Archives for posts with tag: Richmond

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Five days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up, with Belmont, Utah State, Bradley, Winthrop, Liberty, and East Tennessee State punching their tickets by taking their respective conference tournaments.  With the Ivy League cancelling its four-team tournament due to Coronavirus concerns, regular season champion Yale picks up the sixth bid.  Meanwhile, the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired with Indiana coach Archie Miller (whose Hoosiers are 9-11 in the Big Ten) comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”.  Which reminds me; I finally recognize Archie as “Andy who eats candy” from the 80’s Sesame Street sketch “Captain Vegetable”.  You’ve come a long way, kid.  With only one projected at-large school (San Diego State) losing last weekend, there’s minimal bumping for bubble teams.  Meanwhile, one local school already has a banner on order.

Bids for Grabs- five automatic NCAA Tournament berths are awarded this evening, although No. 2 Gonzaga is in the field even if they lose to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Championship Game.  The 26-7 Gaels are also projected to reach the field, but stranger things have happened to hopeful at-large schools in the tide of Conference Championship week:  many an undertow has dragged a 26-8 school into the NIT.  The Northeast Conference (Robert Morris hosts St. Francis (PA) after the Colonials beat the Red Flash ten days ago to earn home court advantage), Summit (North Dakota-North Dakota State), Horizon (UIC-Northern Kentucky), and CAA (Hofstra-Northeastern) are your classic Big Dance or Bust situations.

While the Colonial Athletic Association isn’t as transient as the Southern Conference (34 former members), there has been quite a bit of turnover since the league formed in 1979 and took the Colonial name in 1985.  It’s eleven ex-members include George Mason, Richmond, and VCU who went to the Atlantic Ten as well as American and Navy who left for the Patriot League.  Even Catholic was a member before deciding to go Division III while Baltimore dropped athletics entirely.  Unfortunately area schools still in the CAA like James Madison, Delaware, Towson, and William & Mary all fell short of tonight’s final.

Tournaments tipping off: we start with the ACC, where Virginia Tech (16-15, 7-13 ACC) faces last place North Carolina (13-18, 6-14 ACC) in the dreaded first round.  Thank goodness once again a conference school ran afoul of the NCAA and removed itself from postseason play; Georgia Tech joins Syracuse (2015) and Louisville (2016) and their loss is our gain as we only have to sit through two of these games (the 10 vs. 15 game is almost as bad as the old 9 vs. 16 game in the days of the bloated Big East).  I write “last place North Carolina” with a major caveat, as the Tar Heels have won three of four (the loss came to No. 10 Duke) and six of their fourteen losses were by one possession. Don’t be surprised if UNC bounces a Hokies team that is 2-9 since beating the Heels in January.  They’d then draw Syracuse, and the Orange still have plenty of enemies off the court in Greensboro.

Also getting underway is the MEAC, and in Norfolk both the men and women hold their conference tournaments during the same week.  As fate would have it the Howard men and women both play South Carolina State in Tuesday’s first round; the Bison men (3-28, 1-15) face a Bulldogs team that has lost five straight and nine of eleven.  They also played well in a 101-95 loss during the regular season. Stranger things have happened in March.  The Howard women (15-14, 7-9 MEAC) have lost five of six to drop under .500 in league play, but SC St. hasn’t won a game since January 20.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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For 37 minutes Saturday afternoon the script went as it has for most of the Mark Turgeon era on a micro and macro level.  After coughing up a 15-point lead at Michigan State, the Terps trailed the Spartans 60-53 with 3:25 left.  Second half slides have been the rule as opposed to the exception over the last decade; just once in Turgeon’s tenure has the team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (the 2014-15 season saw the team start 6-3 in the Big Ten before finishing 8-1).  But instead of another February fade, the Terps turned the tables on the Spartans by holding them scoreless for the final 3:25.  Jalen Smith made a three-pointer and helped hold Michigan State to one shot by notching three late rebounds while Anthony Cowan finished the deal with back to back to back threes (he’d add two free throws with seven seconds left for the icing on the cake) as Maryland emerged with a 67-60 victory.  All of a sudden the team that couldn’t win on the road all season has won four straight away from home in the toughest conference.  And all of a sudden the Terrapins find themselves in position to capture their first regular season league title since 2002.

