In the rough and tumble Atlantic 10 this winter there’s not a lot of room for error.
Nine of the fifteen schools were within one game of .500 in league play entering Tuesday’s games. And with the league adding Loyola Chicago, a rough patch can send a school from competing for the vaunted double-bye in the A-10 Tournament (top four seeds) to trying to avoid the expanded dreaded first round (three games pitting 10th vs. 15th, 11th vs. 14th and 12th vs. 13th).
George Washington and George Mason each avoided playing on the first day last March in D.C. However, the Colonials haven’t earned an automatic trip to the quarterfinals since 2014 and the Patriots in their nine years as a conference member have never finished above fifth. They’re both currently in the expanding middle A-10 class, which means you’re constantly subscribing to the 24-hour rule of not carrying with you the highs of a fulfilling win or the lows of a disappointing loss.
Last Saturday, the Patriots and Colonials had home conference games that ended rather differently: Mason — after trailing for the first 28 minutes — rallied past defending league champ Davidson 67-65, while GW allowed a 25-0 run in their 81-74 loss to short-handed Saint Louis (A-10 assist leader Yuri Collins was out with illness).
Two days later, the two schools met in Fairfax for their first of two meetings this winter, and while the 78-75 George Washington win wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, there were plenty of twists and turns to get to the final buzzer.
Before the game, I mentioned the “players to watch,” on WTOP: the Atlantic 10’s leading scorer (GW’s James Bishop) and the league’s reigning Player of the Week (George Mason’s Josh Oduro). Oduro was held scoreless on 0 for 4 shooting in the first half.
“What I didn’t want is like (for them to) just walk it up the floor and throw it to him in his spots,” George Washington coach Chris Caputo said. “So I though maybe if we could do some of that we could speed them up a little bit and I thought we did.”
Meanwhile, Mason held Bishop to four first half points on 2 for 8 shooting.
“First half they were sending different coverages, some traps on the ball,” Bishop said. “But then I just think our game-plan we had going into the second half kind of loosened me up. Gave me some opportunities to run off screens. Get some spacing and hit some shots.”
Bishop scored 15 of his 19 points after intermission, just as Oduro had all 17 of his points in the second half.
But it would be George Washington’s day, despite being held to one point over the final 2:52 and one basket over the last 4:17 of regulation. And the Colonials avoid a 1-4 start with preseason favorite Dayton dropping by the District Saturday.
Meanwhile, Mason reflects on its third A-10 loss (each by two possessions or fewer) and another opportunity to climb up the conference ladder missed by coach Kim English, who’s looking for something that he knows can be there but isn’t for his team at this time.
“As our program takes the next step, it’s a swagger,” English said. “It’s a maturity, it’s a nastiness, it’s a toughness, it’s a discipline, it’s a consistency, it’s a solidness, it’s a way about yourself that you handle yourself in these games.”
But while he searches for the intangibles his team that’s 0-2 in the league on the road plays four of their next six away from Fairfax, starting Saturday at Rhode Island.
This week’s starting five
Up top: Houston stays No. 1 after a Saturday where eleven ranked teams fell (two more lost Sunday). Schools like Arkansas and Wisconsin found their way off of my ballot with 0-2 weeks while once again there were plenty of difficult choices in the 21+ crew. Toughest omissions include Marquette, Texas A&M, St. Mary’s and Michigan State. Small school shout-outs: FAU, New Mexico, Charleston and VCU.
Going inside: Howard (10-10) won its Martin Luther King Jr. Day game by blasting Morehouse 89-65 on a night where the Bison turned over the Tigers 27 times. Elijah Hawkins led the way with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists as coach Kenny Blakeney’s team has now won six of eight to get back to the .500 mark. They’re also 2-1 in the MEAC after Saturday’s 86-84 win at Norfolk State where Marcus Dockery scored a season-high 24 points. The Maryland transfer has had his moments during his first season with the program but has also posted nights like the one at Maryland-Eastern Shore (zero points on 0 for 4 shooting over 28 minutes). HU plays its next four games at home, beginning with Saturday’s showdown at Burr Gymnasium against first place Morgan State. Can one of the best home court advantages in the area generate some major midseason momentum?
On the perimeter: Virginia (13-3, 5-2 ACC) has won three straight to move into a tie for third in the conference with everyone chasing…Clemson? Yes, the Tigers are atop the league after a 7-0 start (No. 19 in this week’s poll, No. 15 on my ballot). The ACC’s Football School has finished first in the regular season just once — in 1990– and they visit Charlottesville on Feb. 28 in their only meeting of the season. Meanwhile, Virginia is doing what Tony Bennett-coached teams do, combining efficient offense with effective defense as the Cavaliers lead the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio as well as scoring defense. Kihei Clark (11 points and 6 assists per game) pilots the attack while Armaan Franklin has emerged as the team’s main offensive threat (18.3 points per game in January while shooting 10-24 from three). UVa hosts slipping Virginia Tech (the once-ranked Hokies have lost five in a row to sink in the conference standings to 14th) Wednesday night. Commonwealth clashes are always intriguing.
Who’s open: Speaking of Commonwealth clashes, the Hokies and Cavaliers have nothing on the A-10 co-tenants of the capital city. VCU and Richmond sit 5.5 miles apart and their city plus the reputation of March giant-killers are the only things the state and the private university share. Actually, their fan bases share plenty of enmity. Add to mix that both teams have looked thus far in league play and stir in the Spiders’ Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinal win over the favored Rams last March that helped Chris Mooney’s team on its way to the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011. Gone are most of the pieces from that team (hey, Grant Golden HAD to exhaust his eligibility at some time) but RU returns Tyler Burton who ranks third in the conference in scoring and fifth in rebounding. The Rams have mostly a new cast but Adrian Baldwin is back and gets things going on both ends of the floor (his 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals per game would be second and first in the A-10 if he had played enough games). The Robin Center should be rocking Friday night at 7 p.m.
Last shot: Maryland (11-6, 2-4 Big Ten) meets Michigan (10-7, 4-2) Thursday at 7 p.m. If you haven’t noticed, the Terps have dropped six of nine with their last four losses coming by double digits. One of those was an 81-46 humbling in Ann Arbor, where they trailed 44-13 at the half. Since that day, the Wolverines have lost both of their conference road games. Other causes for confidence? Michigan allows the second most points per game in the Big Ten, owns the second-worst turnover margin and fourth-worst three-point shooting percentage. Cause for concern? Junior center Hunter Dickinson is coming to town and the Alexandria, Virginia, native has shot 75.5% against the Terps over five games in his career, posting 32 points with 12 rebounds in the matchup earlier this month. Needless to say, the Terps will have their hands full the the 7-foot-1 tower of power.