You hear "George Washington 78, Maryland 70," and it's no longer an aberration, not even surprising. It just is.
The higher-ranked program, the school that won its conference championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament last March, discombobulated the guys who got the NIT bid. Two years running, Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock dunked on the state school's forehead. He and his teammates pressed, trapped and tormented the Terps.
The Small School That Could angle is old and worn. Karl Hobbs's Colonials have now beat Gary Williams's Terrapins four of the last six times, the last two in the BB&T Classic at MCI Center. Until Georgetown deigns to schedule someone within a 100-mile radius of its campus or be a part of a tournament on its rented home floor, let's be honest:
The premier college basketball program in the District today resides in Foggy Bottom.
"We're trying to be D.C.'s college basketball team," Hobbs said. "If you live in the District, we want to be your team."
Hobbs means no disrespect to the program John Thompson built, Patrick Ewing led to its only title and John Thompson III has been entrusted to resuscitate. (Hobbs, after all, was Ewing's high school point guard for a year at Boston's Cambridge Rindge & Latin).
But until Georgetown and Maryland agree to let bygones be bygones in their stubborn-pride standoff, GW is benefiting mightily.
Either way, this arrangement continues to largely be a no-win affair for Williams and Maryland.
People can knock Williams all they want for not burying an old grudge, for feeling Georgetown owes him a trip to College Park if he is going to lock horns with the Hoyas in their arena. Bottom line: If Maryland does not show up for this event, there is not much of a gate and, therefore, no tournament that has raised $6 million for more than 100 local children's charities.
Any school that fills a 17,950-seat, on-campus arena essentially gives up a profitable home game to play in the BB&T. It's why tournament officials had such a hard time securing contracts from big-name schools this past year.
With so many ACC-Big Ten challenges and more schools filling their home arenas prior to conference play, athletic directors cannot logically decide to have their main cash cow sticking around someone else's town for two or three days. Convincing big-time programs to give up two home games is almost impossible now. Too much TV and home-and-home money to be made.
If Notre Dame, which has orally committed to the BB&T next year, and perhaps Texas or Gonzaga join the fray, more power to them. Bringing in two heavyweights to take on the area's heavyweights makes perfect sense at the gate and in the RPI.
Yes, the BB&T people might have to do without Navy committing 30 turnovers before staving off a hardly formidable Howard team in the opener. And that undercard mismatch between George Mason and American will have to go. Unfortunately, Jim Larranaga's George Mason club, which is going to make some noise in the Colonial Athletic Association, will not get to show its December wares against a Maryland or GW.
But that's the way pre-conference college basketball is trending. Given what Maryland has to lose in a tournament like this, it's amazing Williams still signs the contract. Because at most schools, it works likes this:
Schedule as many big-money, big-time teams as you can. Don't give some mid-major dreamer an opportunity to shock your kids and kill their confidence before league play begins. And, at all costs, don't cast aside ancient grudges and play the other tradition-steeped squad in your backyard.
You might show vulnerability. Your kids might build character in a loss. You might raise money for something other than a new weight room; actual children's charities.
Great. Swell. But most coaches and athletic directors thinking on this matter begins and ends with one question: How's that going to build anyone's RPI?
Gary Williams is indeed charitable. His Maryland club this season has the look of Williams's old teams, the ones bridging the Joe Smith and Laron Profit eras. On a good night, the Terps can run with any team in the country. On a lackadaisical one, Bethune-Cookman might take them out.
Those Maryland teams, like this one, were esthetically pleasing teams to watch. But whether this group becomes a threat to finish in the ACC's top three depends on whether some of Williams's best athletes can simply become good basketball players.
Lonny Baxter's vertical leap could be measured with a Metro fare card, but he knew when to lower his shoulder in the final minutes of a taut game. Juan Dixon wasn't big or fast enough to blow by his man consistently, but he understood when his team needed him to score and when his team needed him to move the ball.
Few of these Terps seem to know the importance of tempo, how to work the ball inside and control the clock against a team that dares you to run with them. Another worry for Maryland: point guard. Sterling Ledbetter has not grown into the position. As much as D.J. Strawberry is working on learning the role, his natural instincts run more toward a small forward than a floor leader. How well Williams plugs the dike at the position may be his biggest challenge this season.
As for Hobbs, he's looking sweet at 5-0 and ranked 19th nationally. One of his kids, Carl Elliott, was sutured up after taking an inadvertent elbow in the forehead in the first half. GW won a neighborhood scrap as much as a game.
With the Terps experiencing growing pains and Georgetown content to fly cross-country rather than to drive across town, the Colonials are making their case, one dunk on Maryland at a time.