Alma Mater Update:  the Orange led Florida State until late in the second half, falling  80-78 in Tallahassee when a road victory would have been a signature win for a team that desperately needed one.  Instead, another rough outing saw SU slip to .500 in the ACC and closer to .500 for the season.  Next up? A Louisville team that’s dropped two in a row and is just as angry as the Florida State team they fell to last weekend. When does lacrosse begin?

Wow of the Week: Georgetown beat No. 19 Butler 73-66 Saturday despite being minus their top two players, as Omer Yurtseven had yet to fully recover from a badly sprained ankle and Mac McClung has missed four straight games with a foot injury.  Somehow the Hoyas went into Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims are still ten feet off of the court) and hit 10 of 15 three-pointers while Terrell Allen (not even a starter until James Akinjo left the program) scored a career-high 22 points. At 15-10 and 5-7 in the Big East, Georgetown still has a window of opportunity (however slim) to make the NCAA Tournament.

Player Spotlight:  Richmond’s resurgence this winter saw the Spiders avenge their January loss to VCU by routing the Rams 77-59.  This winter they’ve been sparked by high-scoring Blake Francis and anchored by big man Grant Golden while Jacob Gilyard pilots the offense.  But every so often an unsung hero comes up big:  Saturday it was Nick Sherod who scored 23 points while hitting 5-of-7 three-pointers.  The junior has done a lot of the little things this winter to help the Spiders bounce back from consecutive 20-loss seasons, and at this time coach Chris Mooney’s team is making its way towards the NCAA Tournament bubble.

League Look: despite Clemson’s recent success on the gridiron and Virginia’s men’s lacrosse title, the ACC is first and foremost a basketball conference.  Former Duke player Gene Banks said during an era when a maximum of two schools per conference made the big dance that “if the ACC got six teams into the NCAAs, they’d all make the Final Four.”  Six schools have made the field every season since the league expanded to 15 during the 2013-14 season, but this year they’ll be hard-pressed to get five.  Back to back wins by Virginia (one in overtime, another on a last-second shot) have the Cavaliers on the right side of the bubble, but after that there’s a hot mess where fifth and 12th place are separated by a total of two games. Perhaps quality instead of quantity is this year’s mantra:  the league’s  soft center will help upper tier schools like Duke, Florida State, and Louisville likely land top three seeds next month.

Ballot Battles:  last week’s turnover has been rectified, as Pac-12 leader Colorado makes the Top 25.  Maryland moves up three spots on my AP ballot from 10 to 7 this week, while Seton Hall and West Virginia both slide down the teens.  Butler (once as high as number five) drops out after falling to a depleted Georgetown at home.  Small school shout-outs this week go to the usual suspects:  Wright State, East Tennessee State, Stephen F. Austin, and Rhode Island.  Just missing the cut:  Iowa and New Mexico State.

Starting Five:

Wednesday- Georgetown vs. Providence.  The Hoyas lost to the Friars by 16 on the road last month, and while they were hurt by the absence of Mac McClung (eye injury) they were hurt just as much by Alpha Diallo’s 20 points and 8 rebounds.  PC has beaten three ranked teams this month, but has lost road games at Xavier and St. John’s.

Also Wednesday- George Mason at Richmond.  The Patriots are smarting after getting swept by George Washington, but let the record show they went into the Siegel Center last week and beat VCU.  The Spiders shot 67% in a January win at Fairfax, while Mason’s Javon Greene scored 39 points in defeat.

Thursday- William & Mary at Towson.  Both schools are chasing first-place Hofstra in the CAA, with the second place Tribe one-half game ahead of the Tigers, who took the January meeting by 12 thanks to a career-high 21 points from freshman Jason Gibson.  They also lead the conference in scoring defense and rebounding margin.

Sunday- American at Boston University.  AU enters the week one game behind the Terriers for second place in the Patriot League;  in a conference where the tournament is played on home courts tiebreakers are all the more important. The Eagles won the previous meeting by four in DC thanks to Sa’eed Nelson; the senior is the only active NCAA D-1 player to have recorded 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists in his career.

