Holiday hopes for local hoops squads

This is “Basketball Around the Beltway,” our weekly look at the college basketball teams in the D.C. area and beyond.

WASHINGTON — Is this really the most wonderful time of the year? Most of us still have our football mindset with the NFL season entering its final few lengths and 40 (!) bowls on the menu. Forgive us if college basketball is somewhat of an afterthought — like getting to the Barnes & Noble and Bath & Body Works for Christmas presents, I’ll get around to the hoop season. Promise!

Unfortunately, while there have been a few gifts in the pre-conference season (I know Maryland has begun Big Ten play and Duke lost its ACC opener to Boston College, but just work with me here), we’ve also been treated to some refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys. And for the record, a gun that shoots jelly is pretty cool in the long run. So here are early impressions of the local schools. Who’s getting the Star Wars Death Star™ playset and who receives tube socks and a bathrobe this December?

Maryland (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten)

Hold on — they actually trailed Division III Catholic 20-18 in the first half? Ugh.

What’s Nice: Anthony Cowan has taken ownership (16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game) of this team while freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darrell Morsell have emerged as major contributors (not unlike last year’s trio of Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson).

What’s Naughty: The Terps are among the worst in the nation in turnovers per game 16.7 per game), and lack of an effective offense against zones is the nightmare that won’t go away. Instead of a breakout year Jackson, while posting more rebounds and assists, has regressed as a shooter (37 percent from the field and 25 percent from three after making 44 percent from both last winter).

Best Win: Dec. 3 at Illinois. The Illini may not be expected to do much in the Big Ten, but the Terps could ill-afford to start conference play 0-2. A clutch free throw from Cowan with one second left gave the sophomore a career-high 27 points.

Worst Loss: A 63-61 stumble to St. Bonaventure saw 20 turnovers and 5-of-23 three-point shooting. Yes, the Bonnies play zone.

Game to watch before conference play: Friday, Dec. 29, UMBC comes to College Park. The 7-5 Retrievers boast former VCU guard Jairus Lyles (20 ppg & 46 percent from three-point range) and the kid-brother mentality that Catholic brought to Xfinity Center, only they have more staying power.

Georgetown (8-0)

With four wins over MEAC foes, the Hoyas may actually be eligible for that league’s postseason tournament, should things end early in the Big East. Actually, the schedule involves three schools that have already lost eight games, including 1-10 Howard and 0-11 Coppin State. They couldn’t at least bring St. Leo to D.C.?

What’s Nice: New head coach Patrick Ewing said a lot would be expected of Jessie Govan this winter, and the junior has delivered in averaging 23 points (on 63 percent shooting) and a Division I-best 13 rebounds per game. The offense is tied for 11th in assists per game. It’s not “Hoya Paranoia” yet, but they rank third among Big East teams in scoring defense, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in stopping the three-pointer.

What’s Naughty: The schedule means “Georgetown Cupcake” is now more than just a thriving business on the corner of 33rd and M (not that I’ve ever been there). The Hoyas are last in the Big East in turnover margin … and that’s going against teams with a combined 21-63 record (with nine of those wins coming against non-Division I schools).

Best Win: An 82-76 win at Richmond (the Hoyas lone road trip before conference play). Five scorers in double-figures proves this is more than a one-man team.

Game to Watch before conference play: The Hoyas host Syracuse Saturday at 12:30 p.m. CBS will be there. Even in the final days of John Thompson III, Georgetown was still able to beat its hated rival in consecutive years.

Virginia (8-1)

Reports of the Cavaliers’ demise after London Perrantes graduated and multiple players transferred were premature — Tony Bennett has this team in the Top 20 and eyeing a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.

What’s Nice: Kyle Guy got rid of the famed man-bun and came back to campus even more productive — the sophomore is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 45 percent from outside the arc. The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense (by 4.5 points per game!) and almost caused basketballs worldwide to explode in their 49-37 water-drip win over Wisconsin.

What’s Naughty: Jack Salt is back — and the center from New Zealand has only two more points than personal fouls through nine games (25-23). Better big man production will be needed when the conference slate begins.

Best Win: The 76-67 victory at VCU. Forget that the Rams have a first-year head coach. It’s nice to stay the top dog in the Commonwealth.

