Local college hoops scene is solid…

February 15, 2008 | Drew Forrester

So far, the ’07-08 college basketball season has been exciting for several Baltimore area men’s teams.

Our “WNST Family Weekend” takes us to Towson (Saturday) and UMBC (Sunday) to see two of those schools, with the Retrievers having a superb year in the America East Conference.

I fully realize that Maryland is the “state school” and, obviously, the most successful and storied of all the state’s college basketball programs.

But, if you haven’t been following the true local scene – right here in Baltimore – this year, you’ve done yourself wrong.

UMBC currently leads America East and looks to be a virtual lock to sew up the #1 seed in the conference tournament in Binghamton, NY.  The Retrievers play host to red-hot Boston University this Sunday at the RAC Arena (4pm), where UMBC has lost just once this season.

I’ve had Coach Randy Monroe on the show a number of times this year and it’s very evident that UMBC is taking this whole season “one game at a time”.  In a conference like America East, where only the conference tournament champion gets an NCAA bid, you can’t afford any kind of letdown, even if you finish with that #1 seed after a successful regular season.  That puts a lot of pressure on the Retrievers in a few weeks up in Binghamton, as they’ll go in to the tournament as the favorite…but it’s sure looking like “The Dogs” can handle it. 

Over at Towson, it’s been an up and down year for “Pat’s Cats”.  The Tommy Breaux injury certainly set them back, as he would have been the big man (that they’ve sorely missed) that complimented the good guard play they’ve had from C.C. Williams, Rocky Coleman and, recently, Josh Thornton.  The Colonial Athletic Association is the strongest league of any that the local schools play in…it really is becoming an excellent mid-major conference. 

As Duke (last year) and Maryland (this year) can relate to first-hand, Virginia Commonwealth is quickly on the verge of establishing themselves as a top mid-major program, a la Butler or, even, Gonzaga.  George Mason, a few years removed from stunning the NCAA with a trip to the Final Four, has a road win at Kansas State under their belt this year, 19 wins overall and, if they make it in to the big dance this March, will not be a pushover for anyone in the country. I watched them up close and personal on Wednesday at the Towson Center and I’m here to tell you this:  Maryland wouldn’t want to play them at the Patriot Center tomorrow afternoon, that’s for sure.

Towson’s goal over the next few years will be to step up into the class of VCU and George Mason.  This year, unless something strange happens, the Tigers will likely bow out of CAA tournament play by the second round.  But the Tigers have a solid recruiting class ready to step in in ’08-09 and I expect Towson to be a force in the CAA within a couple of years.

William and Mary, Towson’s opponent on Saturday (4pm) at the Towson Center, is a highly-disciplined, good shooting team that could be a threat in the CAA tourney next month.  If you like good, technical basketball, William and Mary will provide that and more tomorrow against the Tigers.

Morgan State is perhaps the best story of the local scene this year.  The Bears are 10-1 and on top of the MEAC in this, their second season under Todd Bozeman.  It’s looking like a 2-horse race in the MEAC, as Hampton (they lost to MD in the final minute earlier this season) and the Bears appear destined for a meeting in the conference final.  Like UMBC, though, Morgan St. knows an at-large bid is not a reality if they stub their toe in the MEAC tourney.  Again, that pressure – of having to win your conference tournament – is new territory for the Bears, who haven’t been in this position in a long time.  Bozeman has certainly produced a winning culture over on Hillen Rd., which is great to see.

I’ve been to two games this season at Hill Field House and will go again next week.  It’s a great atmosphere over there — you really need to check it out over the next couple of weeks.

Loyola College has held its own in the MAAC this season, with a 9-5 mark in conference play up to this point.  Although the Greyhounds won’t be favored in their tournament, Jimmy Patsos’ team could be dangerous come MAAC tourney time if Gerald Brown can get healthy and if someone (maybe Loyola) can dispose of pesky Niagara, who have the NCAA’s leading scorer in Charron Fisher. 

It’s been a down year for Fang’s Gang over at Coppin State, but they’ll be back to fight another day in the MEAC, you can bet on that.

For the first time in a long, long time, Baltimore has three teams with a very reasonable chance to get to the NCAA Tournament.  It would almost be a shock at this point if both UMBC and Morgan State don’t make it to their respective conference final, at the very least, and Loyola could work their way through the MAAC tournament as well.

I’m often jealous of the good basketball that dominates the Philadelphia college scene, with Temple and St. Joseph’s making regular visits to the NCAA’s big dance over the last 10-15 years.  Throw in the occasional appearance from Penn in the Ivy League and Philly has a school “in the hunt” every year or so, at the very least.

I’d love to see Baltimore’s college basketball scene rival Philly’s.  The programs are improving, the conference play is tough and, overall, we’re seeing a higher level of college basketball around the Beltway than ever before.

You need not be a UMBC or Towson grad to get fired up for this weekend’s home games…they’re BALTIMORE schools that we should all be very proud of!

After all, in mid March when CBS Sports televises the March Madness Selection show, they just might show the Mighty Retrievers of UMBC, tucked away in some small room somewhere, waiting to see their first round opponent.  Wouldn’t it be cool to hear the studio host say, “And there they are…in Baltimore…the UMBC Retrievers…who will they play?”

WNST’s Family Weekend includes half-price family coupons at WNST.net.  Check each coupon for special details on what items are discounted, but you’re basically receiving a game ticket and a bunch of food and drink for half-price.  Download the coupon and take it with you to the game — present it at the Towson Center Box Office (Saturday) and the RAC Arena Box Office (Sunday).