Now is the time, as John Thompson says, when the teams who can play do so, and the ones who can't go home.
All eight Division I college teams in the Washington area will begin postseason play this week in five league tournaments that will send the winner to the NCAA championship tournament field of 64.
Thompson's top-ranked Georgetown team and Maryland will be playing in the NCAA tournament regardless of what they do in their league tournaments. There is strong feeling in many quarters that Navy, with its 22-5 record, also should receive an at-large bid. But the five other local teams -- American, George Mason, George Washington, Howard and Virginia -- will have to win their tournaments, or at best wait for the NIT to call.
The Big East tournament, which begins with a preliminary game on Wednesday night, will feature the top two ranked teams in the country, Georgetown and St. John's. If the seedings hold true, Georgetown and St. John's will play for the third time this season -- and the second time in nine days -- in the championship game Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
But first, the Hoyas (27-2) will have to beat Connecticut (13-14) in a first-round game Thursday afternoon and either Syracuse or Boston College in the second round. Georgetown beat Connecticut twice in the regular season, but that produces one of Thompson's biggest concerns.
"The biggest fear is complacency," Thompson said yesterday. "I'll keep reminding them that UConn beat Syracuse twice, which is something we were unable to do. I think the kids are playing hard and that's important because no matter how well you play you're capable of being beaten. We're not invincible."
Georgetown certainly has seemed to be invincible over the last nine games, especially in beating St. John's and Syracuse -- two ranked teams -- by an average of more than 20 points.
But Thompson said, "I can find something wrong if I look at the film, and without looking too hard. As good a reputation as we have for playing defense, there are still areas of defense where we can improve a lot. We have to play consistently well . . . Villanova is better than they've been playing. Connecticut and Pitt are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the season. This can be anybody's tournament."
The Atlantic Coast Conference, with Maryland seeded fifth and Virginia eighth, truly does appear to be anybody's tournament. Virginia (14-14), which finished last in the ACC, plays top-seeded Georgia Tech (21-7) in the first game Friday afternoon at the Omni in Atlanta. But the way the ACC has been this season, a Virginia victory could not be called a monumental upset.
Maryland (23-10) will play Duke (21-6) that afternoon. The Terrapins, defending tournament champions, are entering Friday's game the same way they entered last year, on a four-game winning streak.
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said he had no preference in terms of which team he played in the first round or which bracket the Terrapins are in. "Everybody's good in the league and anybody can win it, no matter what the seedings are," he said.
Driesell said he felt good about his team, which has improved its rebounding significantly over the past three weeks. "Any time you go on the road and beat North Carolina State and Virginia you can't be too unhappy," Driesell said. " . . . I want us to play well and reach our peak. We should be reaching it right now."
Should Maryland beat Duke, the Terrapins would meet the winner of Virginia-Georgia Tech Saturday, with the championship game Sunday afternoon.
American, George Mason and Navy will be competing in the ECAC South tournament at William and Mary Hall in Williamsburg. Third-seeded George Mason (17-10) has lost its first-round tournament game each of the last three years, but should beat North Carolina-Wilmington (12-15) in its first-round game Thursday. The Patriots lost to UNC-Wilmington by two on the road, but won by 16 at home Saturday. George Mason will have momentum not only from that victory but from a rout of top-seeded Navy last week.
American (9-18), the seventh seed, has its first game against Richmond (18-9), which tied Navy for the league's best regular-season record (11-3). And top-seeded Navy should win its opening game against East Carolina (7-21), which won only one conference game this season.
But figuring out this conference can be dangerous. George Mason beat Navy twice, but lost to William and Mary twice; Navy beat William and Mary twice. George Mason could have been in a position to get an at-large bid, but lost five conference games -- two in overtime -- by a total of five points.
Navy could be in position for an at-large bid. There are detractors who will insist that the ECAC South is too weak to have any team receive an at-large bid. Still, ECAC South representatives (James Madison and Richmond) have a record of 5-4 in the NCAA tournament the last four years.
The Midshipmen go into the tournament ranked No. 2 in field goal percentage, trailing only St. John's. And Navy is second in the nation in defense behind Georgetown, having allowed opponents to shoot 41.6 percent for the season; no other team in the country is in the top 15 of both categories. David Robinson, Navy's 6-foot-11 center, is ranked in the top 15 in four statistical categories, scoring (24 points per game), rebounds (11.6), shooting percentage (64.3) and blocked shots (4.4).
George Washington Coach Gerry Gimelstob said he figures his Colonials (14-13) have the toughest first game of anyone in the Atlantic 10 tournament, which will begin Wednesday in Piscataway, N.J.
GW plays St. Joseph's (17-10), which has won 11 of its last 12 conference games, in the second round (both teams receive a bye in the first round). "They have the best all-around player in the league in (6-foot-6) Maurice Martin," Gimelstob said. "We're in a killer bracket."
Gimselstob also had more bad news yesterday. Steve Frick missed practice with a pinched nerve in his neck, as did Craig Helms, who had a sprained ankle, as did Joe Wassell, who has a bruised arm.
By Saturday, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference should come down to the usual confrontation -- top-seeded North Carolina A&T against second-seeded Howard. The Bison have a bye in the first round and need beat only Delaware State or Maryland-Eastern Shore to advance to the championship game.
Howard Coach A.B. Williams said yesterday, "I'm very leary of Delaware State because we've handled them twice and kind of easily at Delaware. I know they can play better. I'm also leary of the long layoff because we don't play the first night."
Bids to the NCAA tournament will not be announced until Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9).