Colonials to face Indiana in NCAA first-round game

This season, first-year Coach Tom Penders has brought GW the kind of regular-season honors it hasn’t seen since the 1950s, if ever.

Thursday night in Orlando, Fla., he will try to bring GW something it hasn’t seen since 1994 – an NCAA Tournament victory. In the south region of the 61st NCAA Tournament, GW will make its seventh NCAA appearance and play in its 10th all-time NCAA game. GW is looking to improve on its 3-6 all-time record, which includes three straight losses dating back to an upset win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 1994.

Last year, under Coach Mike Jarvis, the Colonials lost to Associated Press No. 25 and eighth-seeded Oklahoma State University. GW’s ninth seed last year was its highest ever, and once again this year, GW is an underdog, seeded 11th and playing sixth-seeded Indiana University (22-10, 9-7 Big Ten).

Legendary Coach Bob Knight leads the Hoosiers. Knight, though not always loved outside Bloomington, Ind., has put up numbers that rank him among the greatest coaches in the sport. He has won more than 700 games while bringing his program 11 Big Ten Conference championships and three national championships. His record in the NCAA Tournament is 41-19, although Indiana has had problems in recent years, winning only one of its last five tournament games. That single win came in overtime at the MCI Center last year against the University of Oklahoma.

Indiana, No. 19 in the final Associated Press poll, will be only the second ranked team GW has played this season (the other was No. 6 Stanford University Dec. 7). This year, Indiana finished the regular season in a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten, which was ranked the top conference in the Ratings Percentage Index (the Atlantic 10 was ninth). Playing the 14th-hardest schedule in the country, Indiana finished the year ranked 16th in the RPI.

Like GW, Indiana is coming off a surprising blowout loss in its conference tournament. Last Friday, Indiana lost 82-66 to the Big Ten’s last place team, the University of Illinois, a team the Hoosiers had beaten twice, and GW defeated on the road Nov. 17. Indiana notched big victories this year against the University of Utah and Temple, but found most of its Big Ten wins against the basement teams, going only 2-4 in games versus Big Ten teams with a winning conference record.

GW enters its first NCAA Tournament under Penders, who, in his second seasons at Rhode Island and the University of Texas, brought those schools to the “Sweet 16” and “Elite Eight,” respectively. Penders often has said that March is the only month that matters, but the rest of the months have been pretty good for him, too. Penders is looking for his 499th career victory Thursday and to improve his own 12-9 NCAA record.

Though GW appears to be a large underdog, prognosticators from the Los Angeles Times, CNN/SI and ESPN (including Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps) have picked GW as one of their sleepers and have predicted a tough fight for Indiana despite the difference in seeds. Much of this forecasting might have to do with Indiana’s recent tournament performances, but Penders dismisses such talk.

“It’s still Indiana,” Penders said at a practice Monday before the team left Tuesday. “Bobby Knight’s probably the greatest coach of all time. We’re not going to sneak up on Indiana. Coach Knight will make sure they’re prepared.”

Still, Penders is far from throwing in the towel just because a legend is stalking the sideline.

“I told the kids, we’re an 11th seed, so no one thinks you’re that good. You have to prove it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between the five and 12 seeds, really. They’re all in that middle area. At the same time, Coach Knight didn’t recruit any of our players, so you can’t say we’re more talented.”

If Indiana is to win Thursday, the points will come have to come from junior guard and All-Big Ten second-teamer A.J. Guyton (6-1, 16.3 points per game) and sophomore forward and All-Big Ten third-teamer Luke Recker (6-6, 16.2 ppg). Both are marksmen from behind the arc, with Guyton shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range and Recker shooting 36.5 percent.

A key to this game will be how well Yegor Mescheriakov and the rest of the frontcourt can take advantage of Indiana’s mediocre rebounding. And controlling the scoring of Guyton and Recker will be as important to GW as controlling Shawnta Rogers will be to Indiana. When Recker doesn’t get his average, the Hoosiers almost always lose.

As always, GW will be looking for its big three of Rogers, Mescheriakov, and Mike King to shoulder the scoring burden and match up with the Hoosiers’ big two.

When asked what GW’s greatest advantage is, Penders joked, “My coaching.” But like everyone else, he knows who has been the sparkplug for the Colonials this year.

“Shawnta’s an integral part of our ball club,” he said. “Shawnta’s the great equalizer.”

And Rogers, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, doesn’t shy away from such pressure.

“Oh yeah, I’m ready,” Rogers said. “If we win, it’ll be because of me. If we lose, it’ll be because of me. That’s the way I see it.”

Penders, of course, has never won an NCAA game for GW, but neither have any of the current players, including seniors Seco Camara, Mescheriakov, and Rogers.

“I want to get past the first round real bad,” Rogers said.

If he does, one of the most dramatic scenes in this year’s tournament would unfold Saturday afternoon at 12:10 p.m., when Penders’ shot at 500 victories would almost certainly come against none other than St. John’s University coach Mike Jarvis. Jarvis left GW last summer but has had amiable relations with the GW since then, and even brought his new team into the Smith Center to practice before a game against Georgetown University three weeks ago.

Few coaches know GW’s strengths as well as Jarvis, and earlier this year, Jarvis said, “The last player I’d want to see in March is Shawnta Rogers.”

Thursday, for the first time, GW will be playing to ensure that Mike Jarvis’ worst nightmare comes true.

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