Hoops on the Horizon: Dreading Duke’s dominance

Even with Maryland no longer in the ACC, there’s still a little residual disgust in and around the District toward a certain private school located in Durham, North Carolina. And with all of the people who have moved to the Washington area who brought their Yankees and Cowboys fandom with them, there’s a healthy Duke contingent in the area. Beltway basketball fans: Prepare for two months of dread because the Blue Devils are likely en route to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth National Championship, turning this into the Duke Decade (they beat Butler in 2010 and edged Wisconsin in 2015).

Duke may not currently be No. 1 in the nation; Tennessee has held the top spot since the Blue Devils’ loss to Syracuse, and as the Volunteers haven’t lost since, let’s just say pollsters can act in a glacial manner when it comes to moving teams up and down. But the team to beat, as well as the one everyone is talking about, is Coach K’s collection of NBA-in-waiting freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones.

They remind me of the 1998-99 Duke team (with Elton Brand) that went unbeaten in the ACC and finished 37-2, dropping an early-season game to Cincinnati (during an era when Bob Huggins had the Bearcats in the Top 10 annually) and the National Championship game to UConn (Rip Hamilton was just a little too much). Every time that Duke team took the floor you weren’t thinking they would win — you were wondering if it would be a blowout.

This year’s team is 7-1 against ranked foes. Last Saturday they went to Charlottesville and out-executed a No. 3 Virginia team that out-executes everyone, with Williamson’s sky-flying, gravity- and physics-defying block of a De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer becoming the latest in a laundry list of highlights.

The Blue Devils then turned around and rallied from 23 down in the second half at No. 16 Louisville. While they still have No. 8 North Carolina twice on their schedule and visit No. 22 Virginia Tech, those who dislike Duke (and there are a few out there) are feeling some discomfort. Especially with this year’s Final Four in Minneapolis … the site of their 2001 championship, where the Blue Devils rallied from 22 down to beat Maryland in the semifinals.

Saturday’s games

No. 24 Maryland (19-6, 9-4 Big Ten) at No. 6 Michigan (22-3, 11-3), noon (FOX)

The Terps head to Ann Arbor after their most impressive win of the season, in which they rallied from 11 down in the first half to beat No. 12 Purdue 70-56, holding the Boilermakers to 17 percent shooting after intermission. The Wolverines? Steaming from a loss at Penn State (previously 1-11 in league play) … much like Dr. David Banner, you don’t want to make coach John Beilein’s team angry. But Michigan can be beaten on the boards (the Nittany Lions out-rebounded them by 10) and no team is better on the glass in the Big Ten this winter than Maryland.

George Washington (7-17, 3-8 Atlantic 10) at Duquesne (16-9, 7-5), noon (NBCSN)

Both teams have been sliding down the standings over the last few weeks: While the Colonials have lost six of seven, the Dukes have dropped four of six, losing all four games by six points or less. GW’s descent began Jan. 20 when they fell at home, 91-85 in overtime, to Duquesne; Michael Hughes led the Dukes with a season-high 21 points while Colonials big man Javier Langarica had 19 that day. Their two paths have diverged since: Hughes is hitting 64 percent of his shots this month while Langarica has made just 13-of-33 attempts since that afternoon.

No. 4 Virginia (21-2, 9-2 ACC) vs. Notre Dame (13-11, 3-8), 2 p.m. (ACC Network)

The Cavaliers bounced back in fine fashion from their home loss to No. 2 Duke by beating No. 8 North Carolina two days later in Chapel Hill to improve to 6-2 against top 25 teams (the two losses coming to the Blue Devils). The Fighting Irish’s 0-5 mark against ranked foes this season includes an 82-55 Jan. 26 loss to U.Va. in South Bend. How sharp were the Cavaliers in that one? They committed just a pair of turnovers. Irish junior forward John Mooney is averaging a double-double but isn’t getting a ton of help: Nortre Dame ranks 14th in the ACC in field goal percentage and 13th in rebounding margin.

Navy (8-16, 5-8 Patriot League) vs. Army (12-14, 7-6), 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

The Midshipmen are 4-2 in Annapolis during conference play thus far while the Black Knights have lost four of five. But they did beat the Mids in West Point last month by 11 as Navy’s offensive issues (10th in the Patriot League in scoring and shooting) emerged when they were held to 18 percent from three-point range. Tommy Funk had 22 points that day for Army; after a drought where he was held to single-digit scoring in four of six games, the junior appears to have regained his swagger by netting 17 in Wednesday’s win over Boston University.

American (13-11, 7-6 Patriot League) vs. Colgate (16-10, 8-5), 4 p.m.

The difference between third and fourth place in the conference is a 73-69 win by the Raiders Jan. 6 in Hamilton, New York. Sophomore guard Jordan Burns tallied 18 points with 6 rebounds and 10 assists that afternoon. An ankle injury sidelined him for five games and he’s just getting back into rhythm, scoring nine points on 2-of-13 shooting over the Raiders’ last two games. AU is coming off a heartbreaking 86-84 loss at Bender Arena to Loyola (Maryland) where they were outscored 17-6 over the final three minutes of regulation and the Greyhounds’ winning points came thanks to free throws with one second left.

Howard (12-13, 6-4 MEAC) vs. North Carolina A&T (13-11, 8-2), 4 p.m.

Two straight wins have moved the Bison into the upper half of the league as R.J. Cole is fresh off a season-high 32 points at Bethune-Cookman. While Cole leads the league in scoring (and is 30th in Division I) with 21.2 points per game, junior Charles Williams isn’t far behind at 18.8. The Aggies are focused more on quality than on quantity, ranking seventh in scoring while leading the MEAC in field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. And they don’t have a player averaging even 10 points per game.

VCU (18-6, 9-2 Atlantic 10) at Dayton (16-8, 8-3), 4 p.m. (NBCSN)

Immovable object meets unstoppable force as the Rams allow the fewest points per game in the A-10 while the Flyers lead the league in scoring. Defense prevailed in the January matchup as VCU won 76-71, holding Dayton to one basket over the final four minutes of regulation. Marcus Evans scored 17 points that night, including the Rams’ last seven points. Flyers leading scorer Josh Cunningham scored 13, but is shooting 64 percent against VCU during his career. Coach Mike Rhoades’ Rams are coming off an 81-60 rout of Richmond that snapped a two-game losing streak to the Spiders.

No. 12 Virginia Tech (19-5, 8-4 ACC) at Pitt (12-13, 2-10), 4:30 p.m. (ACC Network)

The Hokies are one win shy of a fourth consecutive 20-win season, their longest such streak since the early ‘80s under Charles Moir. Head coach Buzz Williams also knows they are less than a week removed from stubbing their toe at Clemson, and even though the Panthers have dropped eight straight, let the record show their two conference wins have come against teams currently in the Top 20 (Louisville and Florida State). Tech remains the best three-point shooting team in the conference (42 percent from outside the arc) and is coming off a win over Georgia Tech where they notched 20 assists on 25 field goals.

Sunday’s game

George Mason (15-10, 9-3 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (10-14, 6-5), 2 p.m.

If you’re desiring a compelling conference race as the regular season winds down, look no further than the A-10: One game separates first from fourth place and a half game is the difference between sixth and ninth. The Patriots needed late-game heroics at home to put away La Salle (thanks to a 14-7 finishing kick) and UMass (after being down four with a minute left in regulation). The Bonnies have won four of six, losing only to A-10 co-leaders VCU and Davidson. Mason took the January meeting after outscoring St. Bonaventure 26-9 over the game’s final 10 minutes. Justin Kier notched 15 points and 14 rebounds in the win, one of his seven double-doubles this season.

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