Lone Loss: A 68-61 defeat at No. 18 West Virginia. No shame in coming up short in Morgantown; the Mountaineers are a good team, even if their coach wears a tracksuit.

Game to Watch pre-ACC: On Saturday, always dangerous Davidson drops by Charlottesville.

Virginia Tech (9-1)

Introducing the highflying Hokies: No. 1 in Division I in shooting and scoring while ranking second in three-point shooting. Forgive us if we’re getting adjusted to a coach Buzz Williams’ sports car — we’re accustomed to pickup trucks in Blacksburg (often with a faulty transmission).

What’s Nice: Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a sparkplug from the perimeter (14 points per game and 47 percent from three) while Chris Clarke’s recovery from a torn ACL is far enough along that the junior is shooting 60 percent from the field while averaging 6.8 rebounds per night.

What’s Naughty: It’s tough to find a smudge on this early season — but the Hokies do allow the fourth most points per game in the ACC.

Best Win: A 103-79 neutral-site victory over a Washington team that has since gone on to upset Kansas. Nice to get a victory on the Madison Square Garden floor.

Lone Loss: The night before, VT fell to Saint Louis 77-71 after getting out-rebounded by 10. Last year rebounding was an issue … it couldn’t be again when they begin league play, could it?

Game to Watch before ACC play: Saturday the Hokies visit No. 8 Kentucky. The tipoff is at 2 p.m. — but this will go a long way to determining if they’re ready for prime time.

George Washington (5-5)

The Colonials have had quite an ambitious pre-Atlantic 10 slate, visiting the likes of Florida State and Penn State while playing holiday tournaments against No. 15 Xavier and Kansas State. Sadly they’re 0-4 against those schools.

What’s Nice: Sophomore Jair Bolden has emerged as a do-it-all floor general, leading the team in assists while developing into the team’s best three-point threat.

What’s Naughty: They’re not the best at taking care of the basketball (12th in the conference in assist-to-turnover margin). Against the VCU’s and better defensive teams in the league, that will be a major issue.

Best Win: Dec. 3, they beat Temple 71-67. The Owls used to run the A-10 like their private rec club, so it’s nice to beat the school that won nine tournament titles over a 26-year span before bolting for the AAC.

Worst Loss: A home loss to Rider from the MAAC. Not the MAC (mid-American) or even the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic) but the Metro Atlantic Athletic — ugh.

Game to watch before league play tips off: Saturday, they host No. 6 Miami at noon. Really, does every good December game involving beltway schools have to be this Saturday?

George Mason (5-6)

One year after winning 20 games perhaps a year earlier than expected, coach Dave Paulsen’s team is one of nine Atlantic 10 schools that are within one game of .500.

What’s Nice: Otis Livingston II came back for his junior year with a three-point shot (46 percent this season as opposed to 34 percent as a sophomore) while freshman Goanar Mar has produced since opening night for the Patriots.

What’s Naughty: You think GW has issues with turnovers? Mason has the most miscues in the A-10 by a wide margin.

Best Win: A 76-72 grand larceny Nov. 29 at James Madison. The Patriots trailed by four with seven seconds left, but an Ian Boyd three began a furious finish.

Worst Loss: Tuesday’s 74-51 loss to Georgia Southern. The Eagles may be 8-2, but shooting 29 percent and turning the ball over 21 times at home is no way to go through life.

Best pre-conference game remaining: Sunday, Mason hosts Penn State. Beware the Green Machine.

VCU (5-5)

Head coach Mike Rhoades has a lot to live up to in his debut season. His predecessor Will Wade won 25 games in his first season at the helm, Shaka Smart’s Rams went 27-9 in his first winter as head coach, and Anthony Grant’s first team bounced Duke in the first round of the NCAA’s en route to a 28-7 mark. So there’s obviously no pressure whatsoever.

What’s Nice: All five losses are to legit programs, including Smart’s Texas team. Senior Jonathan Williams leads the A-10 with 6.6 assists per game. They’re also second best in the league at scoring as well as shooting from three-point range.

What’s Naughty: Something intangible feels like it’s missing this season … and it’s going to take a while for this program to come together under their new head coach.

Best Win: An 83-69 win in Maui against Cal. Pass the poi.

