WASHINGTON — Next week, American, Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard Universities will all take aim at their respective conference tournament championships and the accompanying spot in the NCAA Tournament. But one Washington team has already qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and will host a game on campus in D.C. this weekend or, if all goes well, two of them.
Catholic University ensured itself a place in the Division III Tournament by winning the Landmark Conference Championship last Sunday with a thrilling 83-80 victory over Susquehanna. The Cardinals (22-5) may have been in line for an at-large berth regardless, but head coach Steve Howes was happy it didn't come to that.
"It means that my stomach had a free Sunday to relax," said Howes in an interview in his office this week. "I was able to sleep Saturday night."
Catholic will host Endicott (18-10) on Friday at the DuFour Center in Northeast at 7:30 p.m., with the victor going on to play the winner of Wooster (21-7) and Lancaster Bible (27-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Playing a pair of elimination games within 24 hours may be a tall order, but it's not a foreign one for the Cardinals. Needing wins in their final two games of the regular season to wrap up the top seed in the conference, the January blizzard forced them to play games on back-to-back nights. They beat Scranton by five, then thrashed the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy 80-61.
In fact, after a lackluster 3-3 start to the season, Catholic has rattled off 19 victories in its last 21 games, including 10 straight heading into this weekend.
"Is that how much it is?" Howe asked. "That's how much I pay attention to it."
With four seniors on the team, as well as a pair of preseason All-Americans and All-Conference selections in Bryson Fonville and sophomore Jay Howard, a slow start wasn't going to tear apart a team hoping to make its third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.
"There was no panic," said Howes. "We were disappointed to be 3-3, but two of those three losses were to top 20 teams, and two of those three losses were at the buzzer, on the last shot."
But now the pressure is on to try to make a deeper run. The Cardinals haven't won more than one game in any NCAA Tournament since 2001 when, under current GW coach Mike Lonergan, they won the national title.
"What he set here is the expectation that we've lived off since I've been here," said Howes. "You win 20 games, get to the NCAA Tournament, and your goal is to get to the Final Four."
But that slow start may have forced Catholic to play under a different type of pressure this season, one under which they have thrived since early January.
"We've been in single elimination for a couple of months now," said Howes, after his team started 1-2 in conference play. "How many teams lose two of their first three conference games and still win the regular season? We knew early on, every game is a March Madness feel, if we're going to do what we want to do."
Speaking of March Madness, the Cardinals give D.C. basketball fans the only chance they'll have to see an NCAA Tournament game played in Washington this year. And before you waive that off on the premise that Division III doesn't count, consider this:
"There's a reason that low to mid Division I teams won't play us during the regular season or during exhibition games," said Howes. "Because we have scholarship-level players that can beat them on any given night."
Howes would know. He played at Catholic under Lonergan. He has seen the program at its zenith, and is hoping to return it to its highest point of glory, after leading the Cardinals to their 11th winning season in 12 years with him at the helm.
"If people get past the stigma, Division I, II or III, get past the label, they're going to see really intense, high-level basketball."