American, Navy, and Howard Men’s Basketball Preview: Bid league schools have hope

NORFOLK, VIRGINIA - MARCH 10: Kevon Voyles #4 of the Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks attempts a lay up past Shy Odom #22 of the Howard Bison during the second half during the 2023 MEAC Men's Basketball Tournament Semifinals at Norfolk Scope Arena on March 10, 2023 in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)(Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu)

Dave Preston is an AP Top 25 voter. Read his latest rankings.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Division I men’s college basketball is not fair.

Schools with more revenue and budgets in the major conferences play a ton of home games that help prop up sub-. 500 league records and tip the scales in their favor for NCAA at-large selection. And this year, life gets a little tougher for the one-bid league schools: the NIT no longer will give automatic berths to schools that win their conference regular season title.

That’ll teach North Texas and UAB to not win their way through multiple rounds against name schools to play for last year’s NIT Championship! But pedigree, NIL and highly touted recruiting classes can’t guarantee dominance — and you’ll get games like James Madison upsetting No. 4 Michigan State, or Howard coming within three points of Georgia Tech.

It’s still a 40-minute chance to prove you belong and play your way into a better situation. Such is life at the one-bid conference level.

American and Navy are chasing Colgate in the Patriot League-again. The preseason favorite Raiders have won three straight and four of five conference tournaments, hosting the final all five of those years.

AU last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and last played in the PL Final the following March. Last season’s upsets of Georgetown in November, Colgate in February and Navy in March weren’t enough to save Coach Mike Brennan’s job as he exited after 10 years at the helm.

Enter DeMatha Catholic High and Maryland graduate Duane Simpkins, who moves across the Potomac after serving eight seasons on the sidelines at George Mason.

“It’s home. I am from here,” Simpkins said at his introductory press conference this spring. “I know that we can recruit at a high level. Because no matter what job you take, you’re only going to be as good as your administration and the talent you’re going to be able to get.”

Simpkins gets a cupboard that is far from bare with four starters returning from last season, including preseason All-Patriot League pick Matt Rogers (14 points and 6 rebounds per game last season while shooting 61% and 41% from three). He’ll have plenty of help, with six of the top eight scorers from last year back.

After starting this season with losses at No. 22 Villanova and William & Mary, AU plays four of its next five at Bender Arena (with the outlier a short drive to Capital One Arena to face Georgetown). The Eagles were picked third in the Patriot League preseason poll.

Navy offers a contrast, with just one starter (Austin Inge) back from last year and veteran Coach Ed DeChellis who’s back for his 13th year.

Last winter’s senior-laden team rallied from a 1-5 start in league play to finish tied for second, only to be bounced by American in the quarterfinals. There was quite a bit of hope as the Mids had advanced to the Patriot League Tournament Championship game for the first time since 2001 the winter before (they haven’t reached the NCAA’s since 1998). Inge paced the Mids with eight points in their season-opening loss at Campbell. They host Temple in Friday’s Veterans Classic before visiting UC San Diego and San Diego next weekend. Navy tied for seventh in the Patriot League preseason poll.

Howard made history last winter, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992. Coach Kenneth Blakeney’s fourth season turned out to be the charm as the Bison went 22-13 and captured the MEAC regular season crown before taking the conference tournament (rallying from four down with 20 seconds left).

Unfortunately, the splash made by the program last winter caught the attention of more than a few schools, and three players left for greener pastures: forward Steve Settle transferred to Temple, swingman Jordan Wood traded in D.C. for New Orleans as he transferred to Tulane, and most importantly, point guard Elijah Hawkins departed for Minnesota (enjoy the winters).

But Blakeney does return plenty of talent, including preseason All-MEAC selections Shy Odom, Jelani Williams, and Marcus Dockery. The nonconference slate, as always, has plenty of road games (eight) plus a pair of neutral site games. Howard was picked first in the MEAC Preseason Poll.

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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