Worst Loss: A 90-67 defeat at Seton Hall. The Rams turned the Pirates over just 12 times and allowed 55 percent shooting.

Game to Watch: Saturday against Bucknell. The Bison almost won at Maryland — and aren’t scared of anybody.

Richmond (2-8)

The Spiders’ run of 10 straight non-losing seasons is in danger of not going to 11. Triple-threat TJ Cline took Atlantic 10 MVP honors last winter — and this season, after graduating, you’re seeing how exactly valuable he was.

What’s Nice: Sophomore big man Grant Golden has stepped up from a role player to a primary contributor, netting 15 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this fall. Freshman Jacob Gilyard has become a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per contest.

What’s Naughty: The Spiders are the worst free-throw shooting team in the Atlantic 10 and have lost five games by double-digits.

Best Win: The 74-71 win over James Madison snaps a six game slide … hopefully turning the pre-conference tide.

Worst Loss: An 82-76 home defeat to Georgetown. You don’t often get the Hoyas on your home floor … and with Patrick Ewing’s rebuild this was a golden opportunity.

Game to Watch: At Boston College Saturday, Dec. 23 — I’m curious, because this BC team beat Duke, yet lost to Nebraska. They could easily slip against the Spiders.

Navy (9-3)

This could be the Midshipman team that ends a near-two decade NCAA Tournament drought. Last year, Ed DeChellis directed the program to its first winning conference season since 2009, and this fall they’re off to their best start of any team in the Patriot League. November and December mean little in one-bid leagues come March, however.

What’s Nice: The stifling Navy defense allows the fewest points per game in the Patriot League and they’re the best rebounding team in the conference. Senior Shawn Anderson leads the Mids in scoring, rebounding and assists while passing the 1,000 career points barrier last month.

What’s Naughty: The Mids rank last in the Patriot League at defending the three … and in a conference of Davids it’s often the slingshot that causes the most damage.

Best Win: Opening night against Pitt. Yes, the game was in Annapolis and the Panthers may be a mess under second-year coach Kevin Stallings, but they’re still an ACC opponent.

Worst Loss: Falling to 8-4 Penn, 7-4 FGCU and No. 6 Miami is nothing to be ashamed about. One cannot help but feel this Midshipmen team is something special.

Last game before league play: Thursday, Dec. 21 against Lipscomb — the Bisons are off to a 6-4 start that includes losses at Alabama, Texas and No. 24 Tennessee. Should be a good test.

American (3-6)

Can the Eagles overcome a slow start to contend in a Patriot League that features not only a Navy program hitting its stride, but the usual bully Bucknell that returns four double-digit scorers? A young roster has turned the first two months of the regular season into a “getting to know you” process for coach Mike Brennan’s team.

What’s Nice: The one-two punch of Larry Motuzis and Sa’eed Nelson (each averages 19 points per game) has provided the bulk of the offense.

What’s Naughty: The Eagles are ninth in the conference in rebounding margin and defending the three, eighth in scoring and scoring defense as well as assist-to-turnover ratio.

Best win: 74-70 at New Hampshire Nov. 21. When you play seven of your first eight away from D.C., life can be rough on the road.  Nelson netted a season-high 26 points that night.

Worst Loss: A 100-89 loss to St. Francis (PA). Shoot 56 percent and still come up short? At least this wasn’t against the 2-7 St. Francis (BKN) Terriers.

Game to see: AU hosts Mt. St. Mary’s from the one-bid Northeast Conference. Should be a truer test than trips to West Virginia and Marquette.

Howard (1-10)

DO NOT accuse the Bison of stocking their schedule with nonconference W’s. Just the opposite — head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team has played 9 of 11 games on the road. As the song plays, “they’ve been everywhere, man.” Trouble? They’ve had their share, man — from a 106-69 thumping at Gonzaga to an 81-67 loss at Georgetown. Never paid their fare, man? Well, these are buyout games.

What’s Nice: Freshman guard RJ Cole leads the team with 19 points and 6 assists per game. He’s one of five players in the nine-man rotation in their first year with the program.

What’s Naughty: It’s a shooter’s game, and the Bison rank 341st of 351 Division I teams in field goal percentage.

Gotta Watch: You have one more chance to see them before they go to Hawaii — Thursday they host Washington Adventist. Hopefully it won’t feel like a trip to the dentist.

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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