The calendar has turned to 2014, and college basketball teams around the nation are gearing up for their conference seasons. The nonconference portion of the schedule has come to an end, and the beginning of league play starts the countdown to the month-long experience known as March Madness.
Georgetown and Maryland have men's basketball programs that are synonymous with NCAA tournament excellence. But since Maryland won the 2002 national championship, the Hoyas and Terrapins have combined for one trip to the NCAA Final Four.
Coach John Thompson III led Georgetown to the national semifinals in 2007, but the Hoyas haven't made it further than the second round during their last five appearances. Georgetown has posted one win -- a 2012 triumph against Belmont -- during its last four trips to March Madness. Despite posting 21 or more victories during each of the last four seasons, Georgetown has been eliminated by lower-seeded upstarts such as Ohio University, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida Gulf Coast during three of the last four tournaments.
But this Hoya team, which will host longtime rival St. John's Jan. 4 at Verizon Center, might be different. Georgetown is playing its typical shutdown defense, limiting opponents to 65 points per game during its 9-3 start.
At the offensive end, three starters average in double figures -- senior guard Markel Starks (16.3 points, 4.3 assists per game), sophomore guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds) and junior center Joshua Smith (12.1 points, .692 field-goal percentage). That trio forms the nucleus of a team that defeated DePaul Dec. 31 during its Big East opener.
The revamped Big East could also be an advantage for Georgetown, who won its only NCAA title in 1984. Longtime rivals Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville have moved on to other conferences. The Hoyas' main challengers appear to be preseason favorite Marquette, Villanova and Creighton. Nonconference victories against Kansas State and Virginia Commonwealth should also help Georgetown's tournament resume.
While Georgetown has reached the NCAA tournament during seven of the last eight seasons, Maryland's last trip to March Madness was in 2010, when they lost to Michigan State during a last-second heartbreaker. Maryland made it to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament in March 2013, and the program seemed to be poised for a return to the Big Dance in 2014.
But coach Mark Turgeon's young squad, which has one senior on the roster, has been inconsistent during nonconference play. The Terrapins nearly beat Connecticut during their season opener and won the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, but lost to Boston University and struggled to beat Florida Atlantic at home.
Maryland will take a 9-5 record into its Jan. 4 game against Georgia Tech at Comcast Center, followed by challenging road contests at Pittsburgh (Jan. 6) and Florida State (Jan. 12). The Terrapins will compete for a postseason berth against an upgraded Atlantic Coast Conference lineup, which includes traditional powers Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Florida State, plus talented newcomers Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
Maryland, which won its conference opener at Boston College Dec. 12, has the talent to finish among the top half of the conference. Junior guard Dez Wells averages 15.3 points per game, and the Terrapins also get steady point production from sophomore forward Jake Layman (14.2), junior forward Evan Smotrycz (12.1, team-best 7.1 rebounds) and junior guard Nick Faust (10.0).
As a team, Maryland shoots 45 percent from the field. One area in which the Terrapins could improve is sharing the ball. Of Maryland's 370 field goals, 46.5 percent have been assisted.