What the Terrapins are fighting for is what every college basketball team wants with February approaching: a spot in the NCAA tournament. Whatever you think the odds, with Jackson out for the year following shoulder surgery and reserve Bender done with a knee injury, they would be significantly worse without Thursday night's 77-66 victory over even-more shorthanded Minnesota at Xfinity Center.
It's that time of year when football's all but over, pitchers and catchers haven't reported yet, but there's a game every night in a gym somewhere. College hoops fans tend to see the world only through glasses tinted with their school colors. But tie Maryland's tenuous position — 15-6 overall, 4-4 in a down Big Ten — in with Georgetown, which is three games below .500 in the Big East. Even look at the other Division I programs around here, struggling to stay afloat. And start thinking:
When was the last time the Beltway failed to send a team to the NCAA tournament?
Hint: There's a chance you weren't born. (Unless you're reading this in Saturday's printed product. Then I'd take my mortgage to Vegas and bet that not only were you born, but you could read.)
Think about it for a minute. And consider Washington basketball though the years.
I've been told often enough that I've come to believe it: Washington might be, first and foremost, a Redskins town, as sadistic as that might seem. But at the soul of the sporting city, really, basketball trumps football. This isn't necessarily about the Bullets/Wizards, but about the grass roots, about DeMatha and Gonzaga, about the Goodman League out at Barry Farm in the summer.
Those roots, they lead to the colleges, most prominently Maryland and Georgetown, each with a national title, each with a former coach who lives nearby and resides in the Hall of Fame. Remember, too, that George Mason became a strong enough program to earn at-large NCAA tournament berths from a mid-major conference, not to mention its unforgettable run to the 2006 Final Four. Shoot, George Washington made three straight NCAA tourney appearances under Karl Hobbs in the mid-aughts, and American gained berths with its three Patriot League tournament titles over the previous decade.
That's a lot of history. Maybe not Philadelphia's Big Five — debate among yourselves over a half-smoke and a cheesesteak — but it's something.
So, then, figure it out yet, that NCAA tournament without Washington? Couldn't be in the heart of the Gary Williams-John Thompson Jr. overlap in College Park or on the Hilltop. What about 1992-93? Maryland was still in the post-Len Bias doldrums, and Georgetown had lost Alonzo Mourning and hadn't fully developed freshman Othella Harrington, missing for the first time in 15 seasons.
Oh, wait. That was the year Yinka Dare pushed George Washington into the Sweet 16, where it gave Michigan's Fab Five a game before succumbing. D.C. was still on the map.
Nope, the last time the Beltway didn't dance: Williams was a year away from taking over — not at Maryland. At American. The Big East didn't exist, much less include (goodness) Creighton and Butler.
Keep pondering. In the meantime, think about this year, because if the Terrapins don't push like they did Thursday — "We're getting better," Coach Mark Turgeon said — it'll happen again.
We knew Patrick Ewing's first go-round at Georgetown would be rough, and even History's Worst Nonconference Schedule couldn't mask that. The Hoyas need time — much more than they have this year.
George Mason, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament since Jim Larranaga left for Miami and since the school left the Colonial Athletic Association for the Atlantic 10, is 9-10 overall, 3-3 in conference. George Washington, with one NCAA berth in 10 seasons, beat the Patriots on Wednesday night at Smith Center, but that got the Colonials only to 9-10, 2-4. Neither is within sniffing distance of Rhode Island, which sits atop the A-10. With that conference possibly sending only one team to the tourney, the only path for GW or Mason is almost certainly to win the conference tournament.
American? The Eagles are 5-13 and tied for last in the Patriot League. So the only hope is an unlikely run though the conference tournament. Possible. Don't count on it.
While mulling this over, it's also worth wondering why so many players from DMV schools are helping other teams with their pushes to the postseason. Cowan, from Bowie, Md., and St. John's High in the District, is an improving mainstay for the Terps. Freshman guard Darryl Morsell, from Baltimore, is a key piece who's eating minutes and often defending the opponent's best perimeter player.
But why, if all the Washington teams might be left out, is a player like Chris Lykes (Mitchellville, Md., Gonzaga of the WCAC) helping Miami in its quest for a third straight NCAA bid? Why is 6-foot-11 Luka Garza, who went to Maret in Upper Northwest, a freshman who's starting at, of all places, Iowa?
This isn't really cherry-picking, either. When top-ranked Villanova throttled Georgetown at Capital One Arena on Wednesday, one of six Wildcats in double figures was Phil Booth, a starting guard — from Baltimore. It's hard not to think about Villanova's D.C. connections without remembering that Kris Jenkins (Gonzaga) and Josh Hart (Sidwell Friends) powered the Wildcats to a national title two short years ago.
Those that got away also include the No. 1 pick in last year's NBA draft, Markelle Fultz of DeMatha. Maryland? Georgetown? Nope. Washington. (The state.) Look forward, too. Maryland's excellent incoming recruiting class includes a commitment from Jalen Smith of Baltimore. But Gonzaga will send Prentiss Hubb to Notre Dame and Myles Dread to Penn State. Paul VI in Fairfax will send Brandon Slater to Villanova. Bishop O'Connell in Arlington produced Xavier Johnson for Nebraska. The District's Sidwell produced Saddiq Bey for N.C. State.
That's a lot of talent in an area rich with it deciding to play somewhere else.
Now, these Terrapins — and, for that matter, these Hoyas, Colonials, Patriots and Eagles — don't care much about any of that. Each team has its own problems.
"The guys know this is our team," Turgeon said. "This is what we've got. . . . We've got to get a little bit better on the road for us to get where we want to be."
Where they want to be: sitting on a couch on Selection Sunday, comfortable their name will be called for the fourth straight season. A couple of weeks ago, Cowan remembers, Turgeon told his guys he wasn't sure that would be possible. Now they put behind a potentially devastating last-second loss at Michigan, beat Minnesota and have big games at Indiana, home against Michigan State and at Purdue — among others — that could significantly increase their chances.
"Even with all the injuries," Cowan said, "he thinks we're a tournament team."
If they're not? Well, welcome to a world that Washington basketball hasn't known since . . . 1977-78. That's 40 years ago. That's the last time a team from here didn't go to the NCAA tournament. Maybe it's a streak no one knows or cares anything about. But it represents something to the sporting fabric of a city. The Terrapins, knowingly or not, have something to say about whether it stays alive.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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