Column: Expect success, not perfection

It’s a long way to the top of the college basketball world.

Despite what many fans and media types have said recently, the GW men’s team is not there yet. Saturday’s wrenching, one-point overtime loss to Massachusetts proved that reality.

For the first time this year, the Colonials lost a game they probably should have won. At home, in front of a revved up crowd, the Colonials’ offense was stagnant at the wrong times, which led to a defeat at the hands of a hungry UMass team that was coming off a loss to St. Joseph’s.

Sure, this home loss won’t sit well with the Top 25 poll voters or the NCAA Tournament committee, but it is far from a season killer. The Minutemen have been inconsistent this season, but are no pushover – they knocked off defending national champion Connecticut in December.

Sorry to be a downer here, but did you really expect perfection from GW? It is extremely unusual for a team to go undefeated in league play. The Colonials are not a reincarnation of last year’s St. Joe’s (see Jameer Nelson and Delonte West) squad that did not lose until the conference tournament in March.

This is not a harsh criticism or a groundbreaking theory; it just the reality of the situation. During the first half of the season, coach Karl Hobbs hammered home the point that his team is not “there” yet, which means the Colonials still have a long way to go in order to capture the first league title under his tutelage.

Right now, in the midst of what is supposed to be a weak year in the Atlantic 10, the Colonials (11-3) sit atop the league. However, the usual mainstays should not be forgotten. With the exception of 9-5 Dayton, Xavier, Richmond and Temple are each hovering under or above .500 – but as history has shown – GW will not play gimme games against these guys.

Remember, the Colonials have not cut their NCAA Tournament teeth like the Flyers, Musketeers and Spiders, all teams which have routinely have made the NCAA Tournament in the past five years. Hobbs understands this better than anyone else. Until the Colonials can put together a 20-win season and a earn a trip to the Tourney, they will not be on the same level of the Daytons, Richmonds and Xaviers of the world. If you ask Hobbs, he’ll tell you those are still the teams GW is chasing.

Even though the Colonials aren’t “there” yet, they have lived up to the ample media hype this season. They are quick, athletic and energetic – three attributes that make them one of the more entertaining and competitive teams in the country.

But as the loss to Massachusetts proved, Hobbs’ team is not perfect. In essence, the Colonials are the Indianapolis Colts of the Atlantic 10. Both are fast-paced offensive juggernauts that can usually overcome their defensive shortcomings by scoring an ungodly amount of points on a regular basis.

That fast-paced style is a huge reason for the Colonials’ success. Saturday, GW put together a 24-3 run to overcome an 18-point deficit. UMass eventually won, but not many squads have the ability to score points in bunches as the Colonials can.

As of last week, GW was the 11th best scoring team (83.1 points per game) in Division I basketball. Hobbs does not have a Peyton Manning at his disposal, but like the Colts, GW has a variety of offensive weapons. It is commonplace to see four or five Colonials in double figures on any given night. Whether it’s T.J. Thompson knocking down treys (GW shoots 43.2 percent from three, eighth best in D-I), Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Hall working the paint or J.R. Pinnock slashing to the hoop, there always seems to be an abundance of scoring.

However, when a team can slow the game down, problems can arise. After forcing overtime Saturday, the Colonials looked sluggish on offense. They seemed to have trouble getting their plays and only mustered four points in the extra frame. This is not to say the Colonials cannot succeed in their half-court set, but it is clear they are much more comfortable when they can push the ball up the floor and play at a quicker pace.

And while a more consistent half-court offense would be helpful down the stretch, the Colonials have one other major issue to worry about. Their defense, while astronomically improved in recent years, is still suspect. This probably kills Hobbs, who, like Colts coach Tony Dungy, takes pride in his team’s D.

The Colonials are a pressing team that frustrates opponents into turnovers. They are not the Pittsburgh Steelers or Chicago Bears – they are not built to trudge through slugfests with lumbering big men. Thus, they will give up their share of points – which prove to be a killer when their offense sputters. As of last week, GW gave up 70.4 points per game, which ranks 218th out of 326 Division I teams.

To get “there,” the Colonials must continue to control the pace of games so that its defensive strategy (non-stop pressure) will be effective. And as the clich? attests, sometimes offense is the best defense. Like people say about the Colts, teams don’t want to get into “track meets” with the Colonials. Just ask UMass, which survived GW’s lightning quick offensive torrent late in Saturday’s contest.

An educated guess tells me the Colonials will improve on defense and roll through their non-conference schedule. But they’ll likely hit a few snags on the way to the postseason. As the game against UMass proved, GW is tough – but beatable. This is not an indictment; it’s just the reality of the situation.

If the Colonials are truly a tournament team, they will learn to overcome tough losses, bumps in the road, as well as self-doubt. As the players and coaches know, it’s a long way to the top.

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