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Saturday, March 8, 2014

GW Basketball: Looking ahead to the A-10 and NCAA Tournaments

With a 70-67 win at Fordham, GW has wrapped up their final regular season game in nerve-wracking, but winning fashion. With a final record of 23-7 overall and an 11-5 conference record, GW has substantially improved from last year, when they finished 13-17 and 7-9 in the A-10. The Colonials have flirted with a low ranking for much of the season, accumulating a few dozen votes in the Associated Press and USA Today polls at different times during the season. 


Currently, GW stands in fourth in the Atlantic 10.  This is good enough for a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament. 

Saint Louis University is in first (25-5 overall, 12-3 in Conference play), followed by VCU (23-7 overall, 11-4 in Conference play) and St. Joe’s (21-8 overall, 11-4 in Conference play). 

As I write this, VCU holds a commanding halftime lead over St. Bonaventure in Richmond en route to securing second in the conference. I don’t see Bona upsetting VCU in Richmond, as much as I’d like it to happen. St. Joe’s must beat La Salle tomorrow, and they’ll likely get it done to stay in 3rd, despite the Colonials having a better overall record. 

Also on Sunday is a showdown between SLU and UMass in Amherst. SLU has the best record in the conference, but has lost two straight after an unheralded upset by the lowly Duquesne Dukes.  SLU can still win, but UMass is likely salivating at the chance to upset the once #10 seed, and they have the skill to do it. If UMass wins, they will leapfrog over GW because they will have a better overall record. 

In other words, if you’re a GW fan, root for SLU tomorrow so the Colonials get a bye. 

It’s been a wild ride for our boys in Buff and Blue. Last year, the Colonials barely squeaked into the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and were defeated in the first round by UMass. Last season, Mike Lonergan's boys lost a handful of heartbreakers to teams they came extremely close to upsetting, such as Kansas State, Butler, and La Salle. 

This year has had its fair share of frustrating losses as well, but those have been countered with a slew of notable wins, especially against Creighton, Miami, VCU, and Richmond. 

As far as losses go, GW can, at the very least, can fall back on the fact that they’ve very rarely lost to teams considerably lower than them in terms of talent. Of the seven losses the Colonials have suffered, only the January 9th game in La Salle could really be considered an “upset” (La Salle won that contest 76-72). Sure, the 75-65 loss to Dayton was frustrating, but not many teams are going to win a road game in a packed and hostile arena without three of their best guards. The Colonials were without  Maurice “Mo” Creek, Joe McDonald, and Kethan Savage in that game, severely curbing their scoring and shooting prowess. It’s widely speculated that GW would have won had even one of those three on the court at UD Arena. 

Even better news for the Foggy Bottom Faithful is that GW has punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. After the end of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, they will appear as a #9 seed to play Memphis in St. Louis (Correction: at least according to the Bracketology on March 6th from ESPN)

Another correction: Seeding ties are decided by head-to-head games, not overall record. 

UPDATE: Since La Salle beat St. Joe's and SLU held off the Minutemen, GW has a 3 seed in the A-10 Tournament. 

Let’s take a look at why GW is going to make a statement this tournament: 

They're great at passing the ball. It may not always lead to two or three points, but this team knows how to get the ball around to multiple players. The passing game GW possesses ensures that in most of their wins, they'll have substantial contributions from three, four, even five of their stars. The “basketball IQ” of this team is quite respectable. 

Kethan Savage is back. This may be a huge difference maker down the stretch. In January, Savage broke his foot in the last seconds of GW’s win against St. Bonaventure, and GW fans were visibly shaken when they heard the news. Kethan Savage is terrific against the press and was a huge contributor against VCU in the 76-66 win at the Smith Center. He is the team’s second most prominent scorer. His replacement, Miguel Cartagena, was often prone to silly mistakes and, due to his considerably shorter stature, was not able to command the same presence. The Colonials battled admirably without Savage, posting a 7-4 mark in his absence, but they are 15-3 with him in the lineup. While it’s true that Savage will play only limited minutes in the Atlantic 10 tournament, his role in this team’s resurgence can’t be understated. 

Solid defense. This team has very rarely lost in a blowout. The loss to K-State was tough (72-55) but can be ultimately forgiven because they were on the road against a team in a power conference with brutal home-court advantage. They usually play very solid 1-3-1 defense and it shows on the scorecard.

Grace under pressure. In last Wednesday’s game against a streaking St. Joe's Hawks squad, GW grabbed an early double-digit lead. Unfortunately, they quickly coughed it up as St. Joe’s surged to a narrow lead at halftime.

Things got even worse in the second half. The Colonials’ shooting fell off and were slapped with numerous fouls to put them down by double digits with 11 minutes to go.  It looked bleak, but sloppy play by St. Joe’s and a resurgent shooting corps gave GW the 76-71 win.

On February 12th, GW played VCU in Richmond. The Rams of Virginia Commonwealth quickly jumped out to a 20+ point lead and all but dominated the first half. They would win by 17 (92-75), but the score doesn’t reveal that GW was able to battle against a team known for its excellent defense and cut their lead to single digits twice. If these two teams meet up in the A-10 Tournament, expect a very close game. 

