Beltway Basketball Beat: Howard has high hopes of ending March drought

Follow a local team long enough, and you’ll know how long waiting can be for their faithful.

For instance, Maryland hasn’t reached its conference tournament championship game since 2004 when they beat Duke to take the ACC. Georgetown hasn’t seen the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2007 when the Hoyas reached their most recent Final Four.

George Washington and George Mason have both had March success this century. However, 2011 (Mason’s last trip to the Big Dance) and 2016 (GW’s NIT Championship) loom large and have the Colonial and Patriot fan bases wondering how far away the next good times are.

Even American’s run (three NCAA berths from 2008-14) is far enough away to where no current student (barring the 10-year plan) was on campus when the Eagles were consistently contending in March. But those droughts don’t hold a candle to a school that can suddenly see the end to 30 years in the college basketball wilderness.

Howard (16-10, 8-1 MEAC) for the first time in a while has reasonable NCAA Tournament hopes. The school that hasn’t made the Big Dance since 1992 (a 100-67 loss to No. 1 seed Kansas) and hasn’t played in the MEAC Tournament Championship Game since 2002.

Now, Howard is the hottest team in the league. On Monday night, the Bison won their eighth straight, defeating then-second place Maryland Eastern-Shore 78-69 by turning the Hawks over 20 times while holding UMES to 35% shooting and 6 of 21 from 3-point range.

The Bison jumped out to a 29-13 lead and were up by as many as 24 points, while avenging their lone league loss of the season thus far. And while defense does travel — especially as the season winds down — against league competition, they’re the best shooting (51% from the field) and highest scoring (84 points per game) team.

Head Coach Kenneth Blakeney has built his program around D.C.-area recruits, starting with Elijah Hawkins. The sophomore leads the team in scoring and assists (his 5.9 per game lead the MEAC and is 12th nationally) while Glenarden, Maryland, product Steve Settle III provides presence inside (the six-foot-10 junior nets 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game). Add in transfers Marcus Dockery (Maryland) and Jelani Williams (Penn) with D.C. roots and March is more than merely a mirage.

But the road to the NCAA Tournament is far from a given: the Bison play four straight road games before hosting second place Norfolk State in the regular season finale. That’s just for seeding in the upcoming Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament. And there’s no ribbons for finishing second as the MEAC is a one-big league.

But that’s next month’s problem. For now, the hopes are high for Howard.

This week’s starting five

Up top: Purdue’s 64-58 loss at Northwestern drops the Boilermakers out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25, although I had moved them down last week to No. 4 (they’re fourth on my ballot this week). Alabama is the new No. 1 (I voted them there instead of Houston due to their unbeaten mark in the SEC and their December win over the Cougars). My biggest difference with the consensus was Miami: I had the No. 15 Hurricanes 10th before Monday’s win at North Carolina (their fifth straight). Northwestern, Pitt and Missouri were schools not in this week’s Top 25 to make my ballot. Small school shout-outs: San Diego State and Florida Atlantic. Difficult omissions: Creighton, UConn, Providence, Oral Roberts, Charleston, and Kent State.

Going inside: Georgetown (6-21, 1-15 Big East) is already assured of playing the first round of the upcoming Big East Conference Tournament (it’s actually not that much of a stigma as six of the eleven schools play in it). And just like last year when they went 0-19 in league play, the Hoyas are capable of playing 10-15 solid minutes on the floor but have issues putting 40 minutes of winning basketball together. And this was not the year in the Big East to do this — with five schools in the Top 25 one month from Selection. The rest of the league is beginning to eat its own, with No. 16 Xavier losing at Butler last Friday and No. 24 Providence stumbling at St. John’s on Saturday. Will the Hoyas be able to pull an upset of their own? After their 76-68 loss at Seton Hall they have two decent chances in their remaining home games: St. John’s (5-10 in the conference) comes to D.C. next Wednesday while Providence has been somewhat shaky on the road in league play (3-4).

On the perimeter: Navy (15-11, 8-6 Patriot League) has won four straight after Saturday’s triumph over Army that completes a sweep over their archrival and gives them the tiebreaker for seeding in the upcoming PL Tournament (all games played on the campus of the higher seeded team). Senior Daniel Deaver (from Falls Church, Virginia) is having a special season, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. The Mids are also dealing with an NCAA Tournament drought (1998) although they advanced to their first Patriot League Championship game since 2001 last March. Wednesday they visit second place Lehigh — a win wraps up the regular season for Colgate (who comes to Annapolis on the final Saturday before the conference tournament).

Who’s open: George Washington (12-13, 6-6 Atlantic 10) and George Mason (14-12, 6-7) play Wednesday evening in Foggy Bottom as each school has been slipping down the standings toward the Dreaded First Round of the A-10 Tournament (10th through 15th draw Tuesday play). Just one game separates sixth place St. Joes’ from 11th place Richmond, and while the ninth place Colonials have lost four of five, the 10th place Patriots have dropped four of six. GW took the Jan. 16 meeting in Fairfax 78-75 behind 22 points and eight rebounds by Brendan Adams. The Colonials score and allow the most points per game in the conference, while Mason dials up defensively (third in defending the three and rebounding margin) a little better.

Last shot: Maryland (17-8, 8-6 Big Ten) has made good on its second crack at conference foes this season, beating Michigan and Wisconsin the second time they played each foe. They get No. 2 Purdue at Xfinity Center Thursday and the Boilermakers have dropped two straight on the road. But Big Ten and National Player of the Year candidate Zach Edey (24 points and 16 rebounds in the January win) ranks fifth in Division I in scoring 22.2 points per game, second in rebounding (13.0 per game), and 14th in shooting (62.8 % FG). While the Terps are on track to make the NCAA Tournament (they’re a No. 8 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology projection), a win over the Boilermakers would put their hopes on a monorail to March Madness.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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