They stand in a circle at the foul line holding hands, players and coaches staring at each another with the most intense gazes. At the end of an exhausting practice, this is how the day ends, with the team standing together as one. There is only one word said in unison, one word that will come to define this team – its successes, failures and everything that will fall in between. The word is family.
They seem together, third-year head coach Tom Penders said. They get after one another but they’re really tight.
According to players and coaches, there was a certain division within the squad last season, a lack of togetherness that made the team incapable of competing with the likes of Temple and other top-rate programs. That’s why this team, which returns sophomores SirValiant Brown and Chris Monroe, junior Jason Smith and seniors Antxon Iturbe, Patrick Ngongba, Mike King and Bernard Barrow, must begin to work together just as hard off the court and in practice as they do in uniform.
I think our chemistry is good now, Monroe said. Last year, there was probably a lot of sub groups, but now we’ve come together as one. We hold hands like we’re a family. We’re going to lose together and we’re going to win together.
GW returns its top seven players while adding freshmen Darnell Miller, Greg Collucci, Marquin Chandler and junior transfer Attila Cosby. This depth gives GW the firepower to excel in the Atlantic 10. But, in order to succeed, the Colonials must find a way to spread the offense to all their players.
Last year we had the freshman carrying too big a load and some of the upperclassmen got a little jealous of that, Penders said. This year I don’t see any of that. I’m expecting a lot more production from our seniors this year. I don’t think we have to rely on Val and Chris as much this year. And I don’t want that.
Brown was the nation’s second-leading scorer last season, averaging 24.6 points per game. The sophomore guard averaged 22 shots and 37 minutes of action a game, but Brown managed a little more than two assists a game. Monroe was GW’s second-leading scorer with 16.3 ppg and led the team in rebounding at just under seven boards a game. In his first year with the Colonials in 1999, Barrow was second to Brown in minutes played with 35, ranked third on the team in scoring with nine points per game and averaged a team-high 5.2 assists.
Barrow has showed his leadership and commitment in the early going by spending extra practice on his free-throw shooting. The senior point guard struggled from the line last season, shooting 46 percent (38 of 82).
I’ve got to lead vocally and by example, Barrow said. Last year I led by example sometimes. I wasn’t consistent and vocally I wasn’t there. So that’s what I’ve been working on besides my game. I don’t want to be 15-15 overall. That’s our personal goal, to get to the NCAA (Tournament), and we work from there.
There were great moments for the Colonials last season. Brown, who led the nation in scoring much of the season before finishing second, gave GW more name recognition. The team won the BB&T Classic at the MCI Center last December, beating two tournament-bound programs – Seton Hall University and Maryland. The Colonials held a five-game conference winning streak in early February and won nine of their final 12 A-10 games.
But in the end the final results indicated a mediocre 15-15 season with a disappointing 86-68 loss to Massachusetts in the first round of the A-10 Tournament. There was no NCAA or NIT invitation to follow.
I really feel with a healthy Mike King and Pat Ngongba, we would have been in the (NCAA Tournament) last year, Penders said.
Ngongba, who returns after sitting out the majority of last season with a finger injury, worked out and practiced at the Smith Center all summer in preparation for his senior season. King has recovered from last year’s shoulder injury, but the senior is currently out with a turf-toe injury. Penders said King should be ready to go for the regular season.
We’re a sprained ankle away from being average, just like most college teams, Penders said.
King started only 10 games and scored 12 points per game last year. Antxon Iturbe was the only Colonial to start all 30 games for GW. The steady Iturbe gives the team a reliable forward underneath, a forward who has a knack for finding the loose ball and putting it in the basket.
With seven players over 6 feet 7, the team has height. The tallest is 7-foot junior Albert Roma. The center is not an offensive threat, but his defensive presence can alter an opposition’s shot. Forward Jason Smith (6-8), who scored over nine points per game in A-10 play last year has no problem stirring up the crowd with an emphatic dunk from time to time. A healthy and problem-free Cosby could be GW’s biggest addition when he begins play in January. The 6-9 junior transfer has the coordination and toughness the Colonials need down low.
Penders said the team’s three freshmen will play supporting roles, but the coach indicated they could receive solid minutes off the bench.
I think (Miller, Chandler and Collucci) are going to be helpful, Penders said. I think the minutes will have to be determined when we start playing. There are days when Greg Collucci is unstoppable (from the outside). You can’t leave him open. My goal is to find an effective sixth and seventh man, somebody who can come off the bench in the front court and give us a lift and maybe end up playing more minutes than the guy who started.
Defensively, the Colonials have been working on a new full-court press, Penders said. GW gave up more than 90 points seven times last year, including a 102-91 loss at St. Joseph’s.
I think this year we can run more and I think we can press more, Penders said. We’ve already got the press in. Last year we didn’t even get the press in until the first week of the season.
GW lost high-scoring contests they should have won last season – games that become crucial during the NCAA Tournament selection committee evaluation in March. GW scored more than 80 points 15 times last year, but only won 10 of those games. GW lost 94-91 to Siena College at the Smith Center in a game in which Penders was ejected. GW lost to Clyde Drexler’s Houston Cougars 93-92 and blew a 98-93 overtime contest at home to University of North Carolina-Charlotte. GW will face the 49ers on the road in January.
The competition will be intense this season as the Colonials face former coach Mike Jarvis and St. John’s University at the BB&T Classic Dec. 2. GW will play the University of Tennessee in the first round of the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic in Honolulu in late December.
We have a lot of opportunities to get an RPI, to knock off some good people and not necessarily on their home court, Penders said.
With the breakdown of the A-10 divisions and the departure of Virginia Tech to the Big East Conference, the men’s team will play Xavier, Duquesne, St. Bonaventure, Massachusetts, Fordham and Temple twice. Like last year, the Colonials will host the Owls to end the regular season March 3.
The Colonials are not alone in returning strong players for the 2000-01 season.
Ninety percent of the A-10 starters are back, Penders said. Xavier has their whole team back, Dayton lost one player. You’ve got La Salle who have four out of five starters back and you’ve got St. Joe’s with everybody back. So the league itself has a lot of returning players. Temple lost a couple great ones, but (Temple head coach) John (Chaney’s) always got two or three in the freezer.
GW is talented enough to return to the field of 64. But, the intangible factor that will ultimately determine the Colonials success is their ability to gel on and off the court.
It’s about being a team and taking care of responsibilities, Penders said. It’s about not letting your teammates down and guys learning about each other.
After the team shouts family, the Colonials drop hands and go off in their own separate ways. It is now basketball season. And only the season will show whether they can come back together and join hands