Sunday- No. 7 Maryland at Ohio State.  The Terps took the January meeting after falling behind 8-0 and going scoreless into the game’s first media timeout.  The sibling tandem of Kaleb & Andre Wesson combined for 29 points and 14 rebounds that night, but their teammates shot a collective 10-for-43 (23%).  The Buckeyes boast the Big Ten’s best scoring defense and are tops at defending the three;  should the Terps find themselves down seven with three minutes left on this time they might not find a comeback as easy in Columbus as it was in East Lansing.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Five-all Saturday:

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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For college football fans in the D.C. metro area, this has been one rough decade. Maryland has had multiple reboots since firing the ACC Coach of the Year, while Virginia Tech saw the sad decline from perennial Coastal Division contender to a team that needed to schedule a bonus game against Marshall in order to keep its bowl streak alive. Virginia hasn’t beaten the Hokies since “Friends” was still on the air. Even Navy wasn’t immune last fall, with a 3-10 season that included a third straight loss to Army.

Thank goodness for the FCS. Area programs annually contend for conference crowns, deliver trips to the Football Final Four, and occasionally play for or even bring home a National Championship. Once again this fall there’s plenty of anticipation involving schools in the CAA, MEAC, and Patriot League — especially when one factors in the head coaching carousel that fired up this past offseason.

 

James Madison (9-4, 6-2 CAA, FCS Second Round) is the CAA Preseason favorite and begins the fall ranked second nationally in both FCS Polls.  The Dukes lost Head Coach Mike Houston to East Carolina, but for the second time in three years hires a proven replacement from the FCS ranks.  Curt Cignetti led Elon to the tournament in both of his seasons with the school, and last fall the Phoenix beat JMU in Harrisonburg.  He comes to a program that’s loaded:  19 of 22 starters return, and of those 19 starters 12 were All-CAA last season.  Quarterback Ben DiNucci returns for his second season as a starter, and he’ll have his top two targets back in wide receivers Riley Stapleton and Kyndel Dean.  Cignetti will have to revamp a running game that lost its top three ground gainers to graduation.

But just like last season, this year’s Dukes will once again begin with D: four of the returning 10 starters from the CAA’s #1 unit in 2018 were voted first team All-Conference. That includes senior linebacker Dmitri Holloway, who finished second in the league with 81 tackles in 2018.  The secondary may have lost Jimmy Moreland to the Redskins and the NFL, but back after missing 2018 with injury is Rashad Robinson (seven interceptions in 2017).

Last year the Dukes kicked off their season with a loss at NC State.  This year’s Power Five trip is to Morgantown, where they’ll visit West Virginia in coach Neal Brown’s debut;  the Mountaineers will also have a new quarterback as Will Grier is gone to the NFL.  Of the five CAA schools in the Preseason Top 25, JMU will not play No. 7 Maine or No. 22 Delaware.  While they visit No. 21 Elon September 28, No. 11 Towson comes to Harrisonburg October 26.

 

Towson (7-5, 5-3 CAA, FCS First Round) is back, by the way.  After missing the tournament for four straight years, Rob Ambrose has the Tigers thinking title.  He’s got a senior quarterback in Tom Flacco, brother of Joe-and no, he’s not thinking about transferring to the University of Denver.  Flacco the Younger threw for 3,237 yards, 27 touchdowns and 1 interceptions while also leading the Tigers with 742 yards rushing.  He’ll lean on a pair of senior Shanes:  running back Shane Simpson (687 yards with six touchdowns rushing last fall) on the ground and wide receiver Shane Leatherbury (67 catches for 885 yards and seven TD’s) in the air.

The team’s ability to deliver on the preseason hype will rest on the shoulders of a defense that finished last against the run and overall in the CAA. New Defensive Coordinator Eric Daniels comes to the Tigers from NAIA school Briar Cliff University (Iowa), where he turned around the Chargers’ defensive woes.  Daniels has a pair of solid building blocks, beginning with senior defensive lineman Bryce Carter (6.5 sacks in 2018) and senior linebacker Robert Heyward (99 tackles plus a fumble recovery).

The schedule serves up a mixed bag.  The other two top projected teams in the CAA are James Madison and Maine, and Towson visits both schools this year.  They do draw Delaware and Elon at home in November, potentially providing coach Ambrose’s team with some necessary late-season momentum if they’re on the FCS Playoff bubble again.

