Archives for posts with tag: Sa’eed Nelson

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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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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.

 

 

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.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

By George, that was one rough opening night.  Which was more painful, George Mason’s 72-71 loss at home to Penn or George Washington wasting a 22-0 first half lead in their defeat to Stony Brook?  Never mind, as GW compounded it by losing to Siena Thursday evening.  The Patriots and Colonials will battle twice in Atlantic 10 play, with GW going to Fairfax January 26th and Mason heading to Foggy Bottom March 9th.  Meanwhile, DC houses two more Division I programs…and American visits Howard December 8th.  Both teams are rebuilding:  the Eagles are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 while the Bison have a 26-year Big Dance drought.  Of the four, George Mason has the best chance of making waves this winter while the other three have hopes-for the moment.

 

George Mason- the Patriots enter coach Dave Paulsen’s fourth year at the helm, meaning every player in the program is someone brought to Fairfax by his efforts. “There’s just a comfort level that the kids have and a comfort level that I have with the kids,” Paulsen said, “What we’re starting to see when is when the players enforce the culture, when the players can help correct some things on the side.”

Mason has improved from 12th to 7th to 5th in the Atlantic 10 over the last three years;  this fall the Patriots return all five starters and have been picked to finish 4th in the A10’s Preseason Poll.  Paulsen returns all five starters and every significant bench player from last winter.  This is a team built to contend. “We talk a lot about playing two-tempo basketball:  being able to push it in transition but also be able to really execute on the offensive end.”

Leading the returnees is guard Otis Livingston II: the senior was named Preseason all-Atlantic 10.  While his 17 points per game paced the Patriots last winter, Livingston’s coach feels they’ve only scratched the surface.  Paulsen said, “We really challenged Otis to become a complete point guard in the truest sense.  To assert himself more defensively and pressure the ball…and continue to be aggressive scoring the basketball.”

Livingston will have plenty of options at his disposal:  Jaire Grayer led the team in threes while the 6-foot-5 guard was also the best player on the boards.  Six-foot-seven Minnesota mountain man Goanar Mar looks to build off of what was a productive freshman season in the post.  Paulsen said, “I do think we’ll have better balance–we pretty much lived and died on the perimeter last year and I think we’ll be able to throw the ball inside and get some easy buckets in there as well.”

That they’re picked 4th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll is nice, but the coach expects a long winter with many twists and turns.  “There’s always a team that does very well and always a team that doesn’t perform as well as expected–but there’s no easy night”, Paulsen said.  The schedule has Mason playing defending A10 regular season champ Rhode Island once (on the road) and tournament winner Davidson at home.

 

George Washington- Maurice Joseph’s team was picked to finish 13th in the conference after losing their top three scorers off of last year’s 15-18 team.   Stepping into the vacuum of the graduating Yuta Watanabe and Patrick Steeves plus the transferring Jair Bolden (bound for South Carolina), 6-foot-8 forward Arnaldo Toro.  The junior from Puerto Rico led the Colonials in rebounding last winter and will be expected be the primary post presence moving forward.  Getting him the ball will be Baltimore product Terry Nolan Jr.:  the preseason Atlantic 10-All Defensive Team guard was fifth in the conference in steals as a freshman.  The season begins with a bang as GW faces top 25 teams Virginia and Michigan in November.

American- the Eagles were extremely young last year and it showed in a 6-24 finish (3-15 Patriot League).  But after taking those lumps coach Mike Brennan’s team returns a nucleus of Sa’eed Nelson (Preseason Player of the Year), senior Larry Motuzis (15 points and while leading the team in threes) and sophomore Sam Iorio (15 points while leading the team in rebounding).  Despite the experience, the Eagles are picked seventh in the conference…with everybody chasing Lehigh and Bucknell.  Games to watch include trips to George Mason (November 9th) and George Washington (December 27th).

Howard- forgive me for being shy about the Bison.  This program was THIS CLOSE to breaking through with James Daniel leading the nation in scoring and his teammates leading the country in untimely injuries.  Kevin Nickelberry has rebuilt the roster and has HU picked to finish fourth in the MEAC (keep in mind they have one winning conference record since 2002) and once again boast a high-powered backcourt.  Preseason MEAC Player of the Year RJ Cole looks to build on one incredible freshman season (his 24 points per game ranked 7th nationally) while junior Charles Williams (20 points per game last winter) can fill it as well.  Upper Marlboro, MD native Zion Cousins led the Bison with 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman.  If he can develop a better offensive game, Howard might just finally find a way to turn from pretender to contender.