Basketball around the Beltway: Winter in Washington

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

WASHINGTON — Wasn’t it in the 60’s just last week? The area’s roller coaster from cold to warm to cold again is right in step with the early stages of the college basketball conference season. Hoops Hot Takes are unleashed like giveaways from Georgetown’s “T-Shirt Cannon” (it’s kind of hypocritical to change the name from the Bullets, yet also allow an operating cannon at Capital One Arena, but that’s for another day), from hot to cold, from “How high a seed will they get,” to “Who will they draw for the NIT,” and back again as the first few weeks of league play eventually establish the level of area schools. For most, it’s just as chilly inside the arena as out.

Maryland (14-6, 3-4 Big Ten)

The team with minimal room for error came up short at Michigan despite a three-pointer with three seconds left by Kevin Huerter, thanks to a foul and Wolverine free throws with one second remaining. That’s a game that if you win, perhaps it gives you a little bit of momentum even though you’ve lost multiple players to injury midseason. That’s a game in March that looks good on your resume. Instead, the Terps are still looking for a signature conference victory (Illinois and Iowa are a combined 1-11 in the league and Penn State remains Penn State). Two teams defying expectations are next: Minnesota’s been underwhelming and Indiana’s overachieved early. The key word perhaps should be used here — it’s still early, but as the injuries mount at XFinity Center, it seems to be getting late.

Georgetown (12-6, 2-5 Big East)

We knew this would be a major rebuild for coach Patrick Ewing. We also knew their non-conference schedule was less than ambitious and they’d be exposed in some way come January.  But Wednesday’s 88-56 loss to #1 Villanova was not only the worst of all worlds, but a couple of moons thrown in for good measure. If there’s one thing this team cannot do well, it’s take care of the ball (last in the Big East in turnover margin) and defend the three (they got roasted by Creighton a few weekends ago). The first half saw the Hoyas make just 8 field goals while turning the ball over 9 times … and to make things worse, they gave up 10 three-pointers (on 17 attempts). Once they’re done playing St. John’s (Saturday) and DePaul (next Wednesday), it’s going to be one cold winter at Capital One Arena.

#2 Virginia (16-1, 5-0 ACC)

Did anyone see a Cavaliers team that lost floor leader London Perrantes to graduation and numerous faces to transfer playing this well this soon? Coach Tony Bennett’s team has simply been holding one defensive clinic after another: #1 in the nation in fewest points allowed while allowing the lowest shooting percentage in the ACC. I mean, honestly, 49 points allowed to North Carolina? Kyle Guy may be the top option, but senior Devon Hall has taken his game to the next level this month by scoring 17 points per game in January. That’s the warm and fuzzy — the cold truth is that Virginia enjoyed a little home cooking with three straight games in Charlottesville;  they’re on the road for two straight and five of seven.

Virginia Tech (13-5, 2-3 ACC)

The Hokies’ hangover from their implosion against in-state rival Virginia did not last long as they bounced back with two straight wins (albeit one coming against conference cellar-dwelling Pitt).  Junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr.has provided a decent presence in the post (62% shooting) to give the offense the necessary counter-punch to the perimeter threat (VT ranks 2nd in the ACC in hitting 40% from three-point range).  Right now coach Buzz Williams’ team is in a middle class that is jsut beginning to sort itself out:  five ACC schools have three losses and a sixth is a Florida State squad that beat North Carolina a few weeks ago.  The Hokies play both the Tar Heels and the Seminoles over the next week.

George Washington (9-10, 2-4 Atlantic 10)

No matter how good or bad the Colonials are, and no matter if they have an embattled coach, an interim coach or a young coach finding his feet GW owns George Mason since they joined the conference — even though the Patriots had won two straight and had Otis Livingston II making highlight shots, even though the Colonials had lost four in a row by double-digits. The 80-68 victory was sparked by a 14-1 run to end the first half where the Colonials made 5 of 6 shots and Mason went dry. The win keeps them out of the cellar for the moment; road tests at VCU and St. Bonaventure plus a home date with Duquesne may land Yuta Watanabe and company there eventually.

George Mason (9-10, 3-3 Atlantic 10)

The Patriots didn’t help their cause at the Smith Center by turning the ball over 18 times. As it stands, Mason turns the ball over the third most times per game in the A-10. The young team that’s also realistically a year away is living dangerously: In league play, their wins have come in double-overtime, on a last-second shot, and in a game where they blew a nine-point second-half lead. Although having seen his highlights this winter, I’m comfortable putting the game in the hands of Otis Livingston II.

Richmond (5-13, 3-3 Atlantic 10)

So the Spiders now have more league wins than non-conference victories. Explain that. Their 67-52 win at VCU saw coach Chris Mooney’s team dominate on the glass (+10 rebounding margin) while shooting over 50% against the vaunted havoc defense. They’ll be a tough out over the rest of the conference season … as I can imagine many a team with bubble hopes overlooks the school with the nightmare November/December.

VCU (11-8, 3-3 Atlantic 10)

I thought A-10 dominance was a Rams birthright. Oh, the Rhode Island Rams are the good Rams this year. The loss to Richmond was less than ideal as they shot just 34% from the field at home.  And never led a school that entered the game 4-13. While there’s still 2/3 of the conference regular season ahead for first-year coach Mike Rhodes’ team, the way things have panned out their at-large hopes are 99% kaput.

Navy (13-7, 4-3 Patriot League)

Bryce Dulin’s three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Midshipmen a 75-72 win over Lafayette-their first road conference win of the winter. It’s been a strange split for leading scorer Shawn Anderson so far in league action: The senior’s averaging under 10 points per game in their four wins while nearly netting 20 points a contest in their three losses. Bucknell and Boston University (a combined 11-3 in the league) are next.

American (5-13, 2-5 Patriot League)

The Eagles shocked the Terriers who were tied for the conference lead 69-58 Wednesday … as Sam Iorio continues to contribute as a freshman by scoring 26 points. He’s actually kind of an inverse Shawn Anderson; averaging 23 points in their two victories while just over 12 points in their five losses. There’s a chance to create a little momentum as their next two games are at Bender Arena against the two schools they’re tied with for 8th in the conference (Lafayette and Holy Cross).

Howard (3-17, 0-4 MEAC)

The Bison may be winless in the conference, but they’re definitely exciting to watch. Their last three league games were decided by a total of eight points, and freshman guard R.J. Cole currently leads the league in scoring with 23 points per game (sophomore forward Charles Williams ranks third in scoring and is the best three-point shooter in the league at 42%). Can they stop anybody though? They currently rank 320th in Division I in scoring defense (80.3 points per game) and they’re coughing up 89.5 points per game against league competition. What’s nice about the schedule is that they’re at home this weekend. What’s not nice is that they’re hosting North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T, two schools that are a combined 7-0 in 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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