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Virginia, GW & AU: Unlikely Dancers at this Year’s Tourney

by David Elfin
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The Cavaliers celebrate their ACC victory Sunday in Greensboro.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Cavaliers celebrate their ACC victory Sunday in Greensboro. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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Billionaire Warren Buffet has promised $1 billion to any fan who predicts every game in the NCAA Tournament correctly. The “Oracle of Omaha” probably could have offered the same deal to anyone who figured how Washington’s men’s college basketball teams would do this season.

The ongoing struggles of Howard (8-25), Navy (9-21) and Virginia Tech (9-22) were about the only outcomes that most fans would’ve expected back when practice began in October.

Surely, Coach Mark Turgeon’s third season would be the year that Maryland got back to the 68-team NCAAs for the first time since 2010. Instead, junior swingman Dez Wells, sophomore guard Seth Allen – apparently miscast as a distributor — and the Terps went 17-15 and aren’t even going to the 32-team NIT.

Maryland often didn’t play smart and didn’t record a significant victory until its upset of No. 5 Virginia in the regular season finale, going 4-7 in league games decided by single digits in the last of its 61 years in the ACC, 7-11 in such games overall.

If Maryland didn’t rule the area, then Georgetown surely would. Otto Porter Jr., the 2013 Big East Player of the Year, had moved on to the Wizards, but senior point guard Markel Starks would lead coach John Thompson III’s team to a fifth straight NCAA bid.

Oops. The Hoyas remained without forward Greg Whittington, whose knee injury replaced last season’s academic issues, and lost center Joshua Smith to the latter deficiency once the revamped Big East season got going. Georgetown’s losses to Seton Hall (two), DePaul, St. John’s and Northeastern more than offset its upsets of Creighton (a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs), Michigan State (a No. 4 seed) and Oregon (a No. 7 seed).

At least the Hoyas (17-14) are still playing, welcoming West Virginia to McDonough Gym in an NIT contest tomorrow night.

George Mason stepped up from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10 this season, eight years after its unforgettable run to the Final Four. However, coach Paul Hewitt’s squad didn’t have enough experience, depth or talent up front to compete in a conference which earned six NCAA bids.

The Patriots finished last with their worst record (11-20) since 1997-98. Despite the best efforts of senior guard Bryon Allen and Sherrod Wright, Mason went 3-9 in A-10 games decided by single digits, losing three in overtime.

Virginia came into the season hoping for an NCAA at-large bid after just missing out last year at 23-12. Coach Tony Bennett knew the challenge would be heightened with powerhouses Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame joining the ACC which already boasted Duke and North Carolina.

Although they didn’t have an all-ACC player, the Cavaliers (27-6) do have the nation’s stingiest defense, an asset they rode to win the regular season and tournament titles in the same season for the first time and claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

Similar postseason dreams swirled back in October at George Washington even though the young Colonials had won just 23 games the previous two seasons.

Although GW played 13 games without off-guard Kethan Savage and seven minus swingman Patricio Garino, a fellow sophomore, coach Mike Lonergan’s guys – bolstered by the addition of guard Maurice Creek, a transfer from Indiana – started out 11-1, upsetting Creighton, Maryland and defending ACC champion Miami along the way.

GW went 11-5 in the rigorous A-10 — after being forecast to finish near the bottom –24-8 overall, and is a No. 9 seed.

Creek, Savage, senior forward Isaiah Armwood, Garino and sophomore center Kevin Larsen all average from 11.3 to 14.3 points for the Colonials, who are dancing for the first time since 2007 and who will all but surely face UVa if they get by Memphis in their first game.

American was arguably an even less likely NCAA entrant than GW, which had a third-year coach and two veterans with tournament experience in Creek and former Villanova player Armwood.

AU was coming off a 10-20 season, its worst since 2001, and had a rookie coach in former Eagles and Hoyas assistant Mike Brennan.The young Eagles – center Tony Wroblickly is their only senior – started 3-7 with losses to Mason, Mt. Mary’s, Columbia and Brown, the latter at home, before grasping the motion offense that Brennan mastered at Princeton. AU won 11 straight, including 10 in a row in the Patriot League that was supposed to belong to Boston University. One of those victories during the streak was an amazing 86-56 rout of BU.

The Eagles went just 5-5 after that until they visited BU in the Patriot League championship game and again throttled the Terriers in an incredible defensive-minded 55-36 triumph that earned just the third NCAA bid in school history. Not coincidentally, all three of those berths have come during Brennan’s seasons on the Ward Circle campus.

As a No. 15 seed, AU has the unenviable task as of taking on Wisconsin, a No. 2, in Milwaukee, but Florida Gulf Coast shocked Georgetown with the same seedings’ matchup last March and Lehigh of the Patriot League and Norfolk State similarly beat Duke and Missouri, respectively in 2012. So who knows what Brennan’s 20-12 Eagles might accomplish?

I do know that GW and AU have never gone dancing in the same year before and that this is only the third year since 1978 – following 1993 and 2005 — that Maryland and Georgetown have both failed to do so. And I’m sure that no one saw this coming five months ago.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.

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