At this time of year, predicting whether or not a team will overcome its flaws and bully its way into the NCAA men's basketball tournament is kind of like making a medical diagnosis. You can have all the information at your fingertips, and still, at best, you're making an educated guess. The mysteries of modern medicine and the mysteries of men's basketball don't always follow a predictable pattern. Some hopes die for inexplicable reasons while others miraculously live on.
Still, with conference tournaments set to begin, we decided to put on our stethoscope, listen closely for a heartbeat and give you our best diagnosis of the teams in the area. (This is the first time since 1997 that three local teams - Maryland, Morgan State, UMBC - have a legitimate chance to reach the NCAA tournament.) Read it twice and call us in the morning if you're still experiencing discomfort.
(Overall and conference records in parentheses.)
Maryland (18-12, 8-7)
Diagnosis -- Ball handling-itis. A common malady in teams that can't seal the deal in close games. The Terps have been dribbling with two left hands for much of the season. Greivis Vasquez isn't a true point guard, and Eric Hayes hasn't been the second coming of Steve Blake as everyone thought he'd be. Maryland needs a closer, someone who can stop the bleeding when things get bad, and right now it doesn't have one.
Prognosis -- Grim. You can't teach guys how to dribble out of trouble this late in the season, and last time we checked, Doc Brown is not parking his DeLorean outside of Comcast Center any time soon, so forget going back in time to fix the problem. The Terps need James Gist to put on a cape, summon his inner super hero and continue leaping over small forwards in a single bound.
What's at stake -- Missing the tournament three times in four years shouldn't happen to a team that has won a national championship this decade. Plus, think of all the money that's not getting pumped into the economy if Gary Williams doesn't have to send his suits to the dry cleaner as often.
UMBC (21-8, 13-3)
Diagnosis -- A severe case of Awesome. Even though the Retrievers' nine-game winning streak recently ended, they're still the top seed in the America East tournament. UMBC's 21 victories are a school record.
Prognosis -- Healthy. Continue to feast on a steady diet of guard Ray Barbosa. Over the past eight games, he has been averaging 21.2 points. Point guard Jay Greene, despite being generously listed at 5 feet 8, actually leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
What's at stake -- How about continuing to improve the resume, not to mention job security, of UMBC coach Randy Monroe? Before this year, he'd never had a winning season at UMBC and had won only 36 percent of his games. It's not quite a Lazerus-esque rise, but if UMBC makes it to the NCAA tournament, we're calling Rome to see if they want to certify this (minor) miracle.
Morgan State (20-9, 14-2)
Diagnosis -- This patient has been experiencing waves of unfamiliar emotions such as "joy" and "excitement" and is still adjusting to them. With a victory over Delaware State, Morgan State clinched its first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title. The Bears managed to do so without their leading scorer, Jamar Smith, who missed the game with an ankle injury.
Prognosis -- Superb. Morgan State has never made the NCAA tournament (at least not the Division I version) but this might be the year the Bears put decades of futility behind them and go dancing. Smith (17.6 points per game) is a legitimate candidate for MEAC Player of the Year, but Morgan will also need hard work on the boards by senior Boubacar Coly to bring home the trophy.
What's at stake -- Whatever happens, this season has been a major step forward for the program. Hiring Todd Bozeman - outside of the strange incident last year when he got into an argument with a restaurant employee - has turned out to be a smashing success.
Loyola (18-13, 12-6)
Diagnosis -- Homesickness. The Greyhounds are fabulous at home (11-2), where they get the support of a raucous crowd. But when Loyola goes on the road (6-10), the results are mixed.
Prognosis -- Keep them under observation over the weekend. The Greyhounds have the fourth seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and face Fairfield, with which they split two games during the regular season. Can Loyola win a few games and make it to the conference championship? Yes, it's possible. But the Greyhounds must rebound and defend the perimeter. In a recent loss to Marist, Loyola did neither well.
What's at stake -- The Growing Cult of Jimmy Patsos. It's obvious that things have turned around at Loyola, which just a few years ago endured a 30-game losing streak. But Patsos, who is in his fourth season, has injected some energy into the program, and the students at Loyola would probably elect him bishop if they could. If he followed up two straight winning seasons with a surprise run to the NCAA tournament, it would only cement his cult status.
Towson (12-17, 7-11)
Diagnosis -- Back pain. Seriously. Leading scorer and rebounder Junior Hairston sat out the Tigers' most recent victory over Delaware, but they'll probably need him at full strength if they want to make any noise in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, which begins today against Hofstra.
Prognosis -- The problem appears to be chronic and painful, and traditional treatment doesn't appear to be working. We'd recommend a hot bath, followed by some yoga, some Enya CDs and two hours of visualization to try to improve the team's shooting. The Tigers are making just 40.9 percent of their shots this season, nearly the bottom of the NCAA rankings, and, against Temple, Towson set a school record (and not the kind you want to set) for lowest field-goal percentage in a game, going 13 of 56. That's .232 for those of you with a calculator.
What's at stake -- Tigers coach Pat Kennedy is a nice guy. He's a sharp dresser, and he has plenty of funny stories to tell about this wacky basketball life. He's a great salesman. He has also had just three winning seasons in the past 15 years, and none since 1999-2000 at DePaul. The bottom line is, Kennedy needs to start winning some games, because lately his method of treatment doesn't seem to be an effective cure.
Mount St. Mary's (16-14, 11-7)
Diagnosis -- Minor growing pains. It has been an exciting season in Emmitsburg, with the Mount's first winning season since 1996-97. It also has won six of its past seven.
Prognosis -- Optimistic. The kids at the Mount just need to keep taking their vitamins and continue to build on this season's success. The fourth-seeded Mount won its Northeast Conference tournament quarterfinal game against Quinnipiac last night and has been shooting well as of late, making about 50 percent of its shots in the past seven games.
What's at stake -- Continued proof that the little guys can get it done if they work hard enough. With a full-time enrollment of 1,528, Mount St. Mary's is the fifth-smallest NCAA Division I school.
Coppin State (12-20, 7-9)
Diagnosis -- Hot flashes. As usual, Fang Mitchell's crew has turned up the temperature lately, winning eight straight before losing a close game to Morgan State last night.
Prognosis -- Unknown. The Eagles aren't just a dark horse headed into the conference tournament. They also have as good a shot as anyone outside of Morgan State. Tywain McKee, a Player of the Year candidate, is as dangerous as any player in the league when he gets hot. The Eagles lean on him often (no other player averages double figures) but now that he's healthy, he's up to the task.
What's at stake -- If the Eagles could win the conference tournament, it would be their fourth NCAA appearance. It would also be their first berth since 1997, and if they get there, look out. Coppin State upset No. 2 seed South Carolina in email@example.com