Although the Colonials suffered their first and only defeat of the season over winter break, the team has solidified its place as one of college basketball’s elite squads. Let’s take a look at some of the trends and events that have marked the team over the past month.
Trio of talented guards
After T.J. Thompson graduated last year, many fans wondered whether any of the team’s remaining guards would be capable of replicating his energy, outside shooting and leadership. The next three best guards on the squad were all talented at the end of last year, but each had lingering questions and concerns.
While Carl Elliott was one of the quickest guards baseline to baseline in the country, some wondered whether he could better control a game and cut down on his turnovers. After being named the conference’s top sixth man last year, some wondered whether Danilo Pinnock could adapt to a starting role. After one of the most storied high school careers in Philadelphia basketball history, some wondered whether the limited number of minutes Maureece Rice played last year sufficiently prepared him to assume an increased role this year.
All three players have far exceeded expectations brought upon them at the beginning of the year. Elliott has decreased his turnovers per game nearly a full turnover. While his assist numbers are down slightly, Elliott has greatly improved his three-point scoring this season, shooting a team-best 51 percent from beyond the arc. Pinnock has emerged as the Colonials’ go-to scorer, averaging a team-high 15.6 points per game. Rice has emerged as GW’s top sixth man, improving his scoring average from 3.4 during his freshman season to 12 this year as the first man off the bench.
Is GW really over-achieving?
Despite assertions to the contrary by coach Karl Hobbs, the Colonials are not overachieving this year. GW currently stands 13-1 – their best record at this point in the season during Hobbs’ tenure – resides firmly in both top-25 polls and is the favorite to repeat as Atlantic 10 conference champions. Hobbs’ assertions to the contrary run the risk of demeaning the special season the Colonials have compiled thus far.
That being said, I understand why Hobbs continues to make this assertion. The men’s team is in an untenable media position. Instead of being afforded the luxury of a few losses most elite teams enjoy, GW is overwhelmingly expected to win, and any loss could be spun as justification to dismiss the team’s progress. Hobbs may intend to use the “over-achieving” moniker to try to downplay these expectations. While the intent is noble, Hobbs should use more direct language with the media that does not carry such a negative connotation.
Best half of basketball
GW’s first-half performance against Saint Joseph’s was by far the most complete play seen from the Colonials this season. GW used intense ball pressure to force the Hawks into abysmal 28.6 percent shooting for the half. The pressure also forced St. Joe’s standout guard Abdulai Jalloh into one of his worst performances of the season – a mere nine points, more than seven off his season average.
Although critics of the Colonials point to their relatively soft out-of-conference schedule and inconsistent play against inferior opposition as reasons to dub them “overrated,” the team’s first-half play against St. Joe’s is an indicator of how good GW can be. If the team plays with similar intensity for the rest of the season or during postseason play, it is very possible their results could be special.
Consecutive overtime contests
After two consecutive overtime contests against what some consider inferior competition, many justifiably voiced concern about GW’s overall performance. While both games exposed some serious flaws in the Colonials’ play, such performances are simply part of college basketball.
Somehow, expectations for GW to win have risen to such a degree that a loss or an ugly win are cause to completely demean what the team has done for the entire first part of the season. Fans need to understand that upsets are commonplace in college basketball. Because there is significant parity in the college game, any team is a threat to defeat any other team on a given night. Fans should expect the team to lose some games during the year; it is inevitable.
With conference play having begun in full force, it is necessary to examine which teams will fight GW for conference supremacy. On the whole, the conference has improved greatly from last year’s one-NCAA- tournament-bid performance. Teams in the conference have returned a large percentage of players from last year and even the conference’s perennial bottom-dwellers are enjoying resurgent performances.
Joining GW at the top of the A-10 is Xavier, which is enjoying another successful season with an 11-2 record to date. Forward Brian Thornton, with 15.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, and guard Stanley Burrell, with 13.9 points, key a very balanced and potent attack. Xavier’s only losses were a three-point defeat at the hands of Big Ten powerhouse Illinois and a two-point loss against a very good Creighton team.
Another factor in the battle for the conference championship will be newcomer Charlotte. After enduring a challenging out-of-conference schedule – including contests against Indiana, Mississippi State, Davidson and Rutgers – the 49ers are 3-1 in the conference and finding their stride at the right time.
Teams such as Temple, St. Joe’s and Richmond will also help make conference play challenging for the Colonials.