 

Richmond (4-7, 2-6 CAA) did not get any favors from the schedule-makers last year, facing four ranked conference foes.  So instead of contending for an FCS Playoff berth like the previous November, the Spiders saw their first losing season since 2011.  Even with the departure of quarterback Kyle Lauletta to the NFL, coach Russ Huesman’s offense still finished second in the conference in passing.  Junior quarterback Joe Mancuso led the team in rushing while splitting time last fall with Kevin Johnson; this year he’ll be pressed by Air Force transfer Beau English.  Whoever wins the job won’t have Dejon Brissett to throw to, as last year’s top receiver transferred to Virginia. Regardless, ball security will be a priority one autumn after the Spiders lost a CAA-high 27 turnovers.

The defense had issues in 2018, allowing the most points per game in the CAA while ranking last or second to last in most categories. The 4-2-5 formation has been ditched for the 4-3 this fall; no matter how the Spiders line up it all begins with senior defensive lineman Maurice Jackson, who led the CAA with 10 sacks in 2018.

This year’s slate is back-loaded with two bye weeks in September.  How better the turnover/defense issues are will be apparent over a four-week stretch where Richmond faces Delaware, Stonybrook and James Madison.

 

William & Mary (4-6, 3-4 CAA) has a new head coach for the first time since the Carter Administration.  Jimmye Laycock’s retirement brings back a familiar face to both the Commonwealth and the CAA:  former Richmond and Virginia coach Mike London crosses the Potomac after a two-year stint with Howard where he breathed new life in a long-dormant program.  The Tribe is no where near where the Bison were two years ago, but they have posted three consecutive losing seasons and have notched just one winning conference campaign since 2010.

London will find quite a contrast in Williamsburg from the offense he left behind.  The Tribe returns junior quarterback Shon Mitchell and leading rusher Albert Funderburke, but last year W&M ranked last in the CAA in rushing, scoring, total offense, and third down conversions.  Coastal Carolina transfer Kilton Anderson originally played at Fresno State before completing 58% of his passes for 1,010 yards and 8 touchdowns while with the Chanticleers in 2018, proving two things. One-he’s a viable option at QB, and two-I like to work the word “Chanticleers” into conversation way more than one should.

The Tribe return eight starters on defense, with seniors Nate Atkins and Isaiah Laster  the top two tacklers from 2018.  Developing a pass rush (last in sacks) will be a priority for coach London.  The new regime begins August 31 against Lafayette, and the schedule is marked with games against two of London’s former employers: at Virginia September 6 and at Richmmond November 23.  What, they couldn’t add Howard?

 

Howard (4-6, 3-4) will have its fifth head coach this decade as Ron Prince takes over for Mike London. The former Kansas State coach and Michigan assistant steps into quite an offense: quarterback Caylon.  Preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year Caylin Newton (2,629 yards passing and 504 yards rushing last year) has his top targets back in Jequez Ezzard and Kyle Anthony; Anthony led the MEAC last fall with 53 receptions while Ezzard’s 1,064 yards topped the league.  Running back Dedrick Parson (706 yards with 9 touchdowns rushing) returns to provide a nice counterpunch on the ground.

Coach Prince’s main task this fall will be shoring up a defense that ranked last in the MEAC and concluded the year by allowing 56 points to Bryant.  Bryant!?!  Leading tackler Marcellos Allison is back, as is top pass rusher Zamon Robinson.  The season begins with a bang:  trips to Maryland, Youngstown State and Delaware State plus a showdown with longtime rival Hampton dot the first month.  For some reason, they don’t play the other FCS team located in Washington, DC this year.

 

Georgetown (5-6, 4-2 Patriot League) is coming off of its best season under coach Rob Sgarlata:  their four league wins in 2018 was more than the three posted over his previous four years with the Hoyas.  And this was after being picked to finish not just last in the Patriot but by a country mile.  Heady times indeed.  The difference last fall was a defense that ranked second behind league juggernaut Colgate, and that’s where any hopes of unseating the Raiders begins.  Look no further than a pass rush that led the Patriot League in sacks and interceptions:  senior defensive lineman Kristian Tate (a conference-high 10 sacks last year) along with junior Owen Kessler (6.5) generate most of the heat from the trenches.  Linebacker Wes Bowers (4.5 sacks last season) is more than just a pass rusher, as the junior paced the team with 91 tackles and four interceptions.

While the defense might help them catch Colgate, they only way they’ll pass the Raiders will be if the offense improves from the unit that averaged just 15 points per game in 2018.  Starting quarterback Gunther Johnson returns for his senior season and the Hoyas also get their leading rusher in sophomore running back Herman Moultrie) and top receiver in senior Michael Dereus.

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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.