Basketball around the Beltway: Bracket watch begins

WASHINGTON – One month (or so) from Selection Sunday, college basketball’s “moving month” features five teams with legitimate NCAA dreams – including one with a coach who can’t keep his clothes on and another which may end an infamous run.

The bracket watch is on, with experts putting together their tournament fields (sadly, they predict the seeds, regions and first weekend destinations but not the tipoff times and announcer teams) as they have all season. The difference now? There’s a legitimate sample size (most leagues have played at least half of their conference schedule) so February provides teams with at least some knowledge of where they are and what they need to do to get to where they want to go.

#17 Maryland (19-4, 7-3 Big Ten) needed last weekend off after dropping two of three. It seemed as though they needed another day as the Terps were somewhat sluggish against Penn State before putting away the Nittany Lions 64-58. Another rough night for Melo Trimble (0-5 FG but with 8 assists), but it’s key to see this team respond when their best player isn’t playing well. Coach Mark Turgeon has said he’d like to get better play from his big men with Damonte Dodd consistently uneven (9 points and 10 rebounds over his last five games) and Slovakian center Michal Cekovsky remaining a work in progress. The move might be using 6-foot-8 senior Jon Graham in that role more despite his lack of size. At this point the Terrapins are in the 3 to 4 seed range. Upcoming tests at Iowa and against Indiana will determine if the Terps remain above the Big Ten’s growing middle class bubble.

#24 Georgetown (15-7, 7-4 Big East) wasted a 13-point, second-half lead against Providence, shooting 2 for 8 with seven turnovers during the last 11:40 of the second half in a 74-71 loss to the Friars. Offensive miscues have been an issue with the Hoyas when they haven’t played well.T second-best shooting team in the Big East commits the third most turnovers in the league. Coach John Thompson III’s team benefits from playing Seton Hall and St. Johns during the last month of the season (the Pirates are 5-5 in conference play while the Red Storm is 3-6). The Hoyas are currently projected to land in the 6 to 7 seed. Saturday they face a revenge-minded No. 7 Villanova (they beat the Wildcats by 20 in January).

#3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) suffered but survived its Duke-UNC double-dip over the weekend. The Cavaliers fell to the Blue Devils 69-63 at home as Coach K’s crew got hot late, but bounced back in Chapel Hill to tame the Tar Heels 75-64. What went wrong against Duke? Four three-pointers allowed in the last 3:22. What went right against UNC? Holding the Tar Heels to 6-21 to start the second half. Defense still rules the day in Charlottesville and when the Cavaliers are executing there’s nothing like it in the ACC or the NCAA. Most models have the Cavaliers as a No. 1 seed, but in a league with five teams ranked in the top 12 there’s more of a chance to slide. Saturday they continue the ACC gauntlet by hosting No. 9 Louisville.

Virginia Tech (9-13, 1-8 ACC) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Syracuse. The Hokies led the Orange 66-57 before closing on a 4-15 run. In the process coach Buzz Williams managed to take off his jacket, tie and vest. Perhaps he needs a fedora and cane to push more crucial clothing further back in the order of disposal. I dread a double overtime game.

George Washington (16-6, 6-3 A-10) is projected to miss the NCAA’s by ESPN while CBS Sports has the Colonials in the First Four. Coach Mike Lonergan’s team came undone at VCU last week in a 72-48 nightmare. The Colonials aren’t as bad as a 24-point loss to the Rams would suggest, but they followed it up with a loss at Rhode Island (the other Rams in the A-10) where they turned the ball over 21 times. GW trails both teams in the conference as well as Dayton, who drops by the Smith Center Friday night. The Colonials own an 11-game home winning streak and they’ll be tested by a Flyers team that just put up 101 points against St. Bonaventure.

George Mason (7-14, 2-7 A-10) follows up a season of heartbreak (9 games lost by six points or less) in the Atlantic 10 with a winter of blowouts (four of seven league losses coming by double-digits). Freshman Shevon Thompson (13 ppg, 12 rpg) has played well despite running into the freshman wall (2-11 shooting the last two games). The Patriots try to avoid playing Wednesday in the A-10 Tournament (teams in 11th through 14th place get to enjoy the “opening round”). They trail Saint Joseph’s by one game for 10th place in the conference. Saturday they visit the Hawks.

#18 VCU (18-4, 8-1) suffered a tough loss against Richmond last weekend when sparkplug Briante Weber went down for the season with a knee injury. They then lost leading scorer Treveon Graham with an ankle injury in their 72-60 win at George Mason. Melvin Johnson was able to step up against the Patriots, but how long can the Rams play well minus their best on-ball defender while their top offensive player is banged up? They won’t have a breather for the next few weeks as road tests at St. Bonaventure and George Washington sandwich a home date with LaSalle. Also to be seen is how Weber’s injury will affect their seeding. Most models have the Rams as a No. 4 seed.

American (13-10, 6-5 Patriot League) hopes their three-game losing streak was just a midseason hiccup and not the beginning of a slide down the standings. AU bounced back by shooting 51 percent in a win over Holy Cross and 60 percent in a victory over Loyola of Maryland. However, the Crusaders and Greyhounds both reside in the conference underbelly. Saturday’s trip to Colgate will be a better indicator.

Howard (12-10, 6-2 MEAC) continues to exceed expectations owning a winning record after 22 games for the first time since the 2001-02 season. The James Gang (Daniel leads the Bison in scoring and assists, Carlton leads the team in rebounding and Miller is the squad’s top three-point shooter) has won four straight to move up to third place in the conference…but can they actually contend against the likes of North Carolina Central and Norfolk State? The Bison will find out if they’re for real during a six-game conference road trip…seriously? Who makes these schedules? The Bison are two wins away from clinching a non-20-loss season, their first in over a decade. Do you hang a banner for that?

#5 Maryland Women (20-2, 11-0 Big Ten) — New league, similar result. The fifth-ranked Terps remains the team to beat in their new conference, despite needing a rally from 10 points down at home to dispose of No. 20 Iowa 93-88. Credit sophomore Brionna Jones with another monster game (scoring the Terps first 12 points of the second half) and a defense that denied the three-pointer after intermission. The Terrapin bench has also developed with Tierney Pfirman providing quality minutes in the paint, diminutive guard Brene Moseley giving the Terps a change of pace, plus point guard and freshman Kristen Confroy adding a three point threat off the pine. The win was huge in the big picture because it gives the Terps a virtual three-game cushion in the standings over the Hawkeyes. And Coach Brenda Frese’s team can further cement its lock on the top spot when they host third-place Rutgers Tuesday in College Park.

#24 George Washington Women (20-2, 9-0 Atlantic 10) — Don’t look now, but the No. 24 Colonials haven’t lost since Nov. 22 (at home to Maryland). Their conference run has been a series of double-digit beat downs since a 69-66 victory over second-place Dayton Jan. 4 (average margin of victory is more than 18 points a game). Multiple A-10 Player of the Week honoree Jonquel Jones (16 points and 12 rebounds per game) is helped by a rotation that includes Caira Washington inside (eight rebounds a game) as well as the point guard tandem of Chakecia Miller and Lauren Chase. A Sunday showdown for first place with Dayton looms in Foggy Bottom.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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