The college basketball season like none before it enters what is technically the shortest month of the year.
And while February often feels like the longest month of the season in normal times (when the schedule gets underway in early to mid-November), in 2021 every day a team’s program isn’t on pause is a gift.
Don’t look now, but Virginia and Virginia Tech are both contending for the ACC Regular Season Championship. And while Maryland’s win over No. 24 Purdue places them on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, they’re only one bad loss away from being on the outside looking in.
The lack of nonconference opportunities may limit the at-large hopes of Richmond and VCU, but the Capital City Challenge that was postponed in January has a new date — Feb. 17. It’s far from March Madness — but a little February Frenzy is good for the soul. Isn’t it?
Wow of the Week: Georgetown hadn’t played for 21 days due to COVID-19 concerns and the Hoyas hadn’t won a game since Dec. 13. Despite the rust the Hoyas eked out a 73-72 victory over Providence thanks to a missed free throw with 1.5 seconds left. After the lack of success and absence of games this might not turn the season around completely but does give Patrick Ewing’s program a bit of a breather.
Player Spotlight: Keve Aluma picked the perfect time to have a career day. The Virginia Tech junior exploded for 29 points (on 10-15 shooting) and 10 rebounds in the Hokies’ 65-51 win over ACC leader Virginia. It was the Wofford transfer’s fourth double-double of the season and Tech is 4-0 in those games. In pre-pandemic times, I’d say give that man a smoked turkey leg (the ones prepared at Lane Stadium are beyond delicious).
League Look: The Colonial Athletic Association might not be holding its postseason tournament at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in D.C., but there does look to be a local flavor in the conference race. James Madison (9-5, 4-1) is in second place and split with league-leading Northeastern last month. Five of the Dukes’ remaining seven games on their schedule at this time are at home. And the CAA Tournament will be held on their campus in Harrisonburg. Northeastern (8-6, 7-1) advanced to the Tournament Championship Game last year while defending champ Hofstra (11-6, 7-3) has won five in a row.
Ballot Battles: While the elite continue to cruise (or in Michigan’s case, quarantine) the Top 25’s middle class mostly muddled. Six of my teams that I had between ninth and 17th went 1-1, muddying up the waters even more. Such is the case of the “second 10” — good enough to be in the mix, but somehow not consistent enough to move into the penthouse. Tough omissions included Illinois, Florida, Oklahoma State and Loyola (Ill). Non-Power 5 high fives go to Belmont, Drake, Boise State and St. Bonaventure.
Starting Five (Games of note involving local schools):
No. 16 Virginia Tech (13-3, 7-2 ACC) at Pitt (8-5, 4-4), 7 p.m. (ACCN). The Hokies are coming off of a 14-point win over Virginia, but still are without the suspended Tyrece Radford. There’s nothing that takes the air out of a team’s sails better than an underwhelming effort a few days after a big win. The Panthers have dropped three in a row, including a 26-point clunker at home to sub-500 Notre Dame. And their win over Duke has lost a ton of its luster.
Georgetown (4-8, 2-5 Big East) at No. 15 Creighton (13-4, 9-3), 9 p.m. (FS1). Squeaking past a Providence team that’s playing tag with .500 is one thing, going on the road and beating an NCAA contender is another. The Bluejays lead the conference in scoring (83 points per game) and rank second in the league at turning teams over as well as shooting the three. But their Achilles’ heel is the fact that they’re the worst rebounding team in the Big East-Georgetown currently ranks first and in a season where they can’t shoot (9th in the league) nor take care of the ball (last in turnover margin) that can be a major equalizer. Can it help them win two straight conference games?
Maryland (10-8, 4-7 Big Ten) at Penn State (6-8, 3-7), 7 p.m. (FS1). Resistible force against movable object? The Nittany Lions allow the most points per game in the Big Ten, but the Terps score the second fewest points per game in the league. And Happy Valley has been more miserable lately for the Terps, who have dropped four straight regular season games in State College, Pennsylvania. Under interim coach Jim Ferry (Patrick Chambers was fired in November after an investigation into his conduct) Penn State has won three of five, with their two losses to ranked foes Ohio State and Wisconsin (they did beat the Badgers once in a COVID-caused two-game series).
George Mason (8-7, 4-5 Atlantic 10) at Dayton (10-4, 6-3), 7 p.m. (ESPN2). The Patriots begin February with a ton of possibilities: While they’re just a game and a half out of fourth place in the conference and the coveted double bye, GMU is also one half game above 11th place and a spot in the dreaded first round. The Flyers won the January meeting 74-65 as Jalen Crutcher poured in 26 points. Stopping the junior is easier said than done: The guard makes 52% of his shots and 43% from three-point range.
No. 14 Virginia (11-3, 7-1 ACC) vs. Louisville (11-4, 6-3), 4 p.m. (ESPN). We’re going light on the weekend to give you a chance to get ready for the Super Bowl. The Cardinals have been in and out of the Top 25 this year thanks to solid play from senior transfer Carlik Jones (Radford). The Cavaliers are also benefiting from the transfer route with ex-Marquette forward Sam Hauser leading the team in scoring and rebounding. UVa is 7-0 at John Paul Jones Arena this season and has won 13 straight at home.