Will Dempster: Uneven performance raises questions

For Colonials fans hoping for a repeat triumph against Maryland at this Monday’s BB&T Classic, a little pessimism may be in order. After impressive efforts in their first two games, the top-25 Colonials were pushed by the Saint Francis (Pa.) Red Flash for 25 minutes Wednesday night. While ultimately pulling away for a commanding 85-68 victory, the Colonials’ uneven effort raises a number of issues the team will need to address during the rest of the season.

Missing Mensah-Bonsu

If it wasn’t clear before Wednesday night, GW is a completely different team without senior standout Pops Mensah-Bonsu. By coach Karl Hobbs’ own admission, Mensah-Bonsu’s presence in the middle changes games immeasurably.

“He (makes) our offense a lot smoother,” Hobbs said. “In those droughts where we struggle a bit we’ll be able to get the ball into him and he will be able to get positive results.”

During the game, there were many times, particularly in the first half, when the Colonials had a difficult time working the ball inside. When Pops is patrolling the middle, he has the ability to use his top-notch athleticism to put the ball in the hoop. He also represents a strong presence at the center position capable of altering and blocking shots.

Fortunately, the Colonials – whose game plan morphed in Mensah-Bonsu’s absence to feature junior Danilo Pinnock and senior Mike Hall – have Friday’s game against Boston University to reintegrate Mensah-Bonsu into the game plan ahead of Monday’s critical showdown with the Maryland Terrapins.

Playing to the level of our competition

ESPN Bracketologist and St. Joseph’s apologist Joe Lunardi is on to something when he refers to the Colonials in his inaugural NCAA tournament field prediction as “the most unpredictable good team in the country.” GW has a well-documented tendency of struggling against inferior opposition, particularly when playing as a ranked team.

With no disrespect to St. Francis, there were times in the game when GW allowed a less-skilled opponent to dictate the pace of the game. For much of the first half and the beginning of the second half, GW played directly into the Red Flash’s strengths by gambling on defense and forcing bad shots against the zone defense.

Hobbs’ most pressing challenge for the remainder of the season is to ensure the team plays with the same intensity against teams such as Marshall and Morgan State as it will against Maryland and North Carolina State. The Colonials’ status as one of the nation’s top teams will amplify the effort with which opposing teams will play them, increasing the possibility of an upset.

Should Akingbade redshirt?

Wednesday night, Hobbs ended weeks of speculation by announcing that senior forward Dokun Akingbade will redshirt the coming season. Next year’s team will benefit from Akingbade’s veteran presence after the loss of the team’s entire starting frontcourt. For this season however, the loss of Akingbade could leave GW’s frontcourt dangerously thin if one or more players go down with injuries.

Beginning his Colonial career as a walk-on, Akingbade has morphed into one of the most consistent frontcourt performers for GW. While he is not much of an offensive threat, Akingbade is an excellent interior defender and rebounder who adds an element of toughness to the Colonials. His departure all but ensures that Mensah-Bonsu’s primary backup will be 6-11 senior Alex Kireev – whose career in Foggy Bottom has not lived up to expectation.

The lack of a reliable backup could be an issue if Mensah-Bonsu goes down with an injury or is limited by foul trouble. While using a platoon of seniors Omar Williams and Hall or freshman Robert Diggs could be effective in stretches of the out-of-conference schedule, not having a player of Akingbade’s defensive stature could hurt against the Atlantic 10’s strong cadre of frontcourt stars.

Freshmen playing time

The biggest surprise of the season so far has been the strong play of freshmen Montrell McDonald and Rob Diggs. McDonald, who is often the first or second man of the Colonials’ bench, contributed seven points and six rebounds Wednesday night, while Diggs chipped in with six points, three rebounds and two steals. The strong play of the freshmen has enhanced an already deep GW bench and gives Hobbs versatility at a number of positions.

In an interview with The Hatchet earlier this year, Hobbs stressed how important the development of Diggs in particular would be for the team. Given the dearth of big men on next year’s squad, the ability to play Diggs for long stretches will both add another big man to the rotation this year, while giving him quality minutes before he assumes a larger role next year.

McDonald is quickly becoming a fan favorite at the Smith Center. He flies to rebounds, plays good man defense and can throw down a spectacular dunk or two during the game. That he is the first swingman off the bench is a testament to the skill he already brings to the Colonials. When McDonald develops a more consistent jump shot, watch out.

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