Washington Area College Basketball Teams Could Be Dealing With March Sadness

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

The Washington area has been a college basketball hotbed in recent years. Not only have Maryland and Georgetown reached at least one Final Four this decade, but George Mason authored a Final Four run for the ages the same season George Washington finished the regular season with the nation's best record in 2006.

This year, area teams will be hard-pressed to earn NCAA tournament bids, much less Final Four berths. When the 65-team bracket is unveiled March 15, area teams could find themselves monopolizing the National Invitation Tournament because the Washington area is in danger of being shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1978.

The area's best hopes may rest with American and George Mason, both of which have to win their respective conference tournaments because, like most mid-major programs, their only path to the tournament is by claiming the conference's automatic berth.

The teams with the best chances of earning an at-large berth -- now that Georgetown's hopes were crushed after a loss at St. John's on Tuesday -- are Maryland and Virginia Tech, both of which face must-win situations on the road this weekend in their regular season finales.

"We just want to make it to the tournament," Maryland guard Eric Hayes said. "A lot of people said at the beginning of the year that we didn't have a chance to make the tournament, so we just want to prove people wrong."

The ACC is expected to get anywhere from six to eight teams in the NCAA tournament, but the selection committee does not take a requisite number of teams from specific conferences. Both Virginia Tech and Maryland could make the field. Or neither could. Each likely needs to win this weekend and at least its first-round game in next week's ACC tournament to have a realistic chance at a berth.

The bodies of work for Maryland and Virginia Tech will be compared to those of teams also in contention for the final at-large bids -- a group that includes Kentucky, Providence, Michigan and Penn State, among others. Résumés for all of these teams are laden with strengths and significant blemishes.

Maryland is a little better positioned than Virginia Tech at this point. The Terrapins own a victory over the Hokies -- 83-73 on Feb. 14 at Comcast Center -- in their only head-to-head meeting. Plus, Maryland's final foe is 9-17 Virginia; Virginia Tech must face No. 24 Florida State, which is 22-8.

Committee members often ask one another: "Whom did they play? Whom did they beat?" Unlike some teams in contention for the final at-large berths -- namely South Carolina -- Maryland has played several highly rated teams and has beaten two national title contenders.

The strength of Maryland's résumé is significant: The Terrapins have victories over Michigan State and North Carolina, two top 10 teams. Maryland's other victory over a team ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index occurred on Dec. 3, when the Terrapins beat Michigan, 75-70.

"We showed that we can beat just about anybody in the country," Maryland senior Dave Neal said.

Maryland ranks 58th in the RPI, the mathematical formula used by the selection committee to help determine seeds and berths. The RPI is just one measurement tool, but no team in recent years has received an at-large berth with an RPI ranking worse than 63.

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