Basketball around the beltway: Claymation special!

WASHINGTON — Is the tree up yet?

December 2015 gives us a new Star Wars movie, the 50th anniversary of the release of Rubber Soul, and various TV Shows holding their “Midseason Finales.” Naturally, I dream of a day when they have “quarter-season finales.” December is more importantly an annual dumping ground of holiday claymation specials of varying quality: from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (with Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle) to “Jack Frost” (with Buddy Hackett as a groundhog/weatherman).

Basketball in and around the beltway runs a similar gamut this year with schools hoping their teams don’t resemble the island of misfit toys. You try competing in a conference with a Charlie-in-the-box as your starting point guard.

#5 Maryland (9-1) has more than lived up to expectations. Their only loss  has been at preseason No. 1 North Carolina on the road in a game where the Terps turned the ball over 22 times and the Tar Heels hit 9 of 13 three-pointers. While Melo Trimble picks up Big Ten Player of the Week awards and Rasheed Sulaimon garners attention as an ex-Dukie dominating defensively, it’s Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr. that’s making the biggest impact. The junior leads the team in shooting, rebounding and blocks while allowing fellow big man Diamond Stone to work out whatever rough edges the freshman phenom may still have. A game with Princeton in Baltimore — the first in the Charm City since 1999 — stands between the Terrapins and their tree.

Georgetown (6-4) had won five straight prior to their Tuesday night loss to giant-killer Monmouth. The most convincing was its December 5 smack down of former Big East rival Syracuse. While it finished as just a seven point win, the lead was 22 at one point in the second half. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera remains the offensive catalyst he’s been for most of his career (16 points per game, 35 percent from three point range), but it’s a fellow senior’s emergence that catches the eye. Bradley Hayes scored a combined 30 points in his first three seasons as a Hoya; he exceeded that total by the end of the Maryland game and is now notching 12 points and 7 rebounds a game. Quite a transformation — but will the 7-footer stay strong during the rough and tumble Big East season?

#8 Virginia (8-1) received a rude awakening in November when the Cavaliers were upset by George Washington,  but since then they’ve taken seven straight — six by double figures — including last Tuesday’s 16-point win over No. 14 West Virginia. Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson has four straight games scoring in double figures and could be what coach Tony Bennett needs to counter the production of seniors Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon. Shopping for a win the Saturday before Christmas against No. 12 Villanova? At least that’s at John Paul Jones Arena.

Virginia Tech (7-3) is 64 percent of its way towards equaling last year’s win total, and one of those victories came against a Radford team that beat Georgetown. Hokie fans should go to the next paragraph right now. The wins are not overly impressive (Lamar and VMI) while the opening night loss was to Alabama State. Transfers Zach LeDay (South Florida) and Seth Allen (Maryland) are already exceeding the numbers put up at their old schools, and a young roster that includes three freshmen and four sophomores should only improve. As they turn towards conference play, the Hokies have to get better at protecting the ball: the team currently ranks 14th in the ACC in turnover margin. Grambling comes to Cassell Coliseum Saturday.

#21 George Washington (9-1) finds itself ranked for the first time since 2005-06. Colonial fans of a certain age recall a team that entered the Atlantic 10 Tournament at 26-1 only to get bounced by Temple and then get sent to Duke’s sub-regional. That club boasted senior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu — this year’s best name belongs to Yuta Watanabe. The 6-foot-8 sophomore from Japan is averaging just under 10 points a game while providing a fourth offensive option to a team that’s already getting a boost from Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cavanaugh (16 points, 8 rebounds and 43 percent shooting from three-point range). Much like Johnson at Maryland, Cavanaugh’s more than able to take advantage of his new surroundings. Saint Peter’s comes to Foggy Bottom Saturday in the final non-conference tune-up at Smith Center.

George Mason (4-7)  has posted notable wins against Mississippi and Oklahoma State under first-year coach Dave Paulsen, but is probably closer to the team that has lost to the likes of Towson and Mercer. Senior Shevon Thompson ranks 15th in the nation in rebounding and shoots over 60% from the field –but can anybody get him the ball? Ball movement has been somewhat of an issue this fall for a team that ranks 323rd nationally in assists per game. Will their act be in gear January 2nd when GMU visits VCU?

American (2-6) is in a weird Patriot League this season, as Army and Navy — neither a recent force to be reckoned with in the conference — are the only two teams with winning records on December 15. The Eagles continue to be deliberately precise, averaging 47.5 shots, second fewest in the nation. Senior Jesse Reed (12 points and 4 rebounds per game) is on track to win the Sean Singletary Weight on His Shoulders Award. Hopefully he gets a little help December 22 when AU visits LSU.

Howard (6-5, 1-1 MEAC) has already begun conference play with the James Gang on the ropes. James Carlton graduated this past spring and James Miller broke his hand during the win over Central Arkansas, leaving junior James Daniel to recreate an impersonation of his freshman year when he scored 20+ points a game for a 20-loss team. “J-Byrd” has soared to the tune of 29 points a game, leading the nation in scoring. There is hope — since Miller got hurt, their losses have come by one to Radford, three to North Carolina A&T and at No. 11 Purdue (a toe injury kept Daniel from playing). Coach Kevin Nickelberry tweeted after a double-overtime loss to Radford, “True satisfaction for a coach is when you know you’ve gotten everything out of your team and they aren’t satisfied. #winning foundation.” After last year’s great leap forward to 16 wins, there’s no reason to think this winter’s team won’t hang with the best of the MEAC.

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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