A year ago, the BB&T Classic turned out to be a pretty accurate snapshot of the season for GW. The Colonials played well enough to win against two Top 25 teams, as they would in nearly all of their games against top Atlantic 10 opponents, but did not have the defensive toughness late in the games to finish the job. And the theme of a feisty young team that always came close but less frequently won big games continued through much of the season.
This year’s tournament was again a statement weekend for GW, showing both what the Colonials are and what they are not.
After scoring a career-high 28 points and holding Gonzaga’s Blake Stepp, a preseason John Wooden Player of the Year Award candidate, to five points on three shot attempts, T.J. Thompson showed he can play with any point guard in the country.
This came after he held Texas’ T.J. Ford, who now plays in the N.B.A., to 5-for-15 shooting in last year’s BB&T Classic in a game in which Thompson scored 24.
Teammate Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a sophomore, had a breakout game himself on Saturday against West Virginia, tallying 23 points and 11 rebounds. The athleticism of Mensah-Bonsu and forward Mike Hall led to 23 second-chance points for the Colonials, which shows that GW will probably win some games this year just by having a frontcourt full of pogo sticks.
“I don’t think there is a team in the country that works harder on rebounding than we do,” West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. “But there isn’t much you can do when a guy can jump like (Mensah-Bonsu) can.”
Then again, Sunday’s loss to the Bulldogs showed how little athleticism will matter against teams like Dayton, that, like Gonzaga, features bigger and stronger forwards on the inside. The Zags scored a staggering 50 points in the paint on Sunday and shot nearly 73 percent in the second half by making most of their baskets from two feet away. All of a sudden, those lanky Colonials looked like the Looney Tunes going up against the alien monsters in “Space Jam.”
But beating West Virginia Saturday was bigger than not beating Gonzaga Sunday. With a win over the Mountaineers just two weeks after a win over Charlotte, the Colonials showed they are now on par with, and in some cases better than, the mid-level programs in the country that is, teams that don’t typically crack the Top 25 but are competitive in good conferences and usually have a shot at either the NCAA Tournament or N.I.T. Perhaps it is a sign that GW will follow in their successes.
In losing to Gonzaga, the Colonials showed that those two Top 25 votes they received last week may have been a bit of a stretch. But by playing the Bulldogs tough, they continued a trend set by Karl Hobbs’ teams that no opponent, no matter how good, is going to have an easy time with GW.
“We weathered serious storms – a Nor’easter, so to speak,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game. “(GW’s) effort and execution was phenomenal … I was not comfortable until the final buzzer went off.”
Colonials fans, therefore, should be pretty comfortable with the weekend and the team’s 5-2 start. But that is not to say that the BB&T Classic was completely telling. Instead, there were some important questions that went unanswered, mainly why junior Tamal Forchion was suddenly removed from the starting lineup before Saturday’s game against West Virginia, in which the forward played only one minute. Junior transfer Rock Battistoni, who had played only seven minutes all season prior to the game, started in his place.
I don’t doubt that there was a good reason for it, I just don’t know what it is, since Hobbs refused to talk about it and appeared quite angry at the press for asking.
“I just woke up this morning and said ‘I think I’ll start Rock today,'” Hobbs said. “I like the fact that he’s a little more experienced to start the game off.”
Not to take anything away from Battistoni, but does Hobbs think Battistoni’s one year in Division III basketball trumps Forchion’s two years with the Colonials? And if so, why was Battistoni taken out just minutes into each game and used for a combined 13 minutes?
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is we beat West Virginia.”
And if that leaves you to wonder if Forchion is injured or if he violated some team rule or if you’re just wondering what has changed since Hobbs expressed so much optimism in the forward earlier in his career, well, don’t wonder.
“We are a basketball team,” Hobbs said. “I’ll tell you what people are going to wonder about: That’s a great win for GW.”
Despite the questions that went unanswered, though, most fans should take a lot from the weekend. We may not know who will be in the game when it happens or why, but GW will win a lot of games this year if it plays the way it did in the BB&T.