Virginia basketball teams thrive while D.C. sees tournament drought

March 21, 2019

Washington’s college basketball fans have no shortage of teams to root for in the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s just that none of those teams hail from the District itself.

Along with the sixth-seeded Maryland Terrapins, a popular team in this region, no fewer than five teams from Virginia are in the field of 68. Meanwhile, no team from the District has made the tournament since Georgetown’s last appearance in 2015.

No state is better represented in this year’s bracket than Virginia, which tied with New York and Texas for the most teams from one state. Those states were just shy of the record of seven from one state in one year.

In a region often dubbed with the three-pronged identity of “DMV,” Virginia is carrying the weight in terms of college basketball success stories, and due to lack of better options, Washington’s sports audience is drifting in that direction.

“When there is a dominant team or a major powerhouse college program thriving in D.C., I think you would see that the landscape of college basketball in this city is very different,” 106.7 The Fan radio host Grant Paulsen said. “In the years (when) Georgetown, for example, is in the top 5 or Maryland has been a top national contender or is making a deep run, the town is painted in gray or red. People kind of wait for that and would enjoy that. It’s just that hasn’t been the case over the last few years.”

The five Virginia teams are a mix of elite teams and mid-major conference winners, scattered from Hampton Roads to Blacksburg. Old Dominion, a No. 14 seed, plays its first-round game Thursday against Purdue. No. 1 Virginia, No. 4 Virginia Tech, No. 8 VCU and No. 12 Liberty are all in action Friday.

Far from just a recent phenomenon, Virginia was also the home to not one but two mid-major programs that made surprise Final Four runs the 2006 George Mason Patriots and the 2011 VCU Rams, which both captured the country’s attention.

Even after producing those teams and excellent college players like Allen Iverson and J.J. Redick Virginia is overlooked as a basketball hot spot, said Will Driscoll, executive director of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

“The Hampton Roads area, the Richmond area and really all throughout the state, there’s a great, fertile recruiting ground that a lot of people outside the Mid-Atlantic region don’t recognize,” Driscoll said.

A reason these schools could be overlooked is because they don’t draw casual fans the way a national program like Duke does. Paulsen, though, said he does see some passionate fan bases “you’re going to be able to find diehard Virginia Tech basketball fans, Maryland fans.”

He has also seen the area rally together to support a team, pointing toward George Mason’s Cinderella run. He remembers how television stations and newspapers flocked to cover the Patriots, and how invested fans became.

“I believe D.C. is a town where sports fans clamor toward the big story, toward the big star,” Paulsen said. “And sometimes that can be a team ... It’s a big story town and if the big story is Liberty is moving on to the Round of 32, then I do think a lot of fans would be interested in that.”

A fan base like Georgetown’s will not just disappear after a few poor seasons. Tickets for the Hoyas’ first-round game Wednesday in the second-tier National Invitation Tournament were sold out. But in a city with teams in all four major sports leagues, an underperforming college is bound to get lost in the shuffle.

For fans in downstate Virginia, the sports scene is much different. Colleges rule, more so than the area’s other minor league offerings, Driscoll said.

To Driscoll, if fans in the District latch on to a Virginia Tech or a VCU on a tournament run, that’s a win for the state.

“Overall, the tournament has a weird way of turning people into fans of schools they’re not normally fans of,” Driscoll said. “And so having these five teams from all different conferences, it’s elevating the overall profile of the state, and hopefully it keeps more of our athletes here in Virginia to continue to raise that profile.”