- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2015

The last time this happened, no one currently playing basketball for five area teams — Georgetown, George Washington, Maryland, Virginia and VCU — was in college. Most weren’t able to drive yet. They had to stay up late on a school night to see Florida win its second consecutive NCAA title and watch players like Joakim Noah and Al Horford snip the nets in Atlanta.

Those five area schools are in position to make the NCAA Tournament this year as a group for the first time since 2007. For some, like Virginia, entrance to the tournament is a virtual lock. For others, like George Washington, it’s time to scratch through the rest of February and conference postseason tournaments to unstick themselves from the tournament bubble.

Let’s take a look at the state of these five teams, beginning with the powerhouse down in Charlottesville.

No. 2 VIRGINIA (21-1, 9-1 ACC)

RPI: 3 (6-1 vs. Top 50)

Road block: Louisville. The Cardinals, who nearly completed a comeback during their visit to Virginia last Saturday, host the Cavaliers to close the regular season.

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ESPN projection: No. 1 seed in the East Region

Apprehensive about using his metaphor, Tony Bennett paused, looked at a Virginia media relations employee and proceeded. His club had finished a full rebound from its first loss of the season, a 69-63 late-game faceplant against the Duke Blue Devils, by beating 12th-ranked North Carolina and the ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals last week. Now, Bennett was set to explain.

“When you whip a donkey, it kicks,” Bennett said after beating Louisville. “When you whip a thoroughbred, it responds. I’m not saying we got whipped against Duke, but in some ways learned a valuable lesson, then we had to respond in a tough setting at Carolina. Then we had to come back (against Louisville) and I didn’t want our guys to assume, ‘OK, we’re back on track.’ No, you’re going to have scratch, scrap and fight for everything and they responded.”

Virginia’s communal play has it positioned to snag a second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The schedule is on its side. Injury news from Saturday is not.

Second-leading scorer Justin Anderson fractured a finger in his shooting hand. He had “successful” surgery Sunday on the hand. The projection for his absence remains 4-6 weeks.

“As we get closer to that, I think we’ll have a better feel how he’s progressing,” Bennett said Monday. “The good news is it’s nothing long term that is going to affect him as a player. Certainly, short-term, you’re discouraged for him. Obviously, he was having a heck of a year.”

In Anderson’s absence, point guard Malcolm Brogdon may receive more attention. The 6-foot-5 Brogdon helped the Cavaliers to a stunning number, two, last Saturday against the sweltering Louisville press headed by short, stocky guards. Just two turnovers the entire game for Virginia, the lowest total committed by a Cardinals opponent in the 14 years Rick Pitino has been the coach. Brogdon had zero in the 38 minutes he played.

“We made good decisions,” Bennett said.

No metaphor needed to explain that.

No. 19 MARYLAND (19-5, 7-4 Big Ten)

RPI: 14 (4-5 vs. Top 50)

Road block: Home foes. Though the Terrapins have struggled on the road in conference play, they’ll need to take care of business at home against Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan to cement or improve their tournament seeding.

ESPN projection: No. 5 seed in the West Region

After a convincing victory over Michigan State last month, Maryland seemed destined for a storybook first season in the Big Ten, a long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament, and perhaps even a top-three seed.

In the weeks since, however, that storyline has taken a nasty turn.

Facing perhaps the toughest stretch of their conference schedule, the Terrapins responded poorly, getting repeatedly blown out on the road and squeaking by inferior teams at home. Since beating the Spartans on Jan. 17, they have lost three of five games by an average of 19.67 points.

Though Maryland’s offense has certainly been suspect, its defense has been especially culpable, particularly early in road games. On Sunday against Iowa, for example, the Terrapins were down by 19 points after 11 minutes. The previous week against Ohio State, they trailed by 13 points after 15 minutes. Opposing teams have been making shots at an unusually high rate, but Maryland has also not done enough to prevent them.

“What’s happening right now is if we make a mistake defensively, teams are making us pay,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Monday. “Sometimes you can make mistakes and teams don’t make you pay, but we’re just kind of in that cycle right now and hopefully we’ll get out of it.”

An advantageous schedule should help. The Terrapins still have several tough tests remaining — including games against Indiana, Michigan and No. 5 Wisconsin — but all of them are at home, where they are 14-1 this season. The only loss came against No. 2 Virginia in December. Each of Maryland’s three remaining road opponents, meanwhile, rank among the five worst teams in the Big Ten.

It’s also important to put Maryland’s recent struggles into context. The Terrapins have already eclipsed their win total in two of Turgeon’s first three seasons in College Park, and they will almost certainly return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. The question with this group is no longer whether it will be playing in March, but for how long. And a strong end to the regular season, and a respectable run in the conference tournament in Chicago, will go a long way toward determining that.

No. 20 VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (18-5, 8-2 Atlantic 10)

RPI: 9 (3-3 vs. Top 50)

Road block: Health. VCU played Saturday without defensive stud Briante Weber, who is out for the season, and leading scorer Treveon Graham, who was out with an ankle injury.

ESPN projection: No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region

Bad news keeps showing up at Shaka Smart’s front door.

