Championship Week last chance for some local hoops teams to Dance

CHICAGO - MARCH 10: A detail view of the BigTen logo is seen on a basketball as the Penn State Nittnay Lions play against Ohio State Buckeyes during the first day of the Big Ten Men's Conference Basketball Tournament March 10, 2005 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Ohio State won 72-69. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Conference tournament week has the area schools scurrying to locations like Charlotte, Chicago, New York City, Brooklyn and Norfolk.  Even though conference expansion has changed these tourneys from tight three-day affairs to bloate, five-day album cuts, the little dances before the Big Dance will provide plenty of thrills, chills, and spills leading up to Selection Sunday.

ACC Tournament — Spectrum Center, Charlotte

Sure the SEC had a tournament in the 1930s and 40s, but the Atlantic Coast Conference created the mold for league tourneys. And sure, it’s a major hike from here to Blacksburg and Charlottesville, but there are plenty of alums who reside inside the Beltway and either pop their collars or talk about turkey legs and a 15-year football streak. Beware of the bluebloods: Duke and North Carolina have combined to win 13 of the 19 tournaments this century and either the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels have played in the Finals every year since 1997 (the trivia answer for the last one without them would be Wake Forest-Georgia Tech).

No. 2 Virginia (28-2, 16-2 ACC) is 10-3 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years and awaits the winner of Clemson-NC State in the 8/9 game. The Tigers-Wolfpack noon showdown will have the feel of an NCAA play-in game, as both schools are squarely on the bubble. UVa routed Clemson 63-43 on Jan. 12, holding the Tigers to 26 percent shooting and 3-19 from three-point range. They needed overtime to edge NC State 66-65 Jan. 29 in their sloppiest game of the season (16 turnovers). UVa meets the winner at noon Thursday.

No. 16 Virginia Tech (23-7, 12-6 ACC), on the other hand, is just 2-5 in the ACC Tournament over the last five years. The Hokies face Miami at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the second round, five days after beating the Hurricanes 84-70. They also beat Miami 82-70 in their January meeting and hit more than 50 percent of their three-point shots against the Canes in the regular season sweep. Primary offensive weapon Kerry Blackshear Jr. did not play well in either game, scoring a single point in January and just eight last Friday, while shooting 4-for-20 over both games. Hurricane to watch: Senior Anthony Lawrence II notched 20 points with 10 rebounds against Wake Forest and averaged a double-double against the Hokies this winter. Achilles heel to watch: Miami ranked last in the ACC in rebounding margin. A Va. Tech win sets up a rematch against No. 12 Florida State in the quarterfinals, a little over a week after blowing a double-digit lead in a loss at the Seminoles.

Big Ten Tournament — United Center, Chicago

After playing in 2017 at Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center and 2018 (a week early) at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the league returns to its roots with a week in the Windy City. Although to mix things up, this year the conference instituted a 20-game schedule for the first time (don’t worry, the ACC will follow suit next winter). Sixth-ranked Michigan State may enter as regular season champ, but No. 10 Michigan has won the last two Big Ten Tournaments and nobody is paying attention to No. 13 Purdue and the league’s leading scorer Carsen Edwards.

No. 21 Maryland (22-9, 13-7 Big Ten) is just 2-4 in the tournament since joining the conference. The 5th-seeded Terps face the winner of Rutgers and Nebraska (6:30 p.m. Wednesday) at 3 p.m. Maryland beat both schools during the first week of January — Jalen Smith’s last-second bucket gave Maryland a 74-72 win over the Cornhuskers in the kind of tight game they were getting the reputation of losing lately, and the road win at the Scarlet Knights (where they held Rutgers to 19 first-half points) showed that there would be no road woes this winter like last season. A Terps win Thursday would set up a rubber match with Wisconsin, the home team prevailing each time during the regular season.

Big East Tournament, Madison Square Garden, New York City

The league nobody wants to win holds its postseason affair with plenty of possibilities. Top seed Villanova lost its last five road games while Marquette dropped its last four games overall. St. John’s moved from third to seventh place over the last week with three straight defeats. Even Georgetown found a way to lose to DePaul by 32 (since the Blue Demons swept the Red Storm and bubble team Seton Hall along with that rout of the Hoyas, we’ve dropped the traditional “Lowly” prefix from their name). Good luck figuring this one out.

Georgetown (19-12, 9-9 Big East) plays third seed Seton Hall Thursday in the last quarterfinal of the day, and while the schedule reads “9:30 p.m.”, both you and I know better (more like a 9:45-9:50 start, if there’s no overtime in the previous games). Home court prevailed during the regular season, with the Pirates’ Myles Powell averaging 32.5 points against the Hoyas. Jessie Govan scored 20 and 21 points against Seton Hall, but went scoreless in the first half at Capital One Arena before catching fire — the senior scored all 11 Hoya points in double-overtime of the 77-71 win. The freshman duo of Mac McClung and James Akinjo had rough nights in both games, shooting a combined 2-for-11 in the road loss and 9-for-28 in the home win. The winner likely faces No. 23 Marquette in the semifinals, barring a continued collapse by the Golden Eagles (a distinct possibility), while the loser is in for a long Selection Sunday.

Atlantic 10 Tournament, Barclays Center, Brooklyn

I actually enjoyed having the A-10 in D.C. last March and can’t wait for it to return in 2022. It was a shame all four area schools had down years in 2018: VCU, George Mason and Richmond each finished 9-9 in league play while George Washington played on the first day of the tournament. This year, the Rams are on a roll with 12 straight wins and the Patriots are enjoying their best-ever conference season since leaving the CAA. The Spiders and Colonials…not so much.

George Washington (8-23, 4-14 Atlantic 10) takes on UMass in the first game of the tournament Wednesday at 1 p.m. GW took the regular season matchup 79-67 on Feb. 20 as Maceo Jack scored 20 points in the Colonials’ only win since January. The current five-game losing streak involves four double-digit defeats. UMass may have two wins in their last five games, but are winless away from Amherst against A-10 competition this winter. They also have a hobbled leading scorer as Luwane Pipkins has played in just three of the team’s last nine games due to a hamstring injury.

George Mason (17-14, 11-7 Atlantic 10) plays the winner of George Washington and UMass in Thursday’s Second Round at 2:30 p.m. This Patriots-Colonials-Minutemen sub-bracket is kind of amusing for history majors, though not as cool as the potential VCU-Rhode Island-Fordham Rams Regional would be for zoologists or Dodge enthusiasts. Mason swept both teams during the regular season, with their Jan. 16 win at UMass (featuring an 18-9 finish over the last 6:40, delivering a five-point margin) setting the tone for a 7-2 start in league play. Freshman Jordan Miller could be an X-factor this week. The Middleburg, VA native averaged 14 points (on 58 percent shooting) with 9.5 rebounds over his last four games. The winner takes on St. Bonaventure in Friday’s Quarterfinals (2:30 p.m.).

Richmond (12-19, 6-12 Atlantic 10) faces Fordham in Wednesday’s other first round game (3:30 p.m.). It’s been a rough finish for both teams: Richmond has lost four straight while the Rams have dropped five of six. The Spiders took the lone regular season meeting 72-69 on Feb. 20 as Grant Golden scored 16 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds left. Freshman Nick Honor paced the Rams with 23 points that day, a sign that the future is bright. The present is another matter for the league’s last-place team.

VCU (25-6, 16-2 Atlantic 10) is 13-5 in the A-10 Tournament since leaving the CAA, and with the exception of last March have advanced to the Finals every year. Their run this year begins in the Quarterfinals Friday at noon against the winner of Rhode Island and La Salle. While the Rams beat the Explorers 69-63 in early January, they fell 71-65 to Rhode Island on a night where they coughed up 50 second-half points, turned the ball over 18 times and shot 17 percent from three-point range. Coach Mike Rhoades’ team hasn’t lost since. URI beat La Salle in the regular season 78-67 thanks to 20 points from Fatts Russell.  Let the record show the A-10 has some sweet names this year, from the Explorers’ Pookie Powell to my favorite: Duquesne guard Sincere Carry, who naturally just happens to lead the conference in assists.

MEAC Tournament, Norfolk Scope Arena, Norfolk

This league runs its men’s and women’s tournaments concurrently, meaning Monday’s first round winners often next play Wednesday or Thursday. While the No. 1 seed has won five titles in the last 10 years, there have been upsets like last March when 6 seed North Carolina Central beat regular season champ Hampton in the Finals.

Howard (16-15, 10-6 MEAC) reached the Semifinals as an 11 seed two years ago, but has just two other wins in the tournament this decade. The Bison lead the league in scoring but play a defensive style that can sometimes be referred to as “matadorish.” But when you have the conference’s top two point producers in R.J. Cole and Charles Williams, you take your chances. Head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team is also riding a ridiculous 8-0 road record in conference play to Norfolk, where they wrapped up the regular season by beating top seed Norfolk State. The 4 seed Bison battle Bethune-Cookman Thursday in the Quarterfinals at 8 p.m.; the Wildcats boast the league’s best big man in Cletrell Pope (tops in rebounding, second in shooting percentage and third in blocked shots). The winner likely gets an angry Norfolk State in the Semifinals Friday.

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