The calendar flips long before the ball is tipped. And the final songs are sung for most of the Division I men’s college basketball teams before CBS even starts to edit highlights onto the vocal track of the late Luther Vandross.
When a victory exudes joy or most likely relief and a defeat brings despair or worse, the realization that the season is over, we must be in March.
For those of us who cover the game, it’s the dessert earned after consuming a meal that is often delicious (Michigan-Ohio State a few weeks ago) and every so often difficult to digest (Virginia’s loss at Florida State almost merited Tums consumption).
For those who don’t, March is a magnificent spectacle with a buffet of high-leverage games, answered hopes and shattered dreams. Whether you’re a Maryland that caught fire in February or a Navy that was on the cusp of 21st-century history, March is the closing month of college hoops.
Last year, March was hijacked by the coronavirus pandemic, and this year, COVID-19 has acted like a full-court pressing defense, swatting schedules out of bounds and turning over teams into breaks of 21 days (Georgetown), 35 days (George Washington) or the rest of the season (Howard). But somehow we made it to March. And while just like there’s no guarantee that one’s bracket won’t burst (UMBC, anyone?), a fully played NCAA Tournament is not a sure thing. But again, we’ve made it to March.
March is also the month where Girl Scout cookies arrive — and the official 2021 rankings are in. As always, descriptions are taken from the organization’s website, while the rankings are completely subjective and 100% accurate.
12: Toast-Yay! This year’s new offering is a “delightful, toast-shaped cookie full of French toast flavor and flair,” according to the website. There’s also frosting on the backside. Not a breakfast substitute, but try telling that to the kids. And I don’t get the “yay.” This has play-in round written all over it.
11: Lemon-Ups. If there’s one thing the Girl Scouts has taught us, it’s that the U.S. has an insatiable appetite for lemon-flavored options. This one was unveiled in 2020 and is a “crispy, lemon cookie baked with motivational messages.” Translation: “Please purchase me even though there’s a perfectly fine lemon flavor already available.”
10: Toffee-tastic. This “buttery cookie with sweet, crunchy golden toffee bits” feels like a small-conference school that can easily be down 20 points at the first media time-out but has the ingredients (gluten-free) to pull an upset against the right opponent.
8/9: Girl Scout S’mores. Two different bakeries supply cookies for the organization and the recipes are the same except for the S’mores. One offers up “crunchy graham sandwich cookies with creamy chocolate and marshmallowy filling” while the other is a “crispy graham cookie double dipped in yummy crème icing and finished with a scrumptious chocolatey coating.” It’s only fair that they meet in the 8/9 game.
7: Trefoils. The Indiana University of offerings: At its best, this fundamentally sound option exudes tradition and will make other teams work for 30 seconds every possession on both sides of the floor. Sadly, despite chanting “banners,” they haven’t hung one this century.
6: Caramel Chocolate Chip. Now we’re reaching the true title contenders. Could they be trying too much by combining “rich caramel, semisweet chocolate chips, and a hint of sea salt in a chewy cookie?” Ask me after I’ve consumed a box or two.
5: Lemonades. “Tangy lemon-icing-topped shortbread cookies.” So much deliciousness said with so few words. Capable of winning a round beyond its seed and I wouldn’t sell it short of taking it all, depending on how kind the rims are in the arena. But can it defend and rebound?
4: Do-Si-Dos. These cookies can defend and rebound with the best of them. A bite of the “crisp and crunchy oatmeal on the outside and creamy peanut butter inside” will press you into submission and collect every missed shot. But if whistles aren’t swallowed in the Final Four, I see foul trouble developing for this physical cookie.
3: Samoas. The “caramel and toasted coconut-covered cookie” is drizzled with chocolate and boasts the nuance of Virginia when the Cavaliers are running their hyper-efficient offense well. Great at defending in the half-court as well. But can they run with the fast-break cookie? Plus, it’s titled “Caramel deLites” in some markets. I’m worried a generation of girls is learning the incorrect spelling of “delights.”
2: Thin Mints. Think run and gun. Open the sleeve and knock down multiple “round, mint-flavored cookies with a delicious chocolaty coating.” We dare you to eat just one and then wait five to 10 minutes to have another. And that’s my question: Can they play a half-court tempo? And with their minty goodness, would they ever need to?
1: Tagalongs. We’re all about matchups once you reach the final stages of any tournament. And this cookie that includes a “layer of peanut butter with a rich chocolaty coating” can play the half-court game better than the Thin Mints and Lemonades while being able to run away from the Samoas and Do-Si-Dos. May your cookie consumption season have more than one dining moment.
One byproduct of the winter of COVID-19 has been the scrambling of schedules and that has meant moving some conference tournaments earlier than they are usually held. The Horizon League tipped things off Feb. 25, and several local leagues begin their tourneys this week. A quick look before we move on the Power Five locals:
Colonial Athletic Association (CAA): This briefly stood for “Connecticut Assassin Association” in 2006. Ten schools are headed to Harrisonburg, Virginia, with the top six receiving byes into the quarterfinals. The First Round tips off March 3.
Regular Season Champ: James Madison University owns the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed over last year’s tournament runner-up Northeastern. They also have the league’s leading scorer in Matt Lewis (19.7 points per game). The Dukes last advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2013 when they won a First Four game before falling in the Round of 64. They lead the conference in scoring as well as field goal defense and defending the three. In a month where every possession takes priority, JMU also leads the league in turnover margin.
