This has been one rough winter for those who follow and cover men’s college basketball.
Maryland is in danger of its first losing season since the early 90s and Georgetown is in danger of going winless in Big East play one year after winning the Conference Tournament. But you don’t have to look too far to find hope for the present and future.
Howard’s 72-62 win over South Carolina State on Monday improved the Bison to 16-11 and 9-4 inside the MEAC, clinching the No. 2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament while assuring HU of its first winning season since 2001-02.
“One of our goals was to have a winning season,” third-year coach Kenny Blakeney said after their 77-67 win Saturday against North Carolina Central. “We’re taking steps.”
Plenty of talent has come through Burr Gymnasium since, from James Daniel III (led Division I in scoring during the 2015-16 season) to R.J. Cole (2018 MEAC Rookie of the Year and 2019 MEAC Player of the Year) but each team has fallen frustratingly short of finishing over .500 (two have finished right at the break-even point). Blakeney’s first team went 4-29 but pulled off an upset in the First Round of the MEAC Tournament before last winter’s season was sidelined due to COVID-19 concerns after a 1-4 start. This year’s team has caught fire late with eight wins in their last nine games and will post its best conference finish (2nd place) since 1992. And Blakeney hopes this is just the start.
“That’s my vision and that’s the goal. I think we’re close to building it-we have a very young core,” Blakeney told me in November right before the season started. “The young guys have to get experience and grow. But I think we’re headed in the right direction to do that.”
The regular season wraps up with a trip to conference-leading Norfolk State (they lost 77-74 in Burr Gymnasium Jan. 15) before they head to Norfolk for next week’s MEAC Tournament. Don’t sleep on the Bison.
This Week’s Starting Five:
Up Top: March may enter like a lion, but February exits like a Tasmanian devil. Saturday’s frenzy saw the top six teams (and seven of the top nine) go down in defeat. The day began with No. 4 Purdue’s noon tip-off at Michigan State ending with a 68-65 win for the Spartans and wrapped up with No. 1 Gonzaga losing by double digits at St. Mary’s during the midnight hour. No. 2 Arizona, No. 3 Auburn, No. 5 Kansas and No. 6 Kentucky saw similar fates to create one oddly shuffled Top 25 where 21 teams changed places. Gonzaga stays No. 1 while I had Baylor first on my ballot (I’m the only voter who has the Bulldogs out of the top three at No. 4) while Auburn and Arizona are second and third (weighing their losses compared to Gonzaga’s). Small school shout-outs go to Davidson, Boise State, and South Dakota State. Difficult omissions this week: Iowa, St. Mary’s, Colorado St., and Vermont.
Going inside: American (10-21) kept its season alive Tuesday night with a 69-63 win at Holy Cross in the Patriot League Tournament First Round as Stacy Beckton Jr. posted 22 points with 9 rebounds while freshman Elijah Stephens added 12 points with 8 assists. Next up: a Quarterfinal date with Navy, and while the Midshipmen won both regular season games they were hardly dominant in 47-45 and 55-46 victories. The Mids also lost two of three to end the regular season and have scored more than 60 points just twice in the last month.
On the perimeter: Towson (24-7, 15-3 CAA) ran its winning streak to seven with Monday’s 69-57 victory over Delaware (completing a game that was interrupted due to a slippery floor) and won a share of its first conference title since it was in the Big South back in 1995 under Terry Truax (two leagues and four coaches ago). This year’s edition under Pat Skerry leads the CAA in scoring defense and rebounding margin, and heads to Washington’s Entertainment and Sports Arena as the No. 1 seed where they’ll face the winner of William & Mary and Northeastern Sunday at noon. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
Who’s open: Senior Night in College Park has Maryland (14-15, 6-12 Big Ten) hosting Minnesota (14-14, 4-14) Wednesday. The Terrapins still have a chance to avoid the dreaded First Round of the upcoming Big Ten Tournament but currently trail Penn State by one game (they own the tiebreaker though). Enter the Golden Gophers, a team that’s 3-13 since New Year’s Day and is a sieve (13th in the Big Ten in points allowed and rebounding margin, 14th in field goal defense). They’re a team that likes to shoot the three, in quantity and quality, and boast a scoring threat in Jamison Battle (the transfer from George Washington is averaging 17 points per game).
Final shot: We began the 2021-22 season with plenty of hope: Maryland was in the Preseason Top 25, Georgetown was defending Big East Tournament Champions, Virginia and Virginia Tech were both coming off NCAA Tournament appearances, and there was optimism everywhere from George Mason to George Washington. Fast-forward four months and it’s a much different outlook. Here is where the locals stand with Selection Sunday less than two weeks away:
Maryland: Needs to win the Big Ten Tournament to reach the Big Dance and the Terps haven’t reached the semifinals in this tournament since 2016. But if they can continue their late-season surge (three wins in four games) they might be able to climb over .500 and nab an NIT Bid, which given everything this program has gone through this winter, would be a major victory.
Georgetown (6-22, 0-17 Big East): Needs to win four games in four days at the Big East Tournament. Hoyas haven’t won a game since Dec. 15.
Virginia Tech (19-11, 11-8 ACC): On the underbelly of the Bubble (listed as one of Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Teams Out” on ESPN’s latest Bracketology projections). The Hokies need a win over Clemson plus probably two wins in the ACC Tournament during a soft year for the conference (only five teams projected to make the NCAA’s in a year where the Big Ten has nine, Big East has seven, and Big 12 has six).
Virginia (17-12, 11-8 ACC): Saw most of the air leave its bubble last Saturday when they lost to Florida State on Senior Day in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers need to beat Louisville Saturday plus advance to the ACC Tournament Championship Game to have any hope of an at-large bid. The last-second loss to the Seminoles severely torpedoed the hopes of a school that has been fighting uphill since beginning the year with nonconference losses to Navy and James Madison.
VCU (21-7, 14-3 Atlantic 10): Despite an eight-game winning streak, the Rams are not in the mix as an at-large team. The A-10 has often been a two or three-bid league over the years, but for some reason in 2022 most models have it as a one-bid league with Davidson the only slam-dunk as an at-large team. A win over Saint Louis to wrap up the regular season plus two Atlantic 10 Tournament wins would get them into the championship game and might sneak them into the field-unless they were to lose to a team that’s not Davidson (an at-large lock) in the title tilt.
Richmond (19-11, 10-7 Atlantic 10), George Mason (14-13, 7-7), and George Washington (11-16, 7-8) are in the “need four wins in four days at Capital One Arena” territory. The Spiders last reached the semifinals in 2017, the Colonials got there last in 2014, and the Patriots have yet to win a quarterfinal game since joining the conference in 2013.
Navy, American, Loyola, Howard … welcome to the land of one-bid league schools. Win your conference title or go home.
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