Maryland's Jalen Smith is gaining national recognition in midst of dominant stretch

Maryland's Jalen Smith is gaining national recognition in midst of dominant stretch

All of a sudden, Jalen Smith looks like one of the best players in college basketball.

The rare five-star big man returned to school for a sophomore season and has seen his game come together in the last month in a way it never has before. The result? An out-of-nowhere All-American campaign fueling a midseason turnaround for a top-10 team in the country.

Since January 14, Smith has scored fewer than 18 points in a game only once, and it came in a 14-point, 15-rebound, six-block effort against an elite Rutgers defense. Since December 4, he has hit 22 of his 43 three-point field goal attempts. His 51.3% three-point field goal percentage in conference play leads the Big Ten, a remarkable feat for a 6-foot-10 power forward.

He’s also riding a streak of five straight double-doubles, with 13 on the season. Smith has fallen just one rebound shy of a double-double three other times.

These numbers highlight not only how terrific Smith has been this season, but how utterly dominant he’s been as of late. The player teammates affectionately refer to as “Stix” has been the central figure in the Terps’ latest rise to a top-10 ranking.

Awards watch lists have taken notice as well, with Smith being named one of 20 finalists for the Wooden Award for National Player of the Year, and one of 10 finalists for the Karl Malone Most Outstanding Power Forward award.

So, if he’s been this good, and everyone around him is taking notice, why hasn’t he risen higher in NBA mock drafts? As of a few weeks ago, Smith found himself projected as a late second-round pick by ESPN.

It’s possible some outlets simply haven’t caught up to Smith’s hot streak yet. Typically, a stretch like this suggests Smith has made a leap as a player and higher draft projections are sure to follow.

There are also a handful of questions surrounding Stix’s all-around game. His three-point shooting wasn’t strong as a freshman or early in his sophomore year, so is this simply a prolonged hot streak, or a sign of a young player figuring it out? NBA scouts have also noted his ball-handling and body frame as other potential knocks against him.

Defense was another point against Smith early, as his strengths as a help defender can sometimes be countered by smaller, quicker forwards when pulled out from the post. It’s an area that may be magnified when he is forced into a forward position at the NBA level as opposed to playing center for Maryland.

Still, his one-on-one post defense has been terrific for much of the season, and his counting stats remain high. Smith is currently top-three in the Big Ten in both rebounding and blocks, which doesn’t account for the countless shots he alters without blocking near the rim.

Some mock draft sites have caught up to Smith, with a number of recent updates sliding him into the 22-30 range of the first round. There’s a long way to go until the summer, but it’s hard to argue with him on an upward trajectory given his recent play.

Opposing coaches who are forced to gameplan for the talented sophomore aren’t surprised by his rise either. Brad Underwood, coach of the Illinois team poised to face Smith and the Terps in a battle for first place in the Big Ten Friday night, wasn’t shy with his praise on Thursday.

Most players in conversation as potentially the most talented in the entire country are considered locks to be selected in the first round of the draft, so this opinion doesn’t line up fully with mock-draft consensus.

Now that football season has come and gone, the country’s annual focus on college basketball is right around the corner. If Smith keeps playing the way he has, it’s hard to imagine he won’t continue seeing his name rise in both the national consciousness and in the eyes of NBA scouts everywhere.

For now, Smith’s focus remains squarely on the Maryland Terrapins and their fight to win the best conference in college basketball. Terps fans will love cheering for him night in and night out in the NBA, but the greatest legacy he can leave in College Park is still whether or not he can continue to dominate in the month that matters most: March.

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Here’s why the NCAA is not giving winter sports an additional year of eligibility like spring sports

Here’s why the NCAA is not giving winter sports an additional year of eligibility like spring sports

On Monday, the NCAA announced that it will allow schools to grant student-athletes an additional year of eligibility for spring sports but not for winter sports. This means there will not be an additional year granted to men’s and women’s basketball student-athletes. 

While the move may be disappointing for seniors and fans alike of several basketball programs, this move is the correct one as the NCAA navigates through the impact of the coronavirus. 

Four days before the selection of the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament field, and five days before the women’s, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports championships. In addition to no March Madness and no national champion, there are several conference titles left undecided with the regular season completed. 

Many teams across the country, though, had already wrapped up their seasons. The week prior to cancelation had wrapped up over half of the men’s and women’s 2019-20 campaigns with losses in respective conference tournaments. This was primarily the men’s mid-major conferences and most of the women’s high-major (Power 5) leagues. A select few were waiting on their postseason fate, but many were either home or on their way there and making offseason plans. 

This is the lone reason cited in the Division I Council’s release. But that is only part of the reason why the NCAA isn’t granting an additional year.

Logistically this would be a nightmare. Already, the NCAA revealed as much in its announcement of another year of competition for spring sports. It leaves the discretion of giving the additional year to each institution instead of a broader relief. 

“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” council chair and Penn athletics director M. Grace Calhoun said in the release. “The Board of Governors encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities, and now schools have the opportunity to do that."

To make this possible, the NCAA adjusted financial aid rules, is providing funding and is extending the five-year clock of competition by a year. Most importantly, it also expanded the roster limit for baseball teams to allow incoming high school seniors to not occupy roster spots for those who wish to return. No other sports have roster limits. 

