WASHINGTON — For the third straight March, a Division I men’s basketball conference will hold its postseason tournament in Washington, D.C.
The ACC Tournament saw top seed North Carolina hold off all challengers in 2015, while Michigan won four games in four days to take the Big Ten crown after an aborted takeoff grounded the team charter. This winter, the Atlantic 10 brings its show to Capital One Arena … much to the delight of George Washington coach Maurice Joseph.
“Our guys are excited, our fan base is excited and our students are excited — we’re going to be able to travel really well,” Joseph said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. No matter where we finish in the standings, we know that we’re going to have a lot of support here because of proximity.”
Unlike last winter, when Maryland was ranked nationally, and the year before when Virginia was a Final Four contender, the local schools are not expected to contend. The A-10 preseason poll places VCU fourth, Richmond ninth, George Mason 10th and George Washington 11th.
George Mason head coach Dave Paulsen enters his third season with the Patriots and knows October projections get buried by the blizzard of 18 league games come January and February.
“You know, we were picked 12th last year and we finished seventh,” Paulsen said. “[It] doesn’t really matter where we’re picked, and it doesn’t really matter about who we’re playing against — it matters how we play and how we develop.”
Coach Paulsen has to develop a rotation that will be minus Marquise Moore, who graduated after defying logic by leading the conference in rebounding (10.9) despite standing just six-foot-two (!) while leading the Patriots in scoring and assists, as well. Junior guard Otis Livingston II will be expected to bear the brunt of the offensive energy, while freshmen forwards Greg Calixte, AJ Wilson and Goanar Mar will get opportunities to contribute in the frontcourt. Pre-conference tests include trips to Louisville and Auburn, while Penn State comes to Fairfax. Year three in Paulsen’s previous stops have turned into something special: he guided Bucknell to the NCAAs and led Williams to the Division III National Championship. Not that there’s any pressure this winter.
George Washington removed the “interim” tag from head coach Maurice Joseph after returning to the NIT last March. Gone is leading scorer and rebounder Tyler Cavanaugh (let the record show he also made 41 percent of his threes). This is Yuta Watanabe’s team: the six-foot-eight senior was voted to the preseason All-Defensive team and second team A-10. Can he get the necessary help from a roster that returns just two players who saw more than 16 minutes a game last winter? Tuneups for A-10 play include games against Howard, Hampton and Morgan State. Is this some sneaky way of qualifying for the MEAC title? Asking for a friend. GW plays former conference foe Xavier as well as Miami and Penn State before starting league play Dec. 30 in Foggy Bottom against Saint Joseph.
VCU has a new coach, but one with roots in the Rams program. Former assistant Mike Rhoades returns after leading Rice to the CBI Quarterfinals, and he’ll have senior forward Justin Tillman and senior guard Jonathan Williams at his disposal. Tillman finished second in the A-10 in rebounding as a junior and averaged a double-double last March. Williams is straight from the VCU central casting of pesky guards we’ve seen over the last decade that jump-start the havoc defense. He might not be the best three-point shooter (3-for-30 in his career), but that’s why De’Riante Jenkins (46 percent from outside the arc as a freshman) and Malik Crowfield are in Richmond. The two games that jump off the early-season slate are both at home: Friday, Nov. 17 Virginia comes to the Siegel Center, while former VCU coach Shaka Smart brings Texas to town Dec. 5.
Richmond has to replace Atlantic 10 Player of the Year T.J. Cline … but the cupboard is far from bare for head coach Chris Mooney. The Spiders will be led by guards Khwan Fore and De’Monte Buckingham this winter. Who rebounds will be the major question: Solly Stansbury last played competitively in France two years ago, graduate transfer Jordan Madrid-Andrews averaged under four rebounds a game at Chicago State, freshmen Grant Golden and Phoenix Ford are unproven commodities, and redshirt junior Paul Friendshuh has played just 46 minutes in his Spiders career. The pre-conference highlight on the schedule has Georgetown coming to the Robins Center Saturday, Nov. 25.