Hoops on the Horizon: Big East’s big bottom

WASHINGTON — By the beginning of February, most conferences have set their course for 2019. The ACC (seven ranked teams) and Big Ten (five schools in the Top 25) have earned top-heavy reputations, while the rest of the Big 12 is getting in position for Kansas to win the league yet again (I think the Jayhawks could spot anybody a three-game lead Super Bowl weekend and still find a way to capture the conference’s regular season title). Even the Pac-12 has effectively fallen off the west coast (they’ll wash back in with the next high tide, I believe).

The Big East? It remains the dominion of defending national champ Villanova (the Wildcats currently stand atop the league after some early stumbles) and Marquette is a Top 10 team, but here’s a rugby scrum among the bottom eight.

The week began with one-half game separating third from last place. Seton Hall and St. John’s have both had turns in the Top 25, and are now both securely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, while recent tournament regulars like Providence, Creighton and Xavier are in danger of seeing their respective streaks of making the Big Dance end. If things hold, be prepared to break out the conference tiebreakers for seeding the upcoming Big East Tournament in March. And beware — the fifth tiebreaker is a coin flip.

Friday’s Game

No. 21 Maryland at No. 24 Wisconsin (15-6, 7-3), 9 p.m., (BTN)

The last time these two teams played we saw the ceiling and floor of this winter’s Terrapins: they led the Badgers 33-15 at the half before shooting 5-for-19 with five turnovers after intermission to hang on to a 64-60 victory. Since that night the Badgers have won four straight (including an upset of then-No. 2 Michigan) while holding opponents to 52.8 points per game. Ethan Happ has been averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists during that stretch, and one hopes this battle of big men will be better than the one in College Park. Happ was held to 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting while Bruno Fernando was hampered by foul trouble (21 minutes played) the first time around. Fernando’s more than bounced back from that effort, posting four straight double-doubles.

Saturday’s Games

No. 12 Virginia Tech (17-3, 6-2 ACC) at No. 23 NC State (16-5, 4-4), noon (ACC Network)

Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts led the program to the NCAA Tournament in his first year at the helm. This winter, despite losing four players to graduation and three more to transfer, he has the Pack ranked for the first time in six years. The overtime loss Tuesday to No. 3 Virginia was just the appetizer in the “Are the Pack for real?” meal. After Saturday’s entree against the Hokies, they get dessert next Tuesday at a ninth-ranked North Carolina team they lost by to by eight at home. And rest assured, coach Buzz Williams’ team is more than mere filler between UVa and UNC:  five of their six league wins are by double-digits.

No. 3 Virginia (19-1, 7-1 ACC) vs. Miami (9-11, 1-7), 2 p.m. (ACC Network)

The Hurricanes are led by Mitchellville, MD product Chris Lykes (16.6 points and 3.5 assists per game), but they won’t have big man Dewan Hernandez Saturday or any other day for that matter. The 6-foot-11 center was the team’s returning leading scorer and rebounder but has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for the rest of this year (and 40 percent of next season) for entering into an agreement and accepting benefits from an agent. His absence is one of the reasons why coach Jim Larranaga’s team ranks last in the ACC in rebounding, and as Hernandez heads to the NBA Draft, he takes whatever remaining postseason hopes the Hurricanes had with him.

American (11-9, 5-4 Patriot League) vs. Holy Cross (12-10, 3-6), 2 p.m.

It’s an iron man matchup as AU’s Sam Iorio and Sa’eed Nelson along with Crusaders Caleb Green and Josh Grandison comprise the conference’s top four players in minutes per game (Green is tops with 37.7 while the other three each average 34+). The Eagles have won three straight and enter a stretch where they play four of five at Bender Arena. While Crusaders senior Jehyve Floyd leads the conference in shooting (69 percent) and blocked shots (2.3 per game), the 6-foot-8 forward doesn’t get a ton of help on the glass — Holy Cross ranks last in rebounding. And AU’s great at making their opponents miss, leading the league in field goal defense as well as defending the three.

Howard (10-12, 4-3 MEAC) vs. Norfolk State (12-10, 7-0), 4 p.m.

The Bison have won three straight conference games thanks in part to the emergence of junior Chad Lott (18 points per game on 57 percent shooting), a fantastic compliment to the 1-2 punch of R.J. Cole and Charles Williams (the latter of which was the most recent MEAC Player of the Week). But they’ll find the first-place Spartans a little tougher than the prior trio, which is a combined 3-18 in league play. Junior Nic Thomas may lead NSU in scoring, but Derrik Jamerson Jr. has been red-hot from three-point range, making 49 percent of his shots from outside the arc.

Richmond (8-13, 2-6 Atlantic 10) vs. La Salle (5-14, 3-4), 6 p.m. (ESPN+)

Perhaps the snooze alarm the Spiders hit last winter after a 2-10 start was delayed a month this year. Wednesday they defeated A-10 preseason favorite Saint Louis 84-81 thanks to 58 percent shooting from the floor and 17-of-18 at the free throw line. The Explorers have won two straight, but two of their three league wins have come against 13th place UMass and the other was against last place Fordham. La Salle also sports the toxic combination of being the conference’s worst shooting team with allowing the most points per game. They do have an all-name team guard in leading scorer Pookie Powell, however.

George Mason (13-8, 7-1 Atlantic 10) at VCU (14-6, 5-2), 6:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

It’s one thing to play well in the A-10, quite another to go down to the Rams’ home gym and leave with a victory. But hold on — the Patriots did just that last year in an 81-80 thriller at the Siegel Center. Ian Boyd was the hero that day, hitting a game-winning shot with one second left. Boyd’s back, and so is Otis Livington II who has a buzzer-beater to his credit against Fordham earlier this month. Can Boyd, Livingston and breakout star Justin Kier get good looks against a Rams team that leads the conference in field goal defense as well as containing the three?

Navy (6-14, 3-6 Patriot League) vs. Loyola (Maryland) (8-14, 4-5), 7 p.m.

Two teams headed in opposite directions meet as the Greyhounds have won four of six while the Midshipmen have lost six of seven. Loyola also brings the league’s leading scorer to Annapolis in Andrew Kostecka, although the junior hasn’t had a ton of success against the Mids (25 points over four games on 9-19 shooting) in his career. If Kostecka and the Greyhounds get hot, the Navy offense that ranks last in the Patriot League in scoring and shooting (not to mention last from three-point range) will be ill-situated to keep up.

Sunday’s Game

Georgetown (14-7, 4-4 Big East) at No. 18 Villanova (17-4, 8-0), noon (FS1)

Even with the consistently uneven season thus far (including a loss to Furman), the Wildcats are the team to beat in the conference. For the Hoyas recently, Nova’s been the team they can’t beat: since the re-formation of the “New Big East,” they’ve lost 10 of 11 to the Wildcats, eight times by double digits. The defending national champs are led by fifth-year senior Phil Booth in both scoring and assists (the Baltimore native also connects on 42 percent of his three-pointers). If Booth needs any motivation, he can recall a 20-point loss to the Hoyas his team suffered when he was a freshman in 2015.

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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