy would start the ACC Tournament 15 points behind his dad.

Wow of the Week- American swept the service academies last week to improve to 8-4 and third place in the Patriot League.  Defense was the difference in defeating Navy and Army as the Eagles held their foes to 24% shooting from three-point range.  While Sa’eed Nelson continues to shine (third in the conference in scoring, second in assists and first in steals) he’s getting major help from junior Stacy Beckton:  the 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 17 points with 7 rebounds over his last four games and ranks third in the league in blocked shots.  The school’s first winning season since 2015 is well within reach.

Player Spotlight- Georgetown somehow beat DePaul Saturday despite Mac McClung not dressing (foot injury), Omer Yurtseven not finishing (sprained ankle), and Jamorko Pickett fouling out late in the second half.  Thank goodness junior guard Jahvon Blair scored 30 points;  his second career high in three games.  The Hoyas hope seven days off will allow their top scorer and best rebounder to heal up before they play a season-defining stretch where they’ll play four of their final seven games against ranked foes.

League Look- there’s a reason the MEAC flies under the radar locally and nationally. First, Howard is 2-24 with an RPI of 353 (there are 353 schools in Division I) which generates little local buzz.  Second, the Baltimore-area schools Coppin State (8-18, 331) and Morgan State (13-13, 303) don’t provide much relief.  But atop the standings there’s a pretty decent race as one game separates the top three schools. North Carolina Central has won five straight to move past Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T;  the Eagles and Aggies play twice over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Ballot Battles- a minor gaffe on my part this week.  I fully intended to move Pac-12 leading Colorado into the Top 25 (Buffaloes have won three straight) but somehow things got lost in the shuffle as I was moving schools up and down my ballot after another topsy-turvy week.  Small school shout-outs go to Wright State, East Tennessee State, and Stephen F. Austin.  Rhode Island and Northern Iowa don’t get small school shout-outs because they’ve been playing big for most of the season.  Maryland was the big mover from 15th to 10th after a pair of gritty wins.  The big sliders were Villanova (fourth two weeks ago to 15th) and Michigan State (off the ballot). Again, a mea culpa to my friends in Boulder–and if you ever visit make sure you check out JL Distillery.  Great spot.

 

Starting Five-all Saturday:

Georgetown at No. 19 Butler, noon (FOX).  The Bulldogs were once ranked fifth in the nation, but have lost five of eight-and their three wins have come by three, four, and five points.  The five-point win came at Georgetown two weeks ago;  Sean McDermott hit 7 of 10 three-pointers en route to 25 points-his highest output since netting 26 against IUPUI their season-opener.  The Hoyas need to get healthy (a major challenge), play solid defense (iffy given they’re last in the Big East in scoring D) and stay out of foul trouble.

No. 9 Maryland at Michigan State, 6 p.m. (ESPN).  The Spartans have slumped their way out of the Top 25 with three straight losses, but when they’ve been good coach Tom Izzo’s team has been on-point with seven of their eight Big Ten wins coming by double digits.  The Anthony Cowan-Cassius Winston matchup outside will only be rivaled by the Jalen Smith-Xavier Tillman duel inside.  Defense travels, which is good news for the Terps who’ve been guarding really well this winter.  It’s also good news for the Spartans who lead the Big Ten in blocked shots and defending the three while ranking second in rebounding margin and scoring defense.

VCU at Richmond, 4 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).  The winner has the inside track to fourth place and the Atlantic 10 Tournament double-bye that comes with it.  The Rams took last month’s meeting by nineteen, but that was against a Spiders team that was minus leading scorer Blake Francis.  The guard has recovered from his sternum injury and score 18 points last weekend in the win over Fordham.  But his Spiders haven’t beaten their cross-town rivals since 2018 and are 5-13 against VCU since they joined the A-10.

George Washington at George Mason, 4:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network). They gave out tricorn hats when the two teams tangled in Foggy Bottom January 15, and GW’s 73-67 win began a stretch where the Colonials won four of five.  But just like the Patriots’ 11-1 start, that surge is but a memory:  GW has lost three in a row while Mason has dropped four straight.  From a fashion statement standpoint, Doc Nix’s colorful outfits > tricorn hats.

Virginia at North Carolina, 8 p.m. (ESPN). One of the few benefits of having the ACC Network not being carried by all cable providers in the DC metro area is the Wake Forest-Miami game won’t see the light of day.  But we knew the Demon Deacons-Hurricanes might not be ready for prime time, while most thought the Cavaliers and Tar Heels would be factors in the ACC race.  And even though UVa is on track for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament (tied for fourth with a bubble-bound Syracuse), they’re a far cry from the air occupying top ten schools Duke, Florida State and Louisville.  UNC?  They lost at home to Clemson for the first time ever last month.  It’s one of those rare winters in Chapel Hill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week’s Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five-

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

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

 

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

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

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

Locals-

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Locals-

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.