Coaches always say the most important game is the next one.
Well, for head coach Mike Lonergan, that is actually true. And not just for a day or so, but for the next two weeks.
Over the next 14 days, the Colonials will enter an Atlantic 10 gauntlet, facing off against four of the conference’s top six teams: VCU, Massachusetts, Richmond and Saint Louis.
There's a lot on the line: a top-three spot in the conference standings, a perfect home record, and likely the difference between an eight, 12 or any seed come NCAA Tournament time.
First up are the Rams and the Minutemen – the two top-scoring offenses in the A-10.
To pull off another upset against VCU, this time in enemy territory and without guard Kethan Savage, sophomore Patricio Garino will need to lead the way offensively. Last time against the Rams, Garino had a career performance, scoring 17 of his 25 points in the second half, to halt the Rams' attempt at a comeback and eventually put the game out of reach.
Garino has served as the offense's lifeblood of late, averaging 15 points per game in the last five games, shooting 63 percent from the field and getting to the line 34 times.
“We were better here last game and obviously Kethan played, but Patricio had a monster game," Lonergan said. We’ve got to just get that ball over halfcourt and we gotta attack the rim like we did a good job here."
Graduate transfer Maurice Creek will likely get the call to help sophomore Joe McDonald in the backcourt. The sharpshooter has seen extended time handling the ball in the past few games, and has done a sufficient job as a distributor, dishing out 17 assists to just seven turnovers in his last four games.
Ball movement will be the key – as a team, GW has earned 23 and 20 assists in back-to-back games.
“Patricio and Mo are gonna have to really help us handle the ball – and Isaiah – and just as a team, we’re gonna have to use our ability to pass the ball,” Lonergan said. “We’re very unselfish and we share the ball well, but we just don’t have the personnel, really, to just dribble through that kind of pressure and we don’t have the foot speed.”
Still, this game won’t be played at the Colonials’ fortress – the Smith Center – where they are 12-0 this season. The Rams will be in their own comfort zone in Richmond, in front of an average 7,741 fans, where they have won 17-straight games.
Lonergan said players would lean on their experience playing at St. Bonaventure this season, winning in another arena with rabid fans.
Facing UMass will be a completely different challenge, with the added task of taking on one of the A-10’s best talents, Chaz Williams. The redshirt senior ranks seventh in the conference in scoring at 15.8 points per game, first in assists at 7.5 per game and sixth in three-point percentage.
GW, though, has shown its ability to keep superstars in check all season long. Behind the stellar defense of Armwood, they limited All-American Doug McDermott to just seven points and took down then-No. 18 Creighton. In their last two wins, the Colonials have held their opponents’ leading scorers – Ovie Soko (Duquesne) and Jon Severe (Fordham) – to 13 and nine points, respectively. Both came into their games as top three scorers in the A-10.
On paper, the Minutemen seem like a balanced matchup for the Colonials. UMass ranks first in scoring offense, putting up 77.5 points per game, but GW will combat that with its second-best scoring defense, which only allows 65.3 points per game. UMass comes in first again in rebounds per game with 38.9, but right behind them in third are the Colonials, at 37.6.
“It ain’t no pressure at all,” Creek said. “I just see my team going out there and playing like we usually play, and going out there and playing hard. We haven’t played UMass yet, but we have a clear vision after watching them play against other people and we know what their talents are and they know what our talents are too.”