WASHINGTON — Welcome to one-bid land, where the schools know a December signature win means nothing, because only the conference tournament champ will get to the big dance. The three beltway one-bid schools have each enjoyed success sporadic enough to understand what the taste of the NCAA Tournament is like — but each knows the perfect storm necessary to be in position to have your name called Selection Sunday.
Howard has the longest of the three droughts, last reaching the NCAA Tournament in 1992. The Bison have enjoyed just one winning season since, although it appeared they were poised to break through after a 16-16 season with head coach Kevin Nickelberry in 2014-15. But injuries torpedoed a good thing. James Miller missed most of the following season and a year after leading Division I in scoring, James Daniel III played just a pair of games last winter. Now Miller has graduated and Daniel is suiting up for Tennessee after transferring.
Nickelberry will build around swingman Charles Williams — the sophomore scored 15.6 points per game while making the MEAC All-Freshman Team. Williams and senior guard Dalique Mingo are the only returning players who saw more than 10 minutes a game in 2016-17. Expect plenty of growing pains — especially early, when Howard goes on the road for 13 of its first 16 games (the final MEAC tune-up is at Hawaii — try the poi).
Navy last reached the NCAAs in 1998. The Midshipmen attempt to bounce back from last year’s February fade that saw them lose their final four regular season games. The good news for head coach Ed DeChellis is the Mids return their top five scorers — including senior guard Shawn Anderson. Backcourt mate Bryce Dulin is a solid defender, and 6-foot-7 senior Tom Lacey provides a presence in the post (his 7.7 rebounds per game finished second in the conference last season). Last winter, Navy led the Patriot League in rebounding margin and was second in turnover margin; conversely, the Mids were the worst three-point shooting team in the league and had the second-worst field goal percentage. Defending champ Bucknell is the team to beat in the Patriot League once again, and Navy is 0-7 against the Bison over the last three seasons.
American’s most recent trip to the big dance is just four seasons ago, but the Eagles have gone from 20 to 17 to 12 to eight wins in that span. This year’s Eagles will be young: There are no seniors on the roster, head coach Mike Brennan is bringing in seven freshmen, and the top two returning scorers are sophomores Sa’eed Nelson and Mark Gasperini. Both players adapted well to AU’s deliberate offensive style as first-year players (the team attempted the second-fewest shots in D-I last winter) and should be able to help bring along the newcomers. The Eagles appear to subscribe to the Howard theory of pre-conference scheduling, playing eight of 11 non-league games on the road. AU begins Patriot League play against three-time defending champ and preseason favorite Bucknell, a school they’re 2-6 against during coach Brennan’s tenure.
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