For Colonials, conference schedule offers no rest

For fans of the men’s basketball team, the best part of the season has finally arrived: Atlantic 10 play. Regardless of how the squad finished its out-of-conference schedule, the conference season is always exciting. The past three seasons, GW has been one of the top dogs. But this year is different, raising the question: where do the Colonials stand this season?

In October, the Colonials were picked to finish seventh out of the 14 teams. Many who have followed the squad’s success in recent seasons believed this was too low and that GW would once again challenge for conference supremacy. A rocky 4-6 non-conference record, including two losses to teams from the lowly America East conference, and three road blowouts against more quality opponents, has the debate raging once again.

More than anything the Colonials have done so far, the best indicator of what to expect may be the strength of the rest of the conference. After a few down years, the A-10 is experiencing a revival that has placed it with the country’s top conferences. The A-10 currently ranks fifth in conference RPI, ahead of the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences, two power leagues.

The A-10 also has three schools ranked in the top 25: Xavier, Dayton and Rhode Island. Last season, it had none. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the station’s resident March Madness predictor, has all three squads plus Massachusetts in his current bracket.

No. 20 Xavier is a regular conference power, with this year being no exception. The Musketeers have defeated then-No. 8 Indiana, Kansas State and Virginia in out-of-conference play, three quality teams. GW’s first match-up with the Musketeers is coming up this Saturday at Smith Center, and has the potential to get ugly. Xavier could win this one by as much as 30: My prediction is 85-60 Musketeers.

No. 14/18 (AP, ESPN/USA Today) Dayton has arguably been the strongest team in the conference so far, currently sitting with a 14-1 record. The Flyers are led by senior star Brian Roberts, who averages more than 20 points per game, and freshman Chris Wright who could be the league’s top rookie. Dayton knocked off then-No.11 University of Louisville and manhandled then-No. 6 University of Pittsburgh, who had been previously undefeated. The Colonials don’t have to play Dayton until Feb. 9 and their young players could be playing better ball by then. Still, I expect Dayton to handle the Colonials fairly easily, by a score of 80-65.

No. 23/21 Rhode Island is led by senior Will Daniels, who averages more than 19 points and seven rebounds a game, and guard Jimmy Baron, a top shooter, who averages more than 16 points. The Rams defeated Syracuse University at Carrier Dome at the beginning of December. Daniels will be an extremely tough match-up for GW, and their first showdown with the Rams comes on the road just four days after hosting Xavier, so the team will be in the middle of a tough stretch. My prediction for that game: Rhode Island 83, GW 72.

Massachusetts also boasts a road victory over the Orange, as well as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Boston College. Senior Gary Forbes and sophomore Ricky Harris both average about 20 points a game for the Minutemen, who have been somewhat surprising in their success this season.

At 11-4, Duquesne has been perhaps the biggest surprise in the A-10 as the Dukes are just a year removed from a campus shooting that sidelined many of its top players. The squad is currently ranked fourth in the nation in scoring, averaging 86.