Beltway Basketball Beat: Hoyas have help on the horizon, but they need it now

When I went to get the Washington Post on Sunday morning (yes, I’m still a hard-copy paper on Sunday guy), I knew Georgetown had come up short against former archrival Syracuse 74-69, but was curious about the next day write-up.

On the morning after a Washington Football Team playoff game, I knew the story wasn’t likely going to be on the front page of the Sports Section, but I was somewhat surprised to read that it was buried on D11 (the second to last page) below the Virginia gamer as well as the soccer roundup (something about Bundesliga). No mention of the game on D1 (Shawn Kemp’s marijuana business venture had the bottom quarter).

The only thing worse than being bad (and the Hoyas haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2015) is being irrelevant.

This year’s Hoyas are off to a 1-5 start in the Big East and are in danger of finishing under .500 in conference play for the fifth time in six years. The combination of six freshmen and three transfers has yet to come together in a consistent manner. This team ranks 10th in the 11-team conference in scoring and is 9th in points allowed. They’re last in the Big East in shooting and own the worst turnover margin in the league. While 2021 looks promising with a recruiting class that includes five-star prospect Aminu Mohammed and four-star center Ryan Mutumbo (son of onetime Hoyas big man Dikembe), the current team is trying to avoid a potentially disastrous season (they’re on track for their worst finish since 1971-72). Until then, I’ll look for their recaps on D11.

Wow of the Week

Richmond began this year on the cusp of the Top 25 and made headlines when they upset Kentucky in Lexington. But many a notable nonconference season withers away when league play takes over (witness George Mason last winter). The Spiders won consecutive games against Rhode Island and GMU last weekend to move atop the Atlantic 10 at 3-1. Four seniors in the starting lineup will help you steer the ship smoothly in the dangerous A-10 waters. The Spiders received votes in this past week’s Coaches Poll and could make their way back into the rankings by February with a strong finish to this month.

Player Spotlight

Who was that masked man? Darryl Morsell scored a career-high 19 points in Maryland’s 66-63 victory at No. 12 Illinois Sunday evening. He did so with the Terps’ point guard Eric Ayala on the bench due to a groin injury. He did so wearing a mask necessitated by a facial fracture suffered Dec. 31 against Michigan. Morsell missed the loss at Indiana and played 22 minutes against Iowa while looking uncomfortable with his new headgear. Thank goodness for his mother, who told him to wear the mask everywhere so he’d feel in sync with his newest accessory. Thank goodness for Morsell and his mother, as the Terps avoided a 1-6 start in the oh so difficult Big Ten.

League Look

The Big East is going to 11 this winter as former conference power UConn (7-1 with a 4-1 league mark) returns after a seven-year vacation in the American Athletic Conference (of America).  The Huskies make their 2020-21 debut in the AP rankings this week at No. 25. Villanova (No. 4) is in the top five despite not playing a game since Dec. 23 due to COVID-19 concerns and Creighton (No. 8) has won six straight while pacing the conference in scoring, shooting, three-point shooting and field goal defense. Seton Hall and Xavier are receiving votes while Providence is on ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s bubble. Georgetown will be hard-pressed to avoid the cellar.

Ballot Battles

My top three (Gonzaga, Baylor, Texas) stayed the same thanks to the Longhorns’ last-second three that gave Shaka Smart’s team a 72-70 win at West Virginia (Mountaineers slip to No. 14 on my sheet). Villanova and Saint Louis are two schools that have suffered because of lack of games — neither has played since New Year’s Eve. One rewards a team for what it has done, but when they haven’t set foot on the floor — even given the abnormal circumstances — it’s time to reward the schools that are playing. This week’s Non-Power Five High Fives go to No. 23 Boise State, No. 24 Drake, and No. 25 Belmont.

Here’s my full ballot. Please be kind!

Starting Five (local games of note)

Wednesday: Georgetown (3-8, 1-5 Big East) vs. DePaul (1-4, 0-4), 7 p.m. (FS1). The bottom two teams in the Big East battle, and as you can see, while the 2020-21 season has been a nightmare for the Hoyas, it has been less than ideal for the Blue Demons. Pandemic concerns wiped out all but one nonconference game (a victory over Western Illinois). They’re also 8th in the conference in scoring, 10th in scoring defense and 9th in rebounding as well as turnover margin. If there’s a road back to respectability for this Hoyas team, it better begin here as they play three straight and four of their next five on the road.

Saturday: VCU (9-3, 2-1) at Richmond, 1 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).  The best rivalry in the region involves two schools that share a city and the A-10’s best hopes for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament at this time. And it could very well be another defensive duel for the conference lead. The Spiders lead the league in turnover margin thanks in part to Jacob Gilyard’s A-10 best four steals per game. The senior is as much of a force on the offensive end of the floor, averaging 14 points with five assists while hitting 42% from three-point range in league play. The Rams pace the A-10 in field goal defense and allow the third fewest points per game. Bones Hyland is their top offensive option averaging 18 points per night. VCU may be 13-6 in the series since they joined the conference, but the home team is 10-6 in that span (they’ve met three times in the A-10 Tournament).

American at Navy (7-1, 4-0), noon (ESPN +). Knock on wood. Or at least Formica. The Eagles will finally tip off their season this weekend as they’re headed to Annapolis on Saturday. Unless there’s another delay. The Midshipmen are off to their best start since 2008 and are 4-0 in the conference for the first time since 1998. Senior Cam Davis is averaging 18 points with 4 assists in league play while shooting 50% from the field. AU won both games last winter but that was with the program’s all-time leading scorer Sa’eed Nelson. He’s graduated while last year’s top rebounder Marc Gasperini is averaging five minutes a game while not making shots for UMass (he’s 0-5 to start the season). How American responds to their additional rust is anyone’s guess. Again, I’m just hoping they play both games this weekend.

No. 18 Virginia (7-2, 3-0 ACC) at No. 12 Clemson (9-1, 3-1), 6 p.m., ESPN. Are we sure this isn’t on the ACC Network? Football feelings die hard. And shouldn’t the Tigers be focused on Spring Football Practice? This is their highest ranking since they were No. 11 in February 2018, the only time Clemson has made the NCAA Tournament since 2011. Defense will be the name of the game at Littlejohn Coliseum as the Tigers lead the ACC in scoring defense while ranking second in turnover margin and at defending the three. U.Va.’s offensive system is yielding the usual results of quality as opposed to quantity. They’re tenth in the ACC in scoring but lead the league in shooting. They also have a Sam Hauser who’s averaging a double-double in conference play (15 points and 11 rebounds per game since the calendar turned to 2021).

Sunday: No. 20 Virginia Tech (10-2, 4-1) at Wake Forest (3-3, 0-3), 6 p.m. (ACC Network). Is it just me, or does it feel like the Hokies always play these late Sunday games? Tuesday’s win over No. 19 Duke was yet another impressive box checked by Mike Young’s team this season. They led most of the way thanks to solid defense (VT held the Blue Devils to 40% shooting and 28% from three point range). Another victory would give them five league wins one winter after they went 7-13 in the conference. This is also a showdown of former Southern Conference coaches, as Steve Forbes is in his first year with the Demon Deacons after leading East Tennessee State to a 30-4 mark last season (for the record I had the Buccaneers in my Top 25) while Young went 30-5 the winter before with Wofford (I had the Terriers in my final Top 25 as well).

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