From Duke to the University of North Carolina to N.C. State, the state of North Carolina is well known for its powerhouse college basketball programs. While former Conference USA mainstay Charlotte may not be quite at the level of those Atlantic Coast Conference programs, the 49ers seem to be making a positive impression on their new Atlantic 10 opponents.
“They have an advantage coming from Conference USA because so many teams in that league are similar to us, so they’re used to that,” GW head coach Karl Hobbs said Wednesday. “Their talent level is very, very good. As far as talent goes, if they’re not the most talented team (in the A-10), they’re certainly one of the most talented teams.”
The team is 4-1 in A-10 play so far, placing them third behind GW and Xavier (both 3-0) going into Saturday’s game against the Colonials in Charlotte.
Led by senior power forward Curtis Withers and junior shooting guard De’Angelo Alexander, Charlotte was picked by the A-10 coaches and media to finish second in the conference before the season, behind just GW. However, the team got off to a slow start and lost three of its first four games, causing many to list them as underachievers.
Recently the team has been more successful, aided by Withers’s active streak of four consecutive double-doubles and a stretch of seemingly unimpressive opponents. They have won six of their last seven games, only losing to A-10 rival Xavier at home Jan. 14.
For GW to beat Charlotte, it will have to slow the 49ers’ streaky offense. Withers is considered by some to be the best player in the A-10 and one of the best power forwards in the country. At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, he is both agile and powerful around the basket, while also possessing a quick enough first step and sufficient ball handling ability to make a play facing the basket.
“I really think we have to find a way to not let him have a breakout game,” Hobbs said. “He’ll play well because he’s good but we just can’t let him get something like 24 or 25 points.”
Senior center Pops Mensah-Bonsu must be active on the boards to prevent Withers from getting offensive rebounds and second-chance points, Hobbs said. Withers is known to have games where he loses focus or gets frustrated early, so his play early is often indicative of his performance throughout.
Alexander, who transferred from Oklahoma after his freshman year and was forced to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, has been spectacular on occasion, lackluster on others. Alexander shot seven-of-10 from three-point territory en route to scoring a career-high 32 points in a losing effort against Valparaiso Dec. 10. On the other end of the spectrum, Alexander has had one-for-14 and two-for-11 shooting efforts this year as well.
GW is notoriously vulnerable to good outside shooting, allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from three-point territory; Charlotte averages more than 22 three-point attempts per game. GW is powered by strong guard play of their own, The effectiveness of juniors Carl Elliot and Danilo Pinnock and sophomore Maureece Rice has allowed Hobbs to keep games at an up-tempo pace.
Freshman Montrell McDonald’s defensive versatility will allow him to help double-team Withers in the post as well as guard Alexander on the perimeter.
“I think this game could be big for (McDonald) because he’s one of the guys that we’ll look to put on Alexander if he starts to make some shots,” Hobbs said. “For a freshman, he’s the best defensive player to ever come in here by far.”
A loss by GW would drop them from a tie for first to third place in the A-10 and leave them playing catchup during the rest of the conference schedule.
“This game is important because it will keep us in first place and it makes us a couple games ahead of Charlotte while keeping us chasing Xavier,” Hobbs said.