Beltway Basketball Beat: Maryland, Georgetown face early 2021 tests

Would you rather have a messy season or no season at all?

Last year’s NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were both canceled due to the pandemic. And already this winter, we’ve seen a delayed start (although I’m a fan of not tipping off until Thanksgiving week), plenty of cancellations, league reorganization (the Patriot is going with three divisions) plus an entire conference (the Ivy League) taking the season off.

Like a cake where not all of the ingredients are in sync, we may have a less than ideal finished product (a four-tiered cake that leans like the Tower of Pisa comes to mind) and there’s a very good chance the chef may have added salt instead of sugar by mistake.

But hoops is here with an eye on March after last winter’s meal ended without dessert.

So we’ll eat the cake and smile — for now.

Wow of the Week

Navy (5-1, 2-0 Patriot League South) began conference play with a pair of victories over Bucknell (the Bison have dominated the league since 2011 with four tournament championships and eight regular season titles over the last 10 years).

Senior guard Cam Davis (20.5 points per game and 41.7% from 3-point range) is one of four returning starters for a team that has already beaten locals George Washington and Georgetown this season. Keep an eye on coach Ed DeChellis’ team.

Player Spotlight

George Washington sophomore Jamison Battle was named Atlantic 10 Player of the Week after netting a career-high 29 points in Sunday’s win over Duquesne. The 6-foot-7 swingman (All-Rookie last winter) averaged 18.4 points with 5.5 rebounds as the Colonials began A-10 play 2-1 after going 2-6 in their nonconference slate (three one-possession losses and a four-point defeat in the mix).

League Look

Much was said about the Big Ten in November as seven schools showed up in the Preseason Top 25. Northwestern then started 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1968 to move into the rankings. Minnesota looked more like a contender than a pretender with a win over league-favorite Iowa and then, a 25-point thrashing of perennial power Michigan State.

Simply put, there are no nights off in a conference that right now thinks it has 10-12 NCAA Tournament teams. Even 0-3 in the league Penn State has an impressive win (over then No. 15 Virginia Tech). Not exactly encouraging for a Maryland team that’s missing senior leader Darryl Morsell (facial fracture) for 1-2 weeks.

Ballot Battles

This is my third season voting in The Associated Press Top 25 Men’s Basketball Poll, and when one is trying to evaluate the cream of the crop of over 340 schools in a pandemic that’s limited nonconference play, there are going to be teams that slip through the cracks.

Needless to say, fan bases from San Diego (I thought they were laid back out there) to Columbia, Missouri have been more than generous with their constructive recommendations.

It’s always tough parsing 21-25 from 26-35 each week (check out my latest ballot online) and as we get into the meat of conference season, I try to give small schools that dominate their leagues their due (East Tennessee State was 2020s darling). Drake (13-0) is on deck.

Starting Five (games involving local schools to keep an eye on this week)

No. 19 Virginia Tech (8-1, 2-0 ACC) at Louisville (7-1, 2-0), Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. (ACC Network)

The Hokies were picked 11th in the conference’s preseason poll but have played their way into the top 20. Coach Mike Young won 30 games two seasons ago at Wofford, thanks in part to 6-foot-9 forward Keve Aluma. Aluma came to Blacksburg with Young and is averaging 16 points and almost 7 rebounds this winter.

The Cardinals are the conference’s other 2-0 team and have won 13 straight at the KFC Yum! Center, but Virginia Tech is their first ranked foe in that stretch.

Maryland (6-5, 1-4 Big Ten) vs. No. 5 Iowa (9-2, 3-1), Thursday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). 

Hawkeyes center Luka Garza came back for his senior season and the Washington, D.C. native is averaging 28 points with 9 rebounds while shooting 62% from the field.

This is where the Terps will feel the loss of Jalen Smith to the NBA and the transfers of 6-foot-10 big men Makhel and Makhi Mitchell to Rhode Island. Maryland’s also minus senior sparkplug Darryl Morsell for at least one more week.

Richmond (7-3, 1-1 Atlantic 10) at George Mason (5-3, 1-1), Saturday at noon (CBS Sports Network)

The Spiders made a big splash in November with a 12-point win at then-No. 10 Kentucky and a victory at Vanderbilt as well. However, Richmond were upset last weekend at home by St. Bonaventure in a game where they were held to 25% from 3-point range and were out-rebounded by nine. Four of the Patriots’ eight games have been decided by one possession.

While Richmond relies on experience (four of five starters are seniors), George Mason has received a huge boost from freshman Tyler Kolek. The guard is already the team’s second-leading scorer and already has an Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honor under his belt.

American at Lehigh (1-1 Patriot League South), Saturday at 2 p.m. (ESPN+)

The Eagles were picked to finish eighth in the conference’s preseason poll, and with Loyola (MD) paused due to COVID-19 for one more weekend, they’ll be the ninth school to start its season this week.

The Mountain Hawks (I still wish they called themselves the Engineers) are led by Marques Wilson (23 points per game and 60% from 3-point range) on the outside and 6-foot-11-inch junior Nic Lynch (21 points on almost 55% shooting along with 8 rebounds per game) inside.

How long will an AU team that graduated its all-time leading scorer (Sa’eed Nelson) need to find its offensive groove?

Georgetown (3-6) at Syracuse (6-1), Saturday at 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

What was once the Big East’s signature rivalry (the two schools combined for nine of the first 13 tournament winners and either the Hoyas or the Orangemen played in the championship game in 14 of 15 years from 1980-94) and a noontime staple on CBS is now a nonconference affair that will be going up against the Washington Football Team’s first playoff game in five years.

But there are those who still know what time it is, and those who look down their nose at a school that was once represented by character called “The Dome Ranger” (energetic and fun but not as cool as Jack the Bulldog).

Only three Hoyas on this year’s roster played in last season’s win over SU in DC, and this year’s team has had issues scoring (10th in the 11-team Big East) as well as defending (9th in the conference). Syracuse’s lone loss thus far came at Rutgers (and everyone knows the RAC is a tough place to play) but the Orange haven’t played since Dec. 19 due to COVID-19 concerns.

One wonders about rust for Syracuse and the ability to win on the road for Georgetown. Meanwhile, coach Patrick Ewing’s team has lost both of their games away from McDonough Arena this winter.

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