First, Virginia Commonwealth lost guard and two-time Atlantic-10 defensive player of the year Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury. Then, leading scorer Treveon Graham hurt his ankle. The Rams were without both for a tricky road trip last Saturday to isolated Olean, NY, to face the St. Bonaventure Bonnies.

As the horn sounded, a high-banked scoop shot from St. Bonaventure point guard Marcus Posley went through the hoop. St. Bonaventure fans stormed onto the floor. The Rams went home with a two-point loss to cap injuries to their two most crucial players.

“We knew coming in that without Tre and Bri, our margin for error was a little bit smaller,” Smart told reporters after the game.

Weber is scheduled to have surgery Feb. 19, according to Smart. His college career is over. Graham was expected to have his ankle re-examined Monday.

The loss to St. Bonaventure should do little to hurt VCU’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament. The Rams remained tied atop the A-10 with the Rhode Island Rams at 8-2. After a bumpy start to the season — VCU was 5-3 after Virginia visited Siegel Center and walloped the Rams, 74-57, Dec. 6 — a run through A-10 play has improved everything except health. The Rams’ ninth-ranked RPI will also shine in front of the tournament selection committee.

Only eight games remain for VCU and few are available for a relaxed effort. The Rams travel to George Washington this Saturday. They also head to Richmond to play a Spiders team that beat them, 64-55, Jan. 31. Six of their final eight opponents have a .500 or better conference record.

GEORGETOWN (15-8, 7-5 Big East)

RPI: 21 (3-8 vs. Top 50)

Road block: Butler. It took a buzzer-beater for the Hoyas to escape their first meeting with a win, and this time, the Bulldogs will have the home crowd on their side.

ESPN projection: No. 6 seed in the South Region

Soon after Georgetown’s blowout loss to Villanova on Saturday, its third defeat in four games, coach John Thompson III said he would think on the drive home about what he would tell his team. On Monday, he was asked about what was eventually said.

“Something our guys needed to hear,” Thompson quipped.

And what was that, exactly?

“None of your business,” he replied.

A few weeks ago, the Hoyas were rolling and had the Big East regular-season championship in their sights. They had returned to the national rankings and were getting new contributions from several freshmen, including a string of breakout performances by Isaac Copeland. Then they lost to Xavier, 66-53, and started spinning their wheels. Losses to Providence and Villanova followed.

Georgetown has the talent to make a deep run in the Big East tournament and beyond. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is still one of the best players in the conference, and 6-foot-10, 350-pound center Joshua Smith is nearly impossible to defend in the post when he wants to be. But the Hoyas, like many area teams, have struggled to stay consistent all season. For every impressive win, like a 20-point blowout of Villanova last month, there is an equally deflating loss.

Curbing that inconsistency will be especially important as the NCAA tournament nears. Though the Hoyas have consistently made it to the dance, and should qualify again this year, they’ve won only two games in their past five tournament appearances.

Smith-Rivera said Georgetown has had a tendency in recent weeks to look past its upcoming opponent, instead thinking about a more pivotal game down the road. Thompson has always tried to squash this mentality, and that remains the task entering Tuesday’s game at Seton Hall.

“We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and looking at the end result. We have to focus on the next game,” Thompson said. “You’ve heard me say that for years now, but that’s truly where we are. We can’t start talking about it — we need to go up there and play well up in Jersey.”

GEORGE WASHINGTON (17-6, 7-3 Atlantic 10)

RPI: 48 (2-2 vs. Top 50)

Road blocks: VCU and Davidson. The Colonials will host the Rams on Saturday, a huge opportunity to boost their tournament resume, and then play the Wildcats twice in the season’s final weeks.

ESPN projection: OUT

Mike Lonergan felt it was time to issue a challenge. So before George Washington faced Dayton on Friday night, he named junior point guard Joe McDonald a captain for the game.

Lonergan isn’t sure whether the tactic worked, but McDonald did score 19 points, including a game-winning put-back with 1 second left in overtime, to lead the Colonials past the Flyers. So it certainly didn’t hurt.

McDonald is one of four juniors who have started every game for George Washington this season, a group that also includes guard Kethan Savage and forwards Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen. The Colonials are 7-3 in the Atlantic 10 and near the top of the conference standings in large part because of those four juniors. And if they are able to claw their way to an NCAA tournament appearance again this season, it will probably be in large part because of the juniors.

Lonergan says George Washington will only go so far as its junior core allows, but he also knows the opposite is true: if McDonald and company continue their erratic play, the Colonials will spend most of March at home.

“It’s really just about trying to get our juniors to take more ownership of the team, because our inconsistency really lies with them,” Lonergan said. “We lost our best shooter [last year] in Mo Creek. We lost our best player, probably, in Isaiah Armwood. I kind of expected us to be inconsistent this year. But I just thought our juniors would be a little more consistent than they have been.”

Unlike other tournament hopefuls in the area, the Colonials must walk a fine line in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Their remaining schedule features plenty of quality opponents, but only two games against teams with a top-50 RPI.

With limited opportunities to build their tournament resume, the Colonials will need to make the most of those two games, against VCU on Saturday and Massachusetts on March 7. It helps that each will be played at the Charles E. Smith Center, where George Washington has won 12 consecutive games dating to last season.

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