Div. I basketball programs are allowed no more than 13 full scholarships. Giving seniors the opportunity to come back would complicate how schools would make decisions on which players can do so, and which ones couldn’t. Any spot that a school would allow a senior to come back could take away a scholarship from a recruit that already committed to the program. 

Not every school would make the same decisions either. The scholarship limit would have to be lifted, but then for how much and for how long? Would the extra year be given to the underclassmen too? 

Allowing those programs to get that season back would create more problems in a trying time for many across the world. Administrators, coaches, fans, players, recruits; there would be no easy solution that would be fair to all parties. 

At least a canceled March Madness stinks for everyone. Fans included. 

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March Madness Revisited: When 16-seed Mount St. Mary's pushed 1-seed Villanova

March Madness Revisited: When 16-seed Mount St. Mary's pushed 1-seed Villanova

As March winds down without its usual flurry of March Madness moments, NBC Sports Washington takes a look back at some smaller DMV schools who made a big impact during their most recent NCAA Tournament appearances.  

A season removed from winning the national championship in 2016, Villanova found itself trailing by a point with less than five seconds to play in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

At the time, no No. 16 seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed. That would come a year later. The Wildcats’ opponent that March evening in Buffalo, N.Y.? Mount St. Mary’s.

The little school from Emmitsburg, Md. had been to the Big Dance before. Legendary coach Jim Phelan, who ran the program for 49 years and is in the College Basketball Hall of Fame, shepherded the Mountaineers from Division II to Division I in the early 1990s. They won the Northeast Conference tournament in 1995 and 1999 to reach the tournament and made it twice more in 2008 and 2014 even after Phelan retired. 

But it was its fifth trip the NCAA Tournament, under current George Washington coach Jamion Christian, where The Mount put a scare into the defending champs and heralded what UMBC would do a year later against No. 1 seed Virginia.     

The road to becoming Northeast Conference champions did not get off to an easy start. The Mountaineers opened the 2016-17 campaign with nine straight road games. But that was by design.  

“I knew when we built that schedule we had a great team,” Christian told NBC Sports Washington. 

Entering a Dec. 22 showdown with Coppin State, the Mountaineers were 1-11. Mount St. Mary’s won its final non-conference game with ease, 87-49, and went 14-4 in NEC play en route to claiming the conference’s regular season championship. 

“I bet on their ability to rally around one another when it got tough and I bet on their ability to be great,” Christian said. “We got it spot on that year.”

Christian had played four years for Phelan and his successor, Milan Brown, from 2000-2004. But a three-year starter and captain, his teams at The Mount never reached the NCAAs. He did take them there as head coach in 2014, a 71-64 loss to Albany in a First Four game in Dayton.  

But 2016-17 was different. Until that season, Mount St. Mary’s had never won the NEC regular season title and tournament in the same year. The Mount defeated St. Francis (Pa), 71-61, at home at Knott Arena to earn the school’s fifth trip to the tournament. 

On Selection Sunday, the Mountaineers learned that they would be headed to Dayton again for the second time in four years as part of the First Four. This time they were a little offended, not just happy to be going at all. 

“We didn’t feel like we should have been in Dayton,” Christian said. “We felt like we should have been a 15 - or even a 14 seed with our numbers that year. And we went into that game bringing back the underdog mentality that we wanted to prove and show the world how good of a team we had.”

The 2014 loss to Albany had prepared Christian’s group for what was to come in 2017. They weren’t worried about escaping Dayton this time around. 

“It was a perfect scenario for us with all of that,” Christian said. “We had played in Dayton before. We had made some mistakes playing in Dayton the first time just because you don’t know.”

Led by a 23-point performance from Junior Robinson, the Mountaineers defeated New Orleans, 67-66, in Dayton. 

Next up? Villanova less than 48 hours later in Buffalo. Christian said he learned a lot from a 90-59 loss to the Wildcats in 2013 and knew exactly what his game plan was going to be. 

“The number one thing was we wanted to be aggressive. We wanted to be in attack mode,” Christian said. 

Top seeded teams were 130-0 against No. 16 seeds entering that game. But following an Elijah Long 3-pointer, the Mount led Villanova 10-2 with 13:27 to play in the first half. The Mountaineers led the majority of that first half and owned a 29-28 lead in the closing seconds of the half before a Jalen Brunson backdoor layup put Villanova in front heading into the locker room.

“When we got to the half, I remember walking in and the guys were breathing really hard and I said, ‘Oh boy,’” Christian recounted. “It was one of those moments where you want to try to continue to give them confidence, but you’re also letting them take a moment to take a deep breath so they can play to their full potential.”

Villanova eventually pulled away in the second half and won 76-56. But the game did leave Wildcats head coach Jay Wright impressed. For a large part of that game, The Mount made Wright and the Wildcats uncomfortable. 

“It’s in the back of your mind,” Wright said after the game. “It hits you for a second. ‘This could be one of those nights.’ You’ve got to knock it out and concentrate on the next play. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t come up.”

It didn’t end quite the way they wanted it to. The really big upset would have to wait until the following season when UMBC stunned Virginia 74-54. But after its 1-11 start, Mount St. Mary’s won 20 games in a season for the first time in two decades and showed everyone the blue print for how a 16 could finally beat a 1. 

“The best don’t look at winning and losing as a finale, they look how hard you compete,” Christian said. “And I felt [Villanova] had a great level of respect for how hard our team competed that day.”

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