Of course, GW is far from a perfect team. Let’s now take a look at what Coach Longeran should address in the few days left before they head to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. 

Free Throws. GW has been below-average at the charity stripe this year. It's especially frustrating when many of their losses against tough teams were by small margins: for instance, the St. Louis (66-59), UMass (67-61), and La Salle (76-72) games were by single digits. A stronger free throw percentage could be the difference between a win and a loss in a close game. In theory, this should be a easily fixable problem, and Coach Lonergan would do well to address it.

Griffin for Mikic? 

Nemanja Mikic is a senior at GW from the Balkan nation of Serbia. On Senior Night against St. Joe’s, fans waved numerous red-blue-white Serbian flags in his honor and hoisted a large "Kosovo is Serbia" sign in his final home game. 

Whether Mikic believes in Kosovar sovereignty or not, it may be prudent of Coach Lonergan to limit Mikic’s minutes in the tournaments. #30 is known primarily for his ability to shoot threes, but this asset has a nasty habit of becoming absent for extended periods of time. Mikic plays solid defense but Griffin may prove to be even more effective down the stretch, as he has shown some proficiency in hitting buckets beyond the arc with greater frequency than Mikic.

Turnovers. GW does not protect the ball very well, and this was painfully evident in the showdown with VCU in Richmond. While the solid defense may be able to limit this to a minor problem, it is definitely one of the top concerns of GW fans. 

The Atlantic 10 Tournament

In the A-10 this year, GW has suffered losses: 

at Dayton (75-65)

Dayton was able to rebound from a very slow start in the conference to earn a middle spot in the A-10. ESPN’s mock bracket on March 6th has Dayton sitting at a possible 12 seed for the tournament, along with Tennessee, so Dayton is not a guarantee for the NCAA Tournament-and will be motivated because of it. Dayton beat GW in Dayton by a margin of 10 points, and the game was fairly lopsided throughout. GW was able to get back to 60-53 late in the game, but no closer. 

Of course, Dayton hasn’t seen GW at full strength. When they beat GW, the Colonials were without Kethan Savage (broken foot), Joe McDonald (hip problems), and Mo Creek (some kind of virus). GW’s scoring abilities were limited, and Dayton capitalized. McDonald put GW on his back against the Richmond Spiders, and Mo Creek had an excellent night against a formidable St. Joe’s team. Also, these games will be on neutral courts, so Dayton’s home-court advantage will not be there. GW, already in New York to play Fordham, will not have to travel a long way, whereas Dayton will be coming in from Ohio. I don’t see a blowout for GW if they face the Flyers, but it would be especially disappointing for the nearly-full-strength Colonials to lose in a situation that definitely gives them better odds. 

at VCU (92-75)
GW has a 1-1 record against only two teams in the Atlantic 10: La Salle and VCU. In the first game against VCU, GW successfully figured out the press, did the simple things right, kept out of foul trouble, and pulled away in the second half to win by a final score of 76-66. The animosity in the Smith Center was tangible and it was especially enjoyable to shut up the hundreds of VCU fans that had trekked up from Richmond. 

The second game was not nearly as fun. VCU grabbed an early lead and streaked through the first half. The home fans were delirious and GW played hurriedly and made numerous mistakes. Credit is due to GW for clawing back to make a game of it twice, but for most of the forty minutes of play time, VCU ran the show. 

A win against the Rams is possible, but far from guaranteed. GW will need to pull out all the stops to beat VCU. 

vs. UMass
Oh man, would GW love to have this one back. A lackluster effort in the first half, followed by a tug of war in the 2nd half before finally losing in the last plays of the game. GW was actually ahead by 2 with less than two minutes to play, and they blew this one. It was the only loss GW had all year at the Smith Center. With Savage back they may be able to make a possible rematch have a different outcome, though. UMass will be a tough opponent, but it’s hard to tell who has the upper hand if these two teams meet in Brooklyn. 

at St. Louis

SLU, like VCU, has enormous home-court advantage. GW lost this one because of inconsistent shooting when it counted most, and a questionable coaching decision at the end. SLU will be traveling from St. Louis to Amherst to New York, so they may be a little tired. Savage’s return will also help if these teams meet again, not to mention the recent slide SLU has been on. 

at La Salle

This was easily the worst loss GW has suffered this season, but it’s the one they should be least worried about as well. The rematch at the Smith Center showed that GW is more than capable of beating the Explorers, as GW dominated that contest 67-49. As long as GW doesn’t make too many simple mistakes, a rematch with La Salle shouldn’t worry them too much.

The NCAA Tournament

Currently, we are slated to play the #20 Memphis Tigers, who are 23-8 overall and 12-6 in a very formidable conference. Memphis has one more game to play on the 13th against the Huskies of Connecticut. They will likely not get the same amount of rest in the days leading up to their conference tournament, but both teams will have to deal with travel woes. This will be a close one, but if GW can go in healthy, with momentum, and do small things right, I could see them beating the Tigers. The defense must give 110% against this offensive powerhouse, and let's hope that their offense is able to exploit Memphis' defense.


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