WASHINGTON — Some Marches become memorable because your school steals a game it had no business winning. Others are made by incredible tournament runs that keep the season alive for another weekend. A select few seasons end with your team playing for it all during the first weekend of April with the chance to bring home hardware.
This was not one of those years for the area schools … although George Washington is still alive in the College Basketball Invitational and harbors dreams of the best-of-three finals.
As the dust clears from a wild weekend — what happened? If you went into the tournament recognizing Mount St. Mary’s would be overmatched by Villanova, each of the other locals (Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech and VCU) had potential red flags. And each red flag was flown high. While the final answer for each school on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament was less than ideal, there will only be more questions until Oct. 15, as the offseason begins.
What is there to do, when the madness ends? The March Madness, that is.
Maryland (24-9) had issues beginning with its Jan. 1 loss to Nebraska, where the Terps did not score for the final six minutes of regulation. Minus a proven post presence, the Terps were reduced to a jump-shooting/drive-and-kick team this winter, which was great when they were hitting. But they had too many stretches of wandering in the offensive wilderness — against Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern — and losing Michal Cekovsky to injury limited their options inside further.
The Terps’ 76-65 loss to Xavier saw another one of those extended scoreless stretches (six minutes in the second half) and they were hammered on the boards by 10. As Damonte Dodd graduates and L.G. Gill wraps up his one year with the program as a graduate transfer, all eyes are once again on Melo Trimble. Will the 22-year-old — now projected to land in the middle of the second round by nbadraft.net — return for his senior season? Even if the junior departs, there’s a solid base in College Park with the freshman trio of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson. Not to mention redshirt Micah Thomas. Will 6-foot-10 center Bruno Fernando be the inside answer? Come back next winter and find out.
I didn’t know the Musketeers were that loaded — Xavier is the only double-digit team to survive the first weekend, and Chris Mack’s team did so after entering the tournament on a 4-7 lurch where three of those wins came against lowly DePaul (I have yet to check with the NCAA office, but I believe, until further review, one has to refer to the Blue Demons as “lowly DePaul”). They hadn’t been the same since losing point guard Edmond Sumner, and the NCAA Tournament is a guard’s game, right? While the victory over Maryland wasn’t a complete shock, their 91-66 dismembering of No. 3 Florida State in Orlando was. Along with fellow Big East newbie, Xavier is flying the conference banner in the regional round.
Virginia (23-11) gained the reputation as “London Perrantes plus four guys from the Y” during a stretch where they lost six of eight … and had trouble shaking that status no matter how many good games Kyle Guy and Marial Shayok produced. Perrantes was the only Cavalier on the roster in March averaging in double figures (transfer Austin Nichols was dismissed in November after scoring 11 points in his only game for UVa) and the rest of the team shot just 14 of 42 (33 percent) Saturday in the 65-39 loss to Florida.
Perrantes leaves Charlottesville having been the pulse of the team that averaged 28 wins and brought home the school’s second-ever ACC Tournament title. He leaves a roster of players who need to develop over the next offseason — from Shayok and Guy to Jack Salt (the New Zealander had a season-high 10 rebounds against the Gators) and Isaiah Wilkins (limited by illness in the NCAA’s). The only commit so far is shooting guard Marco Anthony, so the next floor general will have to come from within the ranks. Darius Thompson, we presume?
ACC stands for Annoying Conference Collapse this year — nine schools made the field of 68 and one by one, all but North Carolina went down over the weekend. While nobody had Wake Forest or Miami making the Final Four, Louisville and Notre Dame had each been in the Top 10 during the regular season and both were gone by the end of the weekend. Same with Florida State and … Duke? Granted — they lost to South Carolina in Greenville, but the way the Blue Devils had been playing down the stretch their faithful were confident in (and their detractors were fearful of) a Final Four run. Only North Carolina somehow pulling out a victory — not only from the jaws, but out of the esophagus of defeat — against Arkansas kept the league from going 100 percent sour before the Sweet Sixteen.
Virginia Tech (22-11) ranked last in the ACC in rebounding before losing top rebounder Chris Clarke to a season-ending ACL injury. So it was no surprise that the Hokies got crushed on the glass in their 84-74 defeat to Wisconsin, especially when the Badgers blew up everyone’s bracket by bouncing defending national champ Villanova two days later. But let’s sit back for a second … Virginia Tech made the tournament for the first time in 10 years. And despite a rapidly thinning bench, coach Buzz Williams’ team entered Selection Sunday having won six of nine.
While Zach LeDay and Seth Allen have played their final games in maroon and orange, there’s a solid nucleus that has plenty of starting experience (truth be told, LeDay and Allen were coming off the bench by the end of the season). Another recruiting class for the energetic Williams comes to Blacksburg and next winter, they try to post the school’s third-straight winning conference record for the first time since 1986 (three moves ago, or when they called the Metro home). Even with a loss to the Badgers, the Hokies’ glass is more than half-full.
From much-maligned to sweet revenge, the Big Ten was undervalued early and often this winter, culminating with a Selection Sunday slap in the face to multiple teams. How’d they respond? Purdue fought back the ghosts of brackets past with two solid wins (including a great punch-counterpunch victory over Iowa State) and their first Regional trip since 2010. Michigan continued its great play that started well before its 4-0 sweep through the Big Ten Tournament (6-2 in final eight regular season games) and bounced Oklahoma State before upsetting Louisville. Wisconsin? The conference runner-up took its No. 8 right into eliminating defending champ and overall No. 1 seed Villanova.
Instead of misery, this March is filled with magic for the Big Ten, as the league’s three Sweet 16 teams tie the conference with the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Maybe it was because their tournament was held in the District …
VCU (26-9) had issues shooting the three all season, tying for 248th in Division I. Against an underseeded St. Mary’s (the Gaels were a No. 7 despite finishing the regular season 22nd in the writer’s rankings) in Salt Lake City, the Rams were held to 2-of-13 from outside the arc in an 85-77 loss.
One wonders what sort of seed they would have received if VCU had managed to hold off Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals. One doesn’t wonder about the force of nature that was JeQuan Lewis: The senior went down shooting in his final game, leading the Rams with 30 points.
While VCU returns juniors Justin Tillman (second in the A-10 in rebounding) and Jonathan Williams (second on the team in assists), coach Will Wade may be a question mark as the 34-year-old is being courted by the likes of LSU. Before scoring that payday, a word of caution: The power conferences are littered with former VCU coaches, from Anthony Grant at Alabama to Jeff Capel at Oklahoma. And Shaka Smart just suffered through an 11-22 campaign at Texas.
Other Bracket Bounces
I understand that TNT, TBS and truTV own the first Sunday of the tournament and thus are putting their games on at night for the biggest audience. But could we move the 9:40 game to 4:40? The 8:40 game (Duke-South Carolina) was the perfect cherry on Sunday’s slate — making UCLA-Cincinnati seem like the cherry’s stem. It’s there, but you don’t want to look at it … especially for those of us who have consumed 47 games over 48 hours of watching over four days.