Basketball around the Beltway: Hoops for the holidays

WASHINGTON — There’s no place like home for the holidays — or hope for the area men’s college basketball teams.

Each of the locals has played 10 to 13 games, and while there’s plenty of optimism on each campus that 2019 will be a banner year, there’s a long way from December to Selection Sunday.

While everybody has at least one win to hang their hat on, every team with the exception of unbeaten Virginia has a loss that will certainly keep them up late — until the next heartbreaker.  There’s also no place like conference play, which will make November and December feel like years ago once league action begins in earnest.

Maryland (9-3, 1-1 Big Ten)

The Terps have been on the cusp of the Top 25 since winning their first six games of the season. But before you start punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, remember they started 9-3 with a 1-1 conference mark last year. And with the exception of the 2014-2015 season, they’ve always had a worse record the second half of league play under head coach Mark Turgeon.

Best Win: The day after Thanksgiving, the Terps roasted Marshall 104-67 while shooting 57 percent from the field and 56 percent from 3-point range.

Worst Loss: The 62-60 setback at Purdue saw the Terps shoot 1 fo -9 with four turnovers over the final 4:20.

Player to Watch: Jalen Smith has captured Big Ten Freshman of the Week multiple times, as the forward is averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds.

Ringing in the New Year: Another NCAA Team from 2018 (Radford) comes to College Park Saturday.

Georgetown (9-3)

The Hoyas entered their Christmas break with a 102-94 overtime win over Arkansas-Little Rock in a game where Mac McClung earned Big East and National Freshman of the Week honors by scoring 38 points.

Best Win: ON Nov. 13, they beat Illinois 88-80 in Champaign despite 22 turnovers, precisely the kind of road game this team has had trouble winning in recent years.

Worst Loss: The 72-71 loss Dec. 8 at Syracuse saw the Hoyas let a double-digit lead evaporate … and 24,002 orange-clad fans get the last laugh in the four-game series between former Big East archrivals.

Player to Watch: Yes, McClung is providing the sizzle and senior center Jessie Govan is the steak, but freshman guard James Akinjo (15 points and 5 assists per game) is the steady playmaker that every tournament team needs directing its offense.

Ringing in the New Year: Georgetown wraps up pre-conference play by hosting Howard at noon Saturday.

Virginia (11-0)

The Cavaliers are ranked fourth by the writers and first by the coaches, boasting the best scoring defense in the nation and … haven’t we been here before? Seriously. Shouldn’t we wait until March?

Best Win: Nov. 24 in the Bahamas, Virginia held No. 25 Wisconsin to 18 first-half points in a 53-46 win.

Player to Watch: Sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter has bounced back from the broken wrist that kept him out of last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to UMBC, averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from 3-point range.

Ringing in the New Year: On New Year’s Eve, coach Tony Bennett’s team hosts Marshall, a school that ranks 324th in scoring defense.

Virginia Tech (10-1)

The 10th-ranked Hokies are one of six ACC schools currently in the Top 25. And while they’re not the defensive equal of best-in-the-nation Virginia, Tech ranks second in the ACC in scoring and third in turnover margin. Could this be the year the Hokies enter the upper echelon of the conference?

Best Win: An 89-83 Nov. 19 triumph over then-No. 23 Purdue, in which the Hokies hit 55 percent of their shots.

Worst Loss: Their only defeat thus far was a 63-62 stumble at Penn State in which the Nittany Lions hit 10 of 19 from 3-point range.

Player to Watch: Sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker averages 19 points with 4 rebounds and 4 assists while making 47 percent of his 3-point shots.

Ringing in the New Year: The Hokies wrap up pre-conference play by hosting Maryland-Eastern Shore Dec. 28.

George Mason (6-6)

The Patriots began the year 0-3, but appear to be hitting their stride with Atlantic 10 play just around the corner.

Best Wins: Victories over former CAA foes James Madison, Navy and William & Mary.

Worst Loss: A season-opening, 78-75 loss to American where Mason turned the ball over 15 times.

Player to Watch: Otis Livingston II may be the team’s primary weapon, but Justin Kier (14 points with 5 rebounds per game) has filled the second-option role well.

Ringing in the New Year: Saturday, the Patriots visit a Kansas State team that began the year in the Top 25 but has had its share of hiccups this month.

George Washington (3-9)

This was a far-from-ideal season before the Colonials lost their best rebounder for the season when Arnaldo Toro went down to injury, and that issue isn’t going away — GW was outrebounded by 18 in a loss to Harvard.

Best Win: A 70-64 handling of Howard where they held high-octane guard RJ Cole to 4-of-19 shooting.

Worst Loss: A 69-53 stumble against Vermont (in the Mike Lonergan Classic) in which they were outscored 21-5 over the last 7:53 of the game.

Player to Watch: Illinois transfer DJ Williams leads the team in scoring and is tops among active players in rebounding.

Ringing in the New Year: On Saturday, the Colonials host American.

VCU (8-4)

The Rams own the best RPI (28th) in the Atlantic 10, and have already exacted sweet revenge on former coach Shaka Smart’s Texas team.

Best Win: A 70-54 victory Dec. 22 over Wichita State in a battle between onetime NCAA Cinderellas.

Worst Loss: An 83-79 Dec. 15 defeat to Charleston that saw VCU miss 11 free throws.

Player to Watch: Rice transfer Marcus Evans leads the team in scoring, picking up where he left off when he averaged 20 points per game over two seasons under coach Mike Rhoades when they were both with the Owls.

Ringing in the New Year: The Rams host Rider Sunday.

Richmond (5-7)

Hey, they could be 2-10 like they were last year at this time.

Best Win: Anytime you knock off an ACC team, there’s cause for celebration, and the 84-74 victory over Wake Forest is the early season highlight.

Worst Loss: A 63-58 defeat to … Longwood? Didn’t the Lancers used to be the Washington Generals of Mid-Atlantic hoops?

Player to Watch: Forward Grant Golden is averaging 19 points with 7 rebounds … and badly needs a supporting cast.

Ringing in the New Year: On Saturday, the Spiders host South Alabama.

American (6-4)

The Eagles have already equaled last year’s win total and look to contend in the always topsy-turvy Patriot League.

Best Win: AU silenced Doc Nix and the Green Machine in a 78-75 overtime victory over George Mason on Nov 9.

Worst Loss: A 56-55 loss Dec. 18 to 1-9 Mount St. Mary’s.

Players to Watch: Sa’eed Nelson is averaging 19 points with 5 assists, while sophomores Sam Iorio and Mark Gasperini give Nelson two solid scoring options.

Ringing in the New Year: They pay a visit to George Washington Saturday. Can coach Mike Brennan’s team make it 2 for 2 against the A-10 Georges?

Howard (6-7)

December is often difficult for the Bison, who usually go on the road for the bulk of the month. But the six wins are the most of any MEAC team at this time. Can head coach Kevin Nickelberry guide the program to its first winning season since 2002?

Best Win: A 68-63 win Nov. 16 at UMass that made this team 4-0.

Worst Loss: A Dec. 22 stumble to Hampton where they coughed up 57 points in the second half of an 89-82 defeat.

Player to Watch: Sophomore guard R.J. Cole leads the team in minutes, points, assists and steals.

Ringing in the New Year: On Saturday at noon, they visit Georgetown. Good luck.

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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