Come Sunday night, something will be missing from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection show: a D.C.-area presence in the field of 68.
The last chance for a program located in the metropolitan area to play its way into March Madness was extinguished Friday when George Mason was eliminated from the Atlantic 10 tournament. Maryland is bound for the National Invitation Tournament after three consecutive NCAA appearances. Georgetown’s main goal for its first season under Coach Patrick Ewing was to establish a foundation. Mason didn’t have a scholarship senior, and George Washington tried develop a plethora of young players. American is in a full rebuild. Howard’s best two players were a freshman and a sophomore. None of those teams were seeded better than fifth in their respective conference tournaments.
Added together, it’s the first time the area won’t have a team in tournament since 1978, when only 32 programs were invited.
On the surface, it would seem there’s the basketball dead zone in the Capital Beltway area. But there are explanations for what’s happened to a set of teams familiar with success. All but Howard have earned NCAA tournament invitations since 2011, and four of the six have made it since 2014. This has been a historically down year for D.C. college hoops, but it doesn’t necessarily portend a down era.
Georgetown (15-15) will miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season, but this was not a surprising development. Ewing took over for the fired John Thompson III and inherited a roster with a capable frontcourt but short on guards.
Sure enough, junior forward Marcus Derrickson earned a second-team all-Big East nod, and two of Ewing’s first recruits — freshmen Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair — landed on the league’s all-rookie team. Aided by a soft nonconference schedule, the Hoyas piled up wins early and were generally competitive with everyone in the Big East other than mighty Villanova. The season highlight: back-to-back wins over Seton Hall and Butler last month, triumphs that permitted Georgetown to match its 5-13 Big East record from a year ago.
“We’ve come a long way, but happy? No,” Ewing said late last month. “But we have come a long way. A lot of guys have made significant strides. I’ll reflect back on the year when everything is over. Right now, I’m tunnel vision.”
The same was true late in the season for George Washington Coach Maurice Joseph, whose team dropped eight of nine early in league play and was a threat to post an ugly record despite the strong work of senior guard Yuta Watanabe.
Yet the Colonials (15-18) found some life, winning five of seven late in the regular season while receiving greater contributions from the younger part of the team’s rotation.
Watanabe won’t be back next season, nor will graduate transfers Patrick Steeves and Bo Zeigler. But a backcourt of freshmen Justin Mazzulla and Terry Nolan Jr. and sophomore Jair Bolden has improved, sophomore Arnaldo Toro has enjoyed some strong moments and freshman wing Maceo Jack played better over the season’s final month.
“We didn’t cast a gray cloud over everything, as it’s easy for us to do when things are going poorly,” Joseph said. “Around our guys, we tried to keep it — I don’t want to say roses and daisies — but we tried to keep it positive and keep the energy high. Across the street [in the office], there’s some been some tough staff meetings. But that’s what it’s about. It’s about the process and about the journey.”
Elsewhere in the Atlantic 10, George Mason didn’t begin the season with an ideal situation. The Patriots had just eight scholarship players, none taller than 6-foot-8, and the only senior on the roster was a walk-on.
The Patriots (16-17) took an overall step back from last year’s 20-win performance, but it might not last long. Junior guard Otis Livingston II is already among the top 20 scorers in program history, junior Jaire Grayer and sophomore Justin Kier are established backcourt options and sophomore Ian Boyd has shown a penchant for last-second shots late in the season.
With forward and Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter eligible next season, Mason could be a serious A-10 contender for the first time.
“You’re going to have all these kids returning, a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger,” Paulsen said. “Then we’re going to add into the mix Jarred, you [have] a chance to be a real impact player. We love the two kids we’ve signed early. . . . For me, I didn’t want to take a shortcut in any way, shape or form with our culture. I feel really good about where our culture is right now.”
Howard Coach Kevin Nickelberry finds himself in a similar situation. The Bison (10-23) finished 7-9 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league in which many teams lean heavily on transfers to compete. That’s not the case for Howard, which saw several lineup mainstays depart after last season.
While injuries depleted the Bison’s frontcourt, they relied on freshman R.J. Cole and sophomore Charles Williams to keep them in games. And so they did: Cole led the league in scoring in the regular season at 23.5 points per game; Williams ranked second at 20.5.
“It’s a calming factor when you have a freshman and a sophomore as your backcourt for the next three years, and we’ll have [Rice transfer] Chad Lott, who is a special player,” Nickelberry said. “Having those guys, especially those two guys, it makes you sleep a little bit better at night knowing you have them.”
The payoff, Nickelberry hopes, will come in the next couple years when the Bison again have an older core group and can match the experience of the transfer-laden teams at the top of the MEAC.
Transfers aren’t so much of a concern for American Coach Mike Brennan as youth. Several Washington area teams were lacking experience, as measured by KenPom.com: Maryland ranked 319th out of 351 Division I teams in average experience; Howard was 338th and George Mason 340th. American, at 345th, had them all beat.
With 6-5 freshman Sam Iorio spending much of Patriot League play as the starting center, the Eagles (6-24) fielded their share of unconventional lineups. Couple playing a lot of young players with a spate of injuries, and it’s little surprise American struggled to earn victories.
“Our trajectory is a different one than [Patriot League power] Bucknell,” Brennan said. “We’re just getting started with this group. It’s not easy losing the games we have, but we’ve been trying to give them perspective — ‘You guys are going to be good and are getting a lot of valuable experience.’ ”
There’s greater frustration in College Park. Maryland (19-13) harbored NCAA tournament hopes in the preseason, but sophomore wing Justin Jackson struggled early and then was shut down for the season with a shoulder injury in December. Reserve forward Ivan Bender was lost for the year shortly thereafter, and the Terrapins then slogged through league play.
Not helping matters was a condensed conference schedule that impacted all 14 Big Ten teams but probably impacted a depleted roster a little more as the league ended its regular season a week early to squeeze its tournament into Madison Square Garden.
“We wanted to get to New York — we owed it to Rutgers,” Coach Mark Turgeon told reporters. “I think it’s something we had to do. I don’t think anyone is blaming [Big Ten Commissioner Jim] Delany. I think it’s something we all agreed to do and we wanted to do it. Was it hard? Yeah, it was probably hard — hard on the student-athletes.”
Still, injuries and a compressed schedule don’t fully account for Maryland’s problems. The Terps went 0-7 against the Big Ten’s likely NCAA tournament teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue) and had little of note on their postseason résumé besides a home victory over Butler. In short, Maryland just wasn’t good enough.
Nor was anyone else in the D.C. area, at least in 2018.
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