Will Dempster: Men prove tough on the road

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After Charlotte’s successful run in Conference USA – marked by NCAA tournament appearances in seven of the last nine seasons – coaches in the Atlantic 10 conference voted the 49ers to finish second in the league behind GW. Because of the team’s past achievements, pundits often pointed to the two games during conference play when GW and Charlotte would face off as critical contests for both squads. In fact, prominent analysts all but assured a GW letdown on the road.

Instead, GW responded with one of its most complete efforts this season. The Colonials shot more than 50 percent for the third straight game in an efficient offensive performance and held their fourth straight team to under 40 percent shooting on the defensive end.

Several elements before and during the game contributed to this pivotal road victory for the Colonials.

Needed: A wake-up call

During coach Karl Hobbs’ tenure in Foggy Bottom, his teams have been well-known for their mid-season struggles that often turned promising seasons into disappointing ones. In his first season as Colonials’ head coach, Hobbs rode a surprising 10-4 record into A-10 play, only to lose his next 10 games en route to a 12-16 season. In his third year at the helm, disappointing mid-season losses to teams such as Appalachian State, Fairfield (Conn.) and Old Dominion crippled the team’s at-large NCAA tournament resume. Last season, three losses during a four-game stretch to Richmond, Xavier and Massachusetts forced the Colonials to win the A-10 tournament to earn a birth in the Big Dance.

This season had all the indicators of another midseason malaise. After being blown out at North Carolina State, the Colonials narrowly avoided catastrophic losses to Marshall and Saint Louis. Unlike in past years, the team’s midseason struggles did not correspond to a crippling set of defeats – at least not yet. In the past month the Colonials have notched victories against three A-10 powers – at home against Saint Joseph’s and on the road against Temple and Charlotte – against whom they could have easily lost.

Having been forced to reconcile three poor performances with lofty expectations of victory, these challenging contests re-instilled a sense of urgency in a team that at times appeared to coast. Unlike against N.C. State, Marshall and Saint Louis, GW’s last three victories came after blazing starts and large first-half leads. If the Colonials can maintain this type of intensity, they will be nearly impossible to beat in the A-10.

Rice plays big

GW’s best player against the 49ers was clearly Maureece Rice. Not only did Rice score 21 points on efficient 6-for-8 shooting from the field, but he also contributed five assists and had zero turnovers in 28 minutes. Before he arrived GW, everyone knew that Rice was capable of lighting up the scoreboard after his storied high school career. What no one figured was that his ball handling and defense would be such important factors in the Colonials’ success this year, establishing him as a frontrunner for conference sixth man of the year honors.

Rice’s improved ball-handling is evident in both the transition game as well as in the half-court offense. On the fast break, Rice’s abilities nearly ensure that he will either convert the opportunity himself or be able to locate a teammate effectively. On defense, Rice creates a number of one-on-one steal opportunities as well as effectively switching on screens. Although he will be coming off the bench for the remainder of the season, Rice’s further development in these areas will be important for GW’s success after this year’s seniors graduate.

Containing Withers

GW’s interior defenders should have had difficulty matching up with Charlotte center Curtis Withers, a pre-season first-team all-A-10 selection and a frontrunner for conference player of the year. Averaging a double-double with nearly 18 points and 11 rebounds per game, Withers is key in the 49ers’ effort to counterbalance an offense dependent on three-point shooting.

Using what Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz described as “extremely physical play” in the lane, GW held Withers to nine points on two-of-nine shooting and harassed him into committing six turnovers.

Because the Colonials were able to neutralize the 49ers’ best inside presence, GW forced Charlotte to rely on its three-point shooting to try and win the game. And because GW did an above-average job defending the three-point shot, Charlotte was unable to mount an attack balanced enough to force the Colonials into making defensive mistakes.

Looking ahead: GW’s critical matchup at Xavier

The most significant game left on GW’s schedule is a Feb. 2 matchup on the road against Xavier. The Musketeers figure to be the last marquee team GW will face in conference, and the consequences of the game are important both for GW’s tournament resume and will have implications for GW’s seed.

Because GW has such a poor strength of schedule, every game against a marquee opponent is an opportunity for GW to justify that it belongs among the elite teams in the country. Complicating this game is the fact that the Colonials have not won on the road at Xavier during Hobbs’ tenure. The Musketeers are also battle-tested, only losing to Illinois, Saint Louis and Creighton this season.

Both teams are deep, talented and well-coached. Although a loss to Xavier would not be catastrophic, this game will be the definitive point at which GW’s real quality as a team will be judged.

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