- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The area’s major men’s basketball programs are embarking on a season that’s unlike any in several years. And that’s mostly a bad thing.

Sure, an air of excitement and anticipation is normal when new regimes are installed. Mark Turgeon brings a breath of fresh air to Maryland. Paul Hewitt brings Final Four experience to George Mason. Mike Lonergan brings homegrown roots to George Washington.

Elsewhere, there hasn’t been much to celebrate but change wasn’t in order.

American missed the past two NCAA tournaments after back-to-back appearances in 2008 and 2009 but opted for stability by giving coach Jeff Jones a contract extension. Howard won just six games overall and none on the road last season under Kevin Nickelberry, but the second-year coach has an acclaimed recruiting class to anchor his rebuilding program.

But the expectations around our men’s college hoops programs haven’t been this low in six years.

For the first time since the 2005-06 season, Georgetown isn’t ranked in either of the two major preseason polls. Maryland’s disturbing trend merely continues, as 2005-06 marked its last appearance in the preseason Top 25. GW sneaked in at No. 21 that year in the Associated Press poll, and proved its worth by advancing to the NCAA tournament’s second round.

Mason was nowhere to be found in the early rankings, but the Patriots advanced all the way to the 2006 Final Four. Take preseason polls for what they’re worth.

There probably isn’t much to look forward to locally in terms of postseason play (although Mason was ranked No. 7 and received a first-place vote in CollegeInsider.com’s preseason Top 25 mid-major poll). However, there’s probably a bigger appetite for college hoops overall this year. The NBA lockout has deprived hardwood aficionados of pro action, yielding the entire spotlight to campus ballers. Broadening our scope beyond the metropolitan area, a number of high-impact players have returned to lead elite-level programs, and we’re anxious to watch.

A swarm of super sophomores on super teams — Jared Sullinger at Ohio State, Harrison Barnes at North Carolina, Terrence Jones at Kentucky, Jeremy Lamb at UConn — reminds us of a bygone era, when the best freshmen would actually return for at least another season. Each aforementioned soph was named to the Associated Press preseason All-America team, joined by a virtual relic in senior guard Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin).

It’s difficult to look at the young talent on top teams elsewhere without feeling a twinge of envy.

Yes, the local standard-bearers have spoiled us a bit with their overall success. Georgetown has reached the NCAA tournament in four of six seasons under John Thompson III, earning a couple of No. 2 seeds and a No. 3. Maryland advanced to the NCAA tournament in 14 of the last 18 seasons under Gary Williams, a run that included seven Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and one national championship.

But both programs have experienced erosion or, at minimum, stagnation as of late. The Hoyas have suffered first-game exits in three consecutive postseason tournaments — two NCAA and one NIT — and haven’t advanced past the NCAA’s second round since 2007. The Terps missed the postseason four times in Williams’ final seven seasons and failed to advance past the NCAA’s second round since 2003.

So it hurts a bit to see the Carolinas and Kentuckys stocked with blue-chip youngsters and primed to contend, while the Hoyas and Terps are … not.

We know that Carolina and Kentucky are supernova programs, among the nation’s truly elite. Georgetown and Maryland have been reduced to faux elite. In the Terps’ case, as evidenced by the coaching search to replace Williams, some observers question whether Maryland ever qualified as creme de la creme. It’s hard to argue against that stance this season, as Turgeon will have just nine scholarship players at his disposal.

But Turgeon believes Maryland is a top-echelon program and he’s going to recruit top-echelon talent, the potential one-and-done players that Williams didn’t care for. The Terps are in for a long season this year, but it won’t be long before Turgeon and his “Dream Team” staff lure some major difference-makers to College Park.

Yes, the local standard-bearers have spoiled us a bit with their overall success. Georgetown has reached the NCAA tournament in five of the seven seasons under John Thompson III, with a couple of No. 2 seeds and a No. 3. Maryland advanced to the NCAA tournament in 14 of the last 18 seasons under Williams, a run that included seven Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and one national championship.

Mid-major programs will always get second billing until they pull off some upsets in the NCAA tournament. Butler and Virginia Commonwealth have surpassed Mason as flavors-of-the-month, but it’s nice to know that the original giant-slayer plays in our backyard. It will be interesting to see what Hewitt does with Jim Larranga’s handiwork.

Even GW and American have been good for an NCAA tournament bid or two in recent years, so keeping an eye on them can be fun, too, especially in the conference tournament that usually determines their fate. Nickelberry has the longest climb in making Howard respectable — the Bison haven’t had a winning season since 2001-02 and haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992 — but his freshmen look promising.

All in all, it’s still good to be a college hoops fan in this area. And it’s good to see another season get underway.