By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Everywhere you look on the NCAA tournament bracket, there's evidence of this region's basketball jones. In every quadrant, there's a team from the District, Maryland or Virginia. Old Dominion and Maryland are in the Midwest. Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth are in the West. Virginia is in the South. Georgetown and George Washington are in the East.
The fairly small plot of land between Norfolk and College Park, 200-plus miles, has produced six men's NCAA tournament teams, which is one more than the state of Texas and two more than California. And if we stretch our attention a few miles farther west, to Blacksburg, the total is pushed to seven tournament teams. Of course, none of these schools was able to hold onto the region's best player, Kevin Durant of Suitland, who is also the tournament's best player and the reason why Texas is a threat to reach the Final Four.
It kills me that the greater Washington region is thought of as being football territory when the smorgasbord of college basketball in the region is so much more inclusive and has such obvious depth. Yes, the tournament is a national obsession. Yet today's orgy of games, all of them televised, is a local hoop junkie's dream.
Maryland will play Davidson at 12:20 p.m.
Georgetown will play Belmont at approximately 3.
George Washington will play Vanderbilt at approximately 5:05.
And Virginia Commonwealth, the team that won 27 games, took out George Mason and has standing-room only on its bandwagon, will play Duke in the 7:10 p.m. main event.
Old Dominion will play Butler a half-hour after Maryland and Davidson conclude.
You'll have to wait until tomorrow to see Virginia, Virginia Tech and Durant, who might just be the best freshman from our region . . . well, ever.
Okay, let's take stock. Danny Ferry was good as a freshman, but it would be a stretch to call him great. David Robinson became an all-time great, but he was a 6-foot-6 gymnast as a freshman. Reggie Williams was critical to Georgetown winning an NCAA championship his freshman year, but he wasn't consistently prolific, as is Durant. Grant Hill was great and prolific as a freshman at Duke, and he also won a national championship as a rookie. A lot of other freshmen from D.C./Maryland/Virginia were really good, including Joe Smith, Sherman Douglas, Michael Smith, Walt Williams, Jerrod Mustaf, Keith Bogans, Walt Williams, J.J. Redick. The great Len Bias didn't break out until his sophomore season. And yes, Alonzo Mourning was an impact player from Day One and nearly led Georgetown to the Final Four as a freshman before he was derailed by another freshman, Christian Laettner. Allen Iverson also was a phenom from Day One, every bit as spectacular in 1994-95 as Durant is now.
(Kornheiser, in a very show-off move, says if I wanted to really look smart I'd make sure to include Monique Currie, a national player of the year, who went to Bullis and Kristi Toliver of Harrisonburg, Va., who won a little something we call the NCAA championship last year as a freshman at Maryland.) As long as we're talking Harrisonburg, we have to mention Ralph Sampson. And Hall of Famer Moses Malone is from Petersburg, Va., although Moses was never a freshman anywhere because he went straight from high school to the ABA.
But Durant, as a freshman, is better than all of them, including Sampson, who was three-time college player of the year -- but not as a freshman. Durant deserves to be player of the year right now. He's the best freshman from this region since -- drum roll -- Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to a national championship.
But that doesn't mean Durant will last longer in the tournament than some of the other locals. If you're really looking to pick an upset, don't discount New Mexico State (coached by Reggie Theus) in the first round beating Texas.
I've got Virginia Commonwealth beating Duke in the first round because VCU has kids who can penetrate, pass and shoot and could be very difficult for the Blue Devils to guard. George Washington appears to have a particularly tough road to the round of 16. Even if the Colonials were to upset Vanderbilt, they would have to beat (probably) Washington State in the second round. A surprising number of upset-seekers (though I'm not one of them) have Virginia going out early to Albany.
Not surprisingly, one would think Georgetown and Maryland are the best equipped to play deep into the tournament. But Maryland had better not act like 29-win Davidson is some warmup act because it isn't in the ACC or Big East. Georgetown, led by Hyattsville's Jeff Green (who shared the Big East rookie of the year two years ago) and Adelphi's Roy Hibbert, has a reasonable chance of becoming the third local school this decade to make if to the Final Four, joining Maryland (2001, 2002) and George Mason (2006).
Green, at 6 feet 9, does many of the things end-to-end that Durant does. And the 7-2 Hibbert, while he is still improving by leaps and bounds from his awkward freshman season, is probably the second-best low-post player in the tournament, behind only Ohio State's Greg Oden. Few schools have as effective a combination as Green and Hibbert.
A year ago, Georgetown gave champion Florida its toughest game of the tournament. And George Mason thrilled the nation and became, especially around here, a team college basketball fans will always celebrate. Three trips by local teams to the Final Four this decade have, if not spoiled hoop junkies in this region, certainly piqued their interest in what the schools in their own back yards might produce in the next two weeks of the best month in sports.