Beltway Basketball Beat: Local colleges looking to plant seeds on as the regular season wraps up

The first weekend of March finds us entering a phantom zone of sorts, while the “Power Six” conferences wrap up their regular seasons, many of the one-bid leagues (Patriot, CAA, Sun Belt) begin tournament play, meaning many people don’t know their school is eliminated until days after it happens (sorry, Holy Cross).

Nine days from Selection Sunday, most of the “locals” (I know, last year our definition included Richmond and Delaware) are still technically in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Thursday’s results:

Howard (19-12, 11-3 MEAC) routed South Carolina State 87-67 to wrap up their first outright regular season conference title since 1987.

Head coach Kenneth Blakeney’s team enters next week’s tournament as the top seed, thanks to an offense that led the league in scoring and shooting as well as from three-point range (in makes and percentage).

Next up is another mountain they haven’t climbed in a while. HU hasn’t reached the tournament championship since 2002 and they haven’t won it since 1992. They’ll face South Carolina State in Wednesday’s Quarterfinal (they swept the Bulldogs during the regular season) and would face the winner of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State in the Semifinals (they split with both schools this winter).

Player to keep your eye on: sophomore guard Elijah Hawkins, who led the Bison in scoring and the conference in assists, and is the key to an offense that’s tops in the MEAC in assist-to-turnover ratio.

American (17-14) beat Navy (18-13) 52-51 in Annapolis on Thursday night in the Patriot League Quarterfinals. The Eagles win consecutive games for the first time since January thanks to stingy defense (AU held the Midshipmen to 38% shooting and 5-18 from three-point range) while Johnny O’Neil followed up his 19 point, eight rebound and four block performance against Bucknell by tallying 15-9-4 in Annapolis. While AU erases its February fade (six straight losses to end the regular season), the Mids go from being the one team everybody thought could compete with Colgate (10-2 to finish the regular season) to dealing with March Misery as the NCAA Tournament drought is extended another year.

Up next for AU: their first Semifinal appearance since 2016 and a trip to fellow upset-winner Lafayette.

They split the season series with the Leopards, with each team winning by double-digits on their opponents’ floor. Lafayette (10-22) also dealt with a late-season slide, dropping four straight and seven of nine before beating No. 3 seed Lehigh 71-64. Freshman Josh Rivera led the way with 24 points — American fans might remember him as the guy who scored a career-high 27 against them in a Jan. 18 win.

The Leopards allowed the fewest points per game in the Patriot League but also ranked last in scoring and shooting. From the three, they were quantity over quality, leading the conference in threes made per game but ranking last in shooting from outside the arc.

Working for the Weekend — plenty will be at stake on the final Saturday and Sunday of the regular season for the locals. So in the spirit of the former feature “Hoops on the Horizon” (look it up in our archives, you might be underwhelmed), here is the weekend slate:


12:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network:

George Mason (18-12, 10-7 Atlantic 10) visits Richmond (14-16, 7-10). Patriots get the No. 5 seed with a win if George Washington loses, plus either losses by Saint Louis and Duquesne or wins by the Billikens and Dukes. Mason gets the No. 7 seed with a loss plus a GW win.

If anything else happens, they’re the sixth seed.

Coach Kim English’s team has won five straight to eliminate any thought of playing in the dreaded First Round (now three games because there are fifteen schools in the league), and they beat the Spiders 62-58 Dec. 31 in the A-10 opener behind 22 points from Ronald Polite (Tyler Burton led UR with 21).

2 p.m., ESPN2.

No. 13 Virginia (22-6, 14-5 ACC) hosts Louisville (4-26, 2-17). Cavaliers wrap up a share of the regular season crown and the No. 2 seed with a win, while if they lose to the last-place Cardinals on Senior Day, they should suffer a post-season ban.

In all seriousness, they can still take the No. 2 seed with a loss and wins by Miami, Duke and Clemson. UVA is the third seed with a loss plus a win by Miami, or wins by Miami and North Carolina. If Miami, Duke and Notre Dame win a Virginia loss drops the team to the No. 4 seed. UVA beat Louisville 61-58 on Feb. 15, thanks to a missed three in the final seconds. It was a one possession game because the Cavaliers shot just 9-16 at the line, and El Ellis heated up with 21 points for the Cardinals in defeat.

But how bad is this Louisville team that has set a program record for losses in a season? The metaphor of the week may have come in the home finale when the halftime entertainment, a frisbee-catching dog, defecated on the court.

4 p.m., ESPN2

Virginia Tech (17-13, 7-12 ACC) plays Florida State (9-21, 7-12). Do you want a cut and dried scenario? These two teams are tied for 11th place in the conference and the winner gets the No. 11 seed in Greensboro while the loser will be seeded 12th, regardless of what happens anywhere else. For those wondering why the Seminoles are on their way to their first losing season since 2005, FSU allows more points per game than any other ACC team (including sad-sack Louisville) and is also last at defending the three. The Hokies are far from the NCAA Tournament bubble but can potentially start a run at an NIT bid with a victory here.

4:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network.

George Washington (16-14, 10-7 Atlantic 10) hosts VCU (23-7, 14-3). GW needs a win (plus a Duquesne loss) to secure the No. 5 seed, takes the sixth seed with a victory plus a George Mason loss and a Duquesne win, and assumes the No. 7 seed with a loss or a win plus victories by the Dukes and Patriots. The Rams have already wrapped up the top seed and this is the first meeting between the two schools this year.

Sunday at noon, Big Ten Network

Maryland (20-10, 11-8 Big Ten) visits Penn State (18-12, 9-10). The Terps enter the weekend in a six-way tie for second place. There are 128 scenarios that range from the Terrapins finishing as high as second or third if they beat the Nittany Lions while a loss could send them anywhere from fourth through eighth place. Again, there are 128 scenarios hinging on seven games played over the weekend so prepare to enjoy a Snickers bar or two or seven. The Terps beat the Nittany Lions 74-68 in February on a day where Hakim Hart scored 23 points on 8-10 shooting. Can they contain Jalen Pickett (who’s averaging 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists)? And can they end their road woes (1-8 in Big Ten away from Xfinity Center)?

Georgetown (7-24, 2-18 Big East) is idle this weekend after Wednesday’s 99-59 loss at Creighton that wasn’t as close as it looked. They draw No. 6 seed Villanova (16-14, 10-9) in next Wednesday’s Big East Tournament First Round.

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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