Analysis: Colonials bothered by zone, injuries

Playing with a broken nose, as it turns out, is not so much painful as it is a pain. Just ask Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who took a shot to the face during his team’s loss to Massachusetts Jan. 15. After having surgery, the forward played the following two games with a protective mask, which was so uncomfortable he took it off while shooting free throws – not to mention the fact that he shot a combined 4-for-13 from the floor.

Head trainer Chris Hennelly said the mask is “annoying because if you put it on, you can see it sits so far out from your eyes that if you’re looking, you have a piece of plastic (in your view).”

So it should come as little surprise that before Tuesday night’s game against Xavier, Mensah-Bonsu did away with the protective gear altogether.

“The guy has such limited vision with that mask on, and today he just said, ‘I’m just playing without it coach,'” head coach Karl Hobbs said Tuesday night. “So I had to check with the athletic director to make sure if he broke it again, we had enough money in the budget to pay for a second operation. And when he said we had enough money I said, ‘Hey Pops, you can play without it. We got enough money to fix it.'”

Fortunately for Mensah-Bonsu, GW also had enough money to order him a more comfortable, customized mask last week. To do this, they had to take him down to a local prosthetic clinic (the people who make plastic arms and legs – and basketball masks, apparently), which performed a laser scan of his face so the mask would be custom-molded just for him.

The new mask was supposed to arrive before Tuesday’s game, but get this – the computers at the prosthetic clinic that had Mensah-Bonsu’s face scan information on it were reportedly stolen. Were the bandits fans of a certain Atlantic 10 school in Ohio?

Conspiracy theorists can play with that one, but then again, playing without the mask seems like the best thing to happen to Pops since he broke his nose in the first place. In just 26 minutes Tuesday night, he had a team-high 14 points, 8 rebounds, a block and a steal. While the new mask was supposed to arrive on Wednesday, team officials now don’t even know whether Pops will wear it.

Getting Mensah-Bonsu healthy and comfortable out on the court is important for the Colonials because of what he does for their offense. That much was evident Tuesday night by the difference between GW with Pops in the game and GW with him on the bench.

In fact, you could say the game didn’t really start for GW until he came in. Hobbs kept him out of the starting lineup, along with senior T.J. Thompson, who is nursing a knee injury, “so we could kind of hold up the fort and then bring those guys in,” he said.

But in the first two minutes of the game, the Colonials looked sluggish and fell behind 4-0. Then, at the 18:11 mark, Mensah-Bonsu entered to a loud ovation from the crowd. On the first possession, he got an opening in the lane and looked like he wanted to dunk the ball so badly he might have brought the hoop down had Xavier not fouled him.

He made both free throws, and within a minute, he had a block and a steal, followed by two consecutive dunks. 6-4 GW. The game had begun.

“He makes the difference because he’s sort of a bail-out guy for us,” Hobbs said. “We just throw the ball in to him and nine times out of 10 he scores pretty good.”

And when he starts doing that, Xavier’s Stanley Burrell said it forces opponents to adjust.

“We all have to collapse down even more,” Burrell said. “I think if T.J. Thompson was 100 percent, which I can tell he probably wasn’t, it really would have been hard, because we’re all collapsing down trying to help our big men out on Pops. And he kicks it back out to T.J. Luckily when Pops was out of the game, we took advantage of it.”

Thompson is the other key component for GW, not only because he is a senior and the team’s leading scorer but also because he leads the Atlantic 10 in three-point shooting percentage.

Ever since West Virginia beat GW on Dec. 29 with a zone defense, every team except Richmond has played the zone against the Colonials.

“We may be the only team in the country that has played a whole month of basketball and every team has played us 40 minutes of zone other than Richmond,” Hobbs said. “I think we’re going to continue to see it. So we’re just going to have to get better against it.”

The way that will happen – or won’t – will depend on GW’s guards, led by Thompson, making outside shots. When they do this, as they did in the win over Maryland, it doesn’t matter if the defense clamps down on Mensah-Bonsu. That will come at a price, because GW is the best shooting team in the conference.

But if opponents offer GW the outside shot and Thompson (8 points per game in his last four games) and his supporting cast of guards (the team has not combined for more than five three-pointers in any of its last five games, after doing so in eight of its first 12 games) don’t make them, then all of the sudden they’re playing a game in the 60s, and those are not the kind of games GW is geared toward.

So how do the Colonials get out of this funk?

“Our shooters have just got to start making some shots,” Hobbs said.

Sounds so simple you wouldn’t expect to hear it from a coach, but that’s about it. Make shots, and keep your star forward’s nose intact.

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