Posted Friday, March 17, 6:10 p.m. GREENSBORO, N.C. — This is the one everybody’s been waiting for. After drawing a surprising eight seed on selection Sunday, GW fans have longed for a second-round matchup with the Duke Blue Devils, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and easily one of the most successful teams in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Duke boasts the best head coach in the country in Mike Krzyzewski; two of the top five players in college basketball in J.J. Redick and Sheldon Williams; and two of the top freshmen in college basketball in Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts.
Despite the history behind the program and the overall prowess of this Duke Blue Devil team, they are not unbeatable. And while it is possible that Duke would win eight or nine games out of 10 in a matchup against the Colonials, there are a number of things GW can do to win this game.
Get out and press
During Coach Karl Hobbs’ tenure the Colonials have instituted a relentless pressure defense that forces their opponents to make mistakes and turn the ball over. The Blue Devils are a team that could be very susceptible to this kind of pressure. Paulus has proven to be prone to careless turnovers. Thursday night against Southern, Paulus coughed the ball up a remarkable seven times. The team as a whole surrendered 20 turnovers.
The level of the Colonials’ guard play is a significant advantage. Look for GW to throw two or even three defenders at Paulus as he brings the ball up the court with the hope of rattling him enough to force errant passes to eager Colonials prowling the passing lanes.
Redick acknowledged GW’s press during a Friday news conference.
“We know they are going to try to put pressure on us and get us to turn the ball over, so they can get out into transition where they excel,” he said. “Our assist-to-turnover-ratio tomorrow can be a big thing.”
If GW can use their ever-changing defensive schemes to disrupt the Blue Devils they have an excellent chance to win.
Make someone else beat you
Everyone knows about Redick and Williams. The two average 46 points between them while no other player on Duke registers more than 10 points per game. Thursday night against the Jaguars, Williams and Redick combined for 58 of the team’s 70 points. McRoberts was the only other player on Duke to register more than two points.
Averaging an astounding 27.8 points per game, Redick has proven to be as close to impossible to guard as any player in the country. Williams on the other hand is much more containable, especially for a team such as GW. The Colonials boast a number of versatile players measuring 6 foot 8 or higher. Although seniors Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Hall will draw the assignment on Williams most of the night, the Colonials can also through 6-foot-11 Alex Kireev, 6-foot-9 Omar Williams or even 6-foot-8 Regis Koundjia on the “Landlord.”
Mensah-Bonsu articulated this strategy of using a number of players on Williams during a Friday news conference.
“Our strategy is to make him work on both ends of the floor,” he said. “We’re going to have to attack him when he’s on defense, and play physical on offense. It’s going to be a tough job.”
Williams, however, did not feel like the GW frontcourt was markedly different from the looks he’s received from teams the Blue Devils have played this year.
“They have a lot of guys with height,” he said. “The good thing is that I have been going against teams like that for a lot of this season, where they change up a lot of guys on me. So, I feel good about going against that tomorrow.”
The game plan will be very similar on Redick. Hall said Omar Williams has drawn the assignment of guarding the potential national player of the year at the game’s outset. The Colonials will also rotate Carl Elliott, whom Coach K characterized as “very big and strong for a guard,” Danilo Pinnock and even Hall into that responsibility.
The variety of looks the Colonials will throw at the Blue Devils’ two standouts will have a marked impact on the game. Giving a number of players the responsibility to match up against both of them for short stretches will keep them fresher. Given that the Colonials have a number of great defenders, the quality of defense on Redick and Williams will not decrease in quality to a significant extent.
If the scheme is successful, the Colonials could hope to neutralize one of the Blue Devil standouts – to whatever that entails. This would force Duke to rely on the play of some of its role players to step up and play at a higher level. If this happens, GW could find itself on the winning end of a huge upset.
Key matchups to watch
Pops Mensah-Bonsu v. Sheldon Williams
It is difficult to imagine any single player in the country matching up favorably to the best post player in Division I men’s basketball. That being said, however, Mensah-Bonsu is the type of athletic, mobile big man that could give Williams trouble. After watching Mensah-Bonsu maneuver Thursday night in the low post, it is clear that he is nearly 100 percent effective coming off his surgery. Look for Mensah-Bonsu to use his athleticism to force Williams into biting his ball fakes and getting him into foul trouble.
Williams is an offensive terror in his own right. He has a battery of post moves that are better than virtually every other college basketball player. He is especially adept at following his own misses in cleaning the offensive glass.
The best weapon the Colonials have against Williams is the ability to use their athleticism to force him into early foul trouble. Mensah-Bonsu’s success in this endeavor is critical for GW’s prospects.
Carl Elliott v. Greg Paulus
This is a matchup characterized by a contrast in experience. Elliott is one of the most improved guards in the country, while Paulus has a penchant for getting rattled in big games. Paulus is an excellent passer and an improving floor general. Elliott is a big, physical guard and a gifted one-on-one defender. The test will be whether Elliott’s consistent on-ball pressure will force Paulus into making poor choices with the basketball or whether the freshman can play at the level he has during some points of the season.
GW’s supporting cast v. Duke’s role players
The Colonials are one of the most balanced scoring teams in the country, boasting five players averaging double-digit points per game. Duke’s third leading scorer is McRoberts at 8.5. Thursday night, six Colonials registered double-digit scoring totals compared with Duke’s two. Whether GW’s supporting cast can continue to provide a balanced attack and the Blue Devils’ role players do not play at a higher level will prove pivotal in the game.