Recent History and the Field: Five schools have cut down the nets since James Madison’s 2013 title, with Hofstra winning it all last year at D.C.’s Entertainment and Sports Arena. The Pride are the fourth seed this year and boast the league’s second-leading scorer in Jalen Ray. Second seed Northeastern advanced to the title game last year from the No. 6 seed and previously won the tournament in 2015 and 2019. Dangerous Drexel may be sixth but the Dragons beat James Madison last weekend and lead the CAA in rebounding as well as assist-to-turnover margin.
Patriot League: Never referred to as “PL” and made famous by John Feinstein’s book “The Last Amateurs,” even though a few of those amateurs (notably C.J. McCollom) have become pros in the last 20 years.
Regular Season Champ: Navy posted a conference record of 12-1 in the realigned three-division format and the Midshipmen also had the advantage of playing a non-conference schedule (they got blown out at Maryland but won at Georgetown). Colgate finished a half game back and led the conference in scoring, shooting, three-point shooting, defending the three and rebounding margin. The Mids won both games this past weekend, with leading scorer Cam Davis sitting due to contact tracing.
Recent History and the Field: Boston University captured their first title last year, becoming the seventh school in nine years to do so (Navy, Army and Maryland’s Loyola were the outliers). The Terriers (6-10) are the seventh seed while recent power Bucknell (four titles in the last 10 years) went 4-6 to snag the sixth seed. American University didn’t even play a game until Jan. 16 due to schedule scrambling by COVID-19. The 4-5 Eagles own the fifth seed and visit Army in the quarterfinals. Cause for confidence: AU tied with Colgate for the most three-point shots made per game (8.8). Cause for concern: This is one of the few conferences that plays its tournament at campus sites, and the home team is 28-8 over the last four years.
Atlantic Ten: Also referred to as the A-10, even though the league has 14 schools. The first three rounds will be played in Richmond on the campuses of UR and VCU, with the championship game being held in Dayton, Florida, on March 14.
Regular Season Champ: Another league decided by a half game with St. Bonaventure finishing 11-4 to VCU’s 10-4. The Rams (17-6 overall) lost two of three to end the regular season and slide closer to the bubble (ESPN’S Joe Lunardi has VCU as a No. 11 seed, receiving one of the last four byes). They’ll play the Dayton-Rhode Island winner in the quarterfinals: VCU swept the Flyers during the regular season while splitting with URI.
Recent History and the Field: COVID-19 canceled last year’s tournament after the First Round was played, meaning 2019 winner Saint Louis is still the reigning champ. Since VCU joined the league, the Rams have made it to the final five times, winning once. Richmond hasn’t played for the title since the 2011 team won it all en route to the Sweet 16. This year the Spiders (13-7, 6-5) were the preseason favorite and posted a non-conference win at Kentucky, only to slide down the stretch with three losses in their final five games to finish eighth. A win over Duquesne (they beat the Dukes by seven in February) sets up a date with St. Bonaventure. George Mason (12-8, 8-6) posts a second winning A-10 mark in three years and closed with four straight regular season wins, including an overtime triumph at then-first place VCU. The Patriots are seeded sixth and face the winner of George Washington-Fordham: Mason beat the Colonials last week and routed the Rams by 32 earlier this month. GW (4-11, 3-5) was paused for 35 days due to COVID concerns. They beat last-place Fordham (the Rams have finished 14th in the Atlantic-10 four straight years) by 24 in December.
Power Five Locals:
Maryland (15-10, 9-9 Big Ten): The Terps have scraped themselves into the field with five straight wins. Defense has been the difference as they’ve allowed four of those five foes to under 60 points. Right now they’re an 8th seed in the ESPN and CBS models and a 9th in FOX’s projected field. They finish the regular season at Northwestern and Penn State, two teams that have combined for nine league wins this winter. But the mood will be rather different if the Terps stumble twice and then flame out in the Big Ten Tournament next week (Maryland hasn’t won a B-10 Tourney game since 2016).
Virginia (16-6, 12-4 ACC): The Cavaliers ended a three-game losing streak by beating Miami Monday, and they’re still assured of the vaunted double-bye in the upcoming Conference Tournament (UVa is one of three schools that hasn’t had to play on the “dreaded first day” since the league expanded to 14 teams). All three models have the Cavaliers as a No. 5 seed. Last year they won eight straight after dropping three in a row to become the team nobody wanted to play in Greensboro. Do they have that inside themselves this March?
Virginia Tech (15-5, 9-4 ACC): They bounced back fine after losing to Georgia Tech 69-53 in their return from a 17-day COVID pause, and the Hokies can finish second in the conference with a win Saturday at NC State plus a Virginia loss to Louisville. CBS projects them as a No. 6 seed, ESPN has them a No. 7 seed and FOX gives them a No. 8. But just like Buzz Williams seemingly had Tech a year ahead of schedule after taking lumps in his initial winter in Blacksburg, Mike Young appears to be doing the same.
Georgetown (9-11, 7-8 Big East): Monday’s win over Xavier was the Hoyas’ fourth in five games. And these aren’t all against DePaul: The Musketeers and Seton Hall were teams that are currently projected to be in the NCAA Tournament. Saturday they can play the spoiler again when they visit tournament hopeful UConn. More importantly, a win with help can move them into fifth place and out of the new Big East Tournament First Round (11 schools mean the bottom six play off to reach the quarterfinals), after having had to play the first night at MSG in five of the previous seven seasons after the league realigned.