Beltway Basketball: Maryland’s Big Ten counterpart is waking up

Maryland received a rude awakening in December, falling to Penn State. Now, the eastern wing of the Big Ten neighborhood could be even dicier.

I said it here last week, and I’m going to say it again: Rutgers is actually good this year. The Scarlet Knights are 14-4 and currently ranked by The Associated Press for the first time since 1979.

That’s when:

  • The Top 25 was a Top 20;
  • The shot clock was years away from being used in a college game;
  • The three-pointer wasn’t even used in the NBA.

The Big East hadn’t even been formed, and the NCAA Tournament was going from 32 to 40 schools, with the Final Four broadcast on NBC.

The ensuing 40-plus years have not been kind to a school that’s logged time in five different conferences, as Rutgers has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 (that was three leagues ago, when Rutgers was an Atlantic 10 member).

But coach Steve Pikiell, in his fourth year at the helm, has built the Scarlet Knights into a defensive dynamo. The Knights allow a Big Ten-low 58.7 points per game while ranking second in steals and fourth in rebounding margin.

We’ll know how far they’ve come Wednesday night when they visit No. 19 Iowa.

Wow of the week

Richmond (14-4, 4-1 Atlantic 10) has already surpassed last winter’s win total, and the Spiders did so by triumphing twice on the road. Wagner transfer Blake Francis has settled in to spearhead the offense (18 points per game), allowing big man Grant Golden to focus inside and guard Jacob Gilyard to worry more about running the offense.

Coach Chris Mooney is in his 15th season at the helm and, after consecutive 20-loss campaigns, appears to have the Spiders set back on a familiar course that will have them contending in the A-10.

Player to watch

Virginia gave us four years of the unintentional comedy that was big man Jack Salt: the 6-foot-10 center from New Zealand, despite shooting 59% from the field during his career, notched more personal fouls than made baskets in each of his four seasons with the Cavaliers.

Salt’s exit means more run for 7-foot-1 Jay Huff, who, after averaging under 10 minutes per game in his first two seasons, has turned into a major force this winter. He’s averaging 24.5 minutes and recorded 17 points with eight rebounds in a win against Georgia Tech that ended a three-game slide.

But Huff was back to single digits in Monday’s loss to N.C. State, and U.Va. finds itself at .500 in league play.

League look

One game separates the top five teams in the Patriot League as preseason favorite Colgate (14-5, 5-1) is being chased by American and Navy, along with Boston University and Bucknell. The Raiders won at Navy earlier this month. Jordan Burns and company visit American Saturday.

Ballot battles

This week, I moved Baylor into the top spot after two more wins. I very well could have moved them there last week after the win over Kansas, but I try to be less knee-jerk when it comes to No. 1.

I also received grief for having Colorado in the Top 20 this week, while keeping Arizona out despite the Wildcats’ win over the Buffaloes at home Saturday.

This week’s starting 5 (games of local interest)

Tuesday: No. 17 Maryland at Northwestern

The Terps may be 0-3 on the road in the Big Ten, but that’s the rule as opposed to the exception in the conference this winter. Home teams are 40-7 so far this season, but the last-place Wildcats have two of those defeats. If the Terrapins want to stay in the top half of a very good Big Ten (10 schools in Ken Pomeroy’s top 40), they need every road win they can get.

Wednesday: Georgetown at Xavier

The Hoyas are 0-3 on the road in Big East play, but home court dominance isn’t as great in a conference when road teams are 11-17 this winter. Both teams find themselves in the bottom half of that league, with the Musketeers coming off three straight double-digit defeats. The Musketeers also have trouble scoring (seventh in shooting and ninth from three-point range), making things a little easier on the Hoyas, who allow the most points per game in conference.

Wednesday: George Washington at Fordham

The Colonials have won consecutive Atlantic 10 games for the first time since February 2018. Armel Potter was a big reason why, as the senior guard averaged 24 points with six assists in those victories. The run can continue for first-year coach Jamion Christian, as the Colonials play their next two games against schools winless in the A-10. First is a Rams team that ranks 345th in the nation in shooting and 348th in scoring.

Saturday: Navy vs. Army

It’s not the football spectacular, but this Patriot League matinee is not without relevance. The Midshipmen have won three of four, while the Black Knights have won two straight. Army also is led in scoring by Tommy Funk, which on name value, has to count for something.

Sunday: Virginia at Wake Forest

The defending national champs knew they’d have growing pains with the bulk of last year’s producers departing, but the Cavaliers have lost four of five and are slowly slipping toward the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Demon Deacons are to the ACC what Rutgers used to be to the Big Ten — a school with distant Final Four history and often a tough out, but a team you need to beat if you want to stay in contention.

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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