This is “Basketball Around the Beltway,” our periodic look at the college basketball teams in the D.C. area and beyond.
WASHINGTON — January means more than resolutions, a new calendar and writing the wrong year on your checks. College basketball transitions range from holiday/tropical tournaments, cupcake games, and the random worth-watching showdown into conference play (I know, Maryland played two Big Ten games early last month and most everybody else got their first league games in over the final weekend of December). The transitions can be jarring for some schools that played super easy, non-conference schedules (Georgetown, anybody?). Can the guy who scored 25 against Gardner-Webb do the same thing against in-conference foes?
For the area schools, the two-games-a-week rhythm starts against the usual suspects: league foes. The march to March begins in earnest, with more than a few roadblocks for schools in and around the beltway.
Maryland (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten)
The Terps played a pair of December conference games (the league is ending its regular season February 25 so they can play the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden the week before the Big East own MSG) and entered January ranked second in the league in rebounding margin. That might not last, as their frontcourt suffered two major setbacks over the last week, losing forwards Justin Jackson (labrum) and Ivan Bender (knee) for the season. With a tinkered lineup (7’1″ Michal Cekovsy playing power forward with 6’10” center Bruno Fernando), the Terps rallied past Penn State 75-69 in a game where Kevin Huerter was limited to six scoreless, foul-plagued minutes in the first half. The sophomore recovered to score 13 of the team’s final 27 points over the last 11:03 of regulation. Anthony Cowan played 40 minutes against the Nittany Lions, and can ill afford to lose his backcourt mate for stretches against the league’s elite.
Bully on the Block: No. 1 Michigan State
The Spartans lead the nation with 21.7 assists per game and their average margin of victory is 26 points. They also host the Terps Thursday and will do so on three days’ rest (or two more than the Terrapins and their shrinking bench will get).
Georgetown (11-3, 1-2 Big East)
The Hoyas began conference play by blowing a 20-point first half lead in an overtime loss to Butler; cue critics of their soft non-conference slate (five opponents outside of the top 320 in the RPI). Naysayers during the 10-1 start also pointed to the Hoyas propensity to turn the ball over; cue 25 turnovers in their loss to Marquette. That Patrick Ewing’s team was able to hold off multiple rallies by DePaul in a 90-81 win at the Blue Demons was a step in the right direction, and over the next three weeks they’ll play DePaul again and face St. John’s twice. Jessie Govan’s 25 points and 12 rebounds were a nice turnaround from the first two league games, where he shot 9-of-25, turned the ball over seven times and picked up five fouls. But regardless of the competition and the outcome, the junior still rebounds well. The Hoyas will need that against Creighton Saturday, as the Blue Jays lead the Big East in shooting.
Bully on the Block: No. 3 Villanova
The Wildcats are the Hoyas’ nearest neighbor, but the two programs couldn’t be further apart this decade. Since the new Big East was formed, Nova is 64-10 in conference play while Gtown has had just one season where they’ve lost fewer than 10 league games. The snappily-dressed Jay Wright brings his team to D.C. Jan. 17.
No. 8 Virginia (13-1, 2-0 ACC)
The Cavaliers escaped an upset by beating Boston College by one at home before crushing Virginia Tech 78-52 in Blacksburg. Ty Jerome followed up a career-high 31 points against the Eagles with 13 points and five assists against the Hokies. But the story, as it usually is with UVa, was stellar defense, which held the conference’s best-shooting team to 36 percent from the field and 17 percent from three-point range. Even enigmatic big man Jack Salt had more points than fouls (six to four). There’s little time to celebrate, though — Coach Tony Bennett’s team hosts No. 12 North Carolina next, still smarting from a one-point loss at Florida State.
Virginia Tech (11-4, 0-2 ACC)
The Hokies entered the new year with the highest-scoring offense in the league only to score a season-low 56 points in a loss at Syracuse before being held to another season-low at home against their in-state rivals (note how I don’t refer to the Hokies as the Cavs’ rival — they’re particular about such things in Charlottesville). Two offensive nightmares kicked off conference play and there’s not a lot of time to sort things out with the 9 p.m. tipoff Wednesday and noon start Saturday. At least both are at home … but after playing last-place Pitt this weekend they’re either on the road or facing a ranked team. Who put this schedule together?
Bully on the Block: No. 2 Duke
The Blue Devils may have lost to Boston College, but this winter’s edition features the most highly-rated newcomer in Marvin Bagley III and the most hated veteran in Grayson Allen. Bagley’s playing just well enough to make everybody forget Allen’s tripping history. The Blue Devils face Virginia Tech twice (Feb. 14 and 26) while Virginia plays the conference and national favorites just once (Jan. 27). Come to think of it, the Cavaliers also play No. 8 Miami, No. 12 North Carolina, #No. 24 Florida State and No. 25 Clemson just once as well. Seriously, who makes this schedule?
George Washington (8-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10)
The Colonials missed a chance to start league play 2-0 for the first time since 2015, losing 69-52 at Duquesne Wednesday. A two-possession game with 13:55 left turned sour as the Dukes held GW to three field goals over the next 11 minutes and went on a 19-5 run to seal the game. The opportunity missed turns into one tough task at hand — defending conference champ Rhode Island visits Foggy Bottom Saturday before GW plays four of its next five games on the road.
George Mason (7-8, 1-1 Atlantic 10)
The Patriots rallied to win at UMass in overtime, despite blowing a 10-point lead in the second half and going scoreless for the final 1:02 of regulation. Instead of succumbing to disaster, senior Otis Livingston II scored nine of his 33 points in the extra session (while notching a pair of steals) in Mason’s 80-72 victory. Livingston and Jaire Grayer are the two lone upperclassmen in the rotation this year, although freshman Goanar Mar and sophomore Justin Kier have been pleasant surprises. Sunday, Davidson drops by Eagle Bank Arena in the first of three straight games at home for the Patriots against schools currently with losing records.
VCU (9-6, 1-1 Atlantic 10)
The highest-scoring offense in the conference couldn’t outscore St. Joseph’s, falling in overtime, 87-81. The Rams were haunted by 20-20 vision: They shot just 20.7% from three-point range while also turning the ball over 20 times. Justin Tillman tallied his fourth consecutive double-double (22 points and 12 rebounds), but his game-winning three that fell at the end of regulation was launched just after time ran out. The Rams try to recover this weekend at LaSalle, one of 10 teams to start 1-1 in A-10 play (remember, there are 14 schools in the league).
Richmond (3-11, 1-1 Atlantic 10)
Yes, it does feel like everybody is 1-1 in league play, even a Spiders team that struggled for much of the first two months of the season. And shocker of all shockers, UR’s game at Fordham went into overtime before they lost 69-65. All hope is not lost, as the team that ranked second to last or last in the A-10 in points allowed, opponents field goal percentage, defending the three and rebounding margin actually defended and rebounded well against the Rams and Davidson. Some teams take longer to come together and that might be the case here.
Bully on the Block: Rhode Island
The Rams’ top four scorers from last year’s 25-10 team that reached the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament return as seniors. If they make their way back to the big dance, prepare to be shocked when the URI is “randomly” paired with Arizona State (and coach Dan Hurley’s brother Bobby).
American (3-10, 0-2 Patriot League)
The Eagles were within one point of Colgate at 58-57 with 4:47 left, but AU shot 1-for-7 with six turnovers to end the game as the Raiders pulled away to win at Bender Arena, 72-63. You think the weather has been rough this week? It’s been one difficult winter for American, who rank ninth or 10th in the conference in just about every major category (exceptions include third in defending the three-pointer and eighth in points allowed). Sa’eed Nelson and company try to post a full 40 minutes Friday at Navy.
Navy (10-5, 1-1 Patriot League)
The Midshipmen bounced back from an opening day loss to top Lehigh 78-66 Tuesday. On a night where leading scorer Shawn Anderson shot 3-for-12, George Kiernan scored a career-high 27 points that included 4-of-7 three-point shots against the Mountain Hawks. He also grabbed a season-high seven rebounds, and for a Mids team that leads the conference in rebounding, a great effort on the glass can keep you on the floor longer than a shooting streak. The schedule is set up for a strong start, with six of the first nine league games taking place in Annapolis. American comes to campus Friday.
Bully on the Block: Bucknell
The Bison were picked to win the league behind senior Zach Thomas, who only came back better (averaging 23 points, nine rebounds and 49 percent from three-point range). Despite the home loss to Boston University and sub-500 record, they remain the league standard as they attempt to reach the postseason for the fourth straight year. The Bison visit Navy Jan. 24t and wrap up the regular season at American Feb. 24 (Bucknell opened league play with an 84-55 thumping of AU last Friday).
Howard (3-14, 0-1 MEAC)
The Bison began league play with an 84-76 loss at Florida A&M, a 15-loss team whose lone previous win this season was against non-Division I school Albany (GA) State. Somehow I’m feeling I’m not going to be buying into the Bison this winter. How do you spoil a 30-point effort by freshman phenom RJ Cole? By coughing up 50 points in the second half to a foe that ranks 346th in the nation in scoring. That said, the MEAC is a tough league to figure out in early January, because most schools play a heavy diet of paycheck games, which results in all 13 schools owning losing records entering league play and nine teams with 10+ losses. The Friday-Monday schedule has Howard at home this weekend against Bethune-Cookman and Hampton.
Bully on the Block: Morgan State
The Bears were picked to win the league and are 5-9 after edging Maryland-Eastern Shore in their conference opener. They have sophomore Tiwian Kendley whose 30.3 points per game would lead the nation if he had played enough games to qualify. Despite being just up the road in Baltimore, Morgan State plays Howard just once this winter – Feb. 5 in the Charm City.