- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

The college basketball season got a lot more interesting Sunday a whole lot. On the national front, Temple went into Cincinnati and gave the Bearcats a 77-69 manicure, knocking them out of the top spot in both polls. And on the area front, Virginia broke its Dean Dome Drought and the George Washington women fended off Xavier. Throw in Maryland's win at Wake Forest on Saturday and the weekend couldn't have gone much better for our NCAA tournament hopefuls.

Yup, the tournaments are almost upon us, folks. And as Temple reminded us, there are no prohibitive favorites this year. Why, even the Owls themselves could make a run if point guard Pepe Sanchez can avoid spraining his ankle again. With him, they can beat anyone in the country; without him, they could go down in the first round. The line is that fine.

There's little question this is John Chaney's best team since '87-88, when Temple won 32 of 33 before losing to Duke in the East Regional final. The added quality the Owls have this season is that they can shoot the ball a little. Lynn Greer, Mark Karcher, Quincy Wadley and Sanchez combined for a dozen 3-pointers against Cincinnati, and three of them (all but Karcher) are right around 80 percent from the foul line.

People will say, "Yeah, but Temple has been fattening up on questionable Atlantic 10 competition all season." Maybe so, but the Owls just beat Maryland, Dayton and Cincy three certain NCAA invitees in succession, the last two on the road. And let's not forget: The Bearcats' only two losses have been to A-10 teams (Xavier being the other). Make no mistake, Temple is legit.

Assuming they win out, the Owls will go into the NCAAs with a 27-4 record (27-1 with Sanchez in the lineup), an 18-game winning streak and a world of confidence. And as long as they don't run into Danny Ferry and Kevin Strickland like they did in '88 they've got a good chance to make it to the Final Four. Chaney is looooong overdue.

Virginia's victory at Chapel Hill didn't get nearly the headlines that Temple's win at Cincinnati did, but it was a huge victory for the program nonetheless. In two years under Pete Gillen, the Cavaliers have gone from a glorified intramural team to a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament. What a turnaround. And just think: This is only the beginning for Gillen's Cavs. Now that the wreckage from the Jeff Jones regime has been swept away, they should have no trouble rejoining the ACC's upper echelon. Look for the Maryland-Virginia rivalry to heat up again, big time.

The Cavaliers are a lot like the Terps, really. They have their Big Three of Donald Hand, Chris Williams and Travis Watson just as Maryland has Juan Dixon, Terence Morris and Lonny Baxter and everything revolves around them. I'd take Gary Williams' threesome over Gillen's threesome, though, and I'd be surprised if the Terps didn't reach the Sweet 16 again. Their fans keep waiting breathlessly for them to break through to the Final Four, but how can you complain about four Sweet 16s in six years (and possibly five in seven)? Williams has done a wondrous job of keeping Maryland up there; here's hoping he stays around long enough to reap the advantages of a new arena.

Last but certainly not least, the GW women not only rallied from 13 down to elbow 22-3 Xavier out of first place in the West Division, they also drew 3,217 at Smith Center, which means they're actually starting to attract some attention. Good. They deserve it. They're a nicely balanced team six players are averaging between 14.8 (Elisa Aguilar) and 6.9 (Starr Jefferson) points a game and, typically, they're shooting their free throws better than the GW men.

As you may recall, the NCAA tournament passed the Colonials by last year, and the sting caused them to turn down a WNIT bid. But there's no reason Joe McKeown's team shouldn't be a sixth or seventh seed this year, depending on how they do in the conference tourney.

So it should be a fairly entertaining March hereabouts. Maryland and the GW women are in, Virginia is almost in, and Navy and George Mason remain strong possibilities. (And while the GW men and Georgetown don't figure to make the NCAA field, they're not that far away.) Best of all, nobody in the men's tournament will be as good as Connecticut or Duke was last year. Get hot at the right time and the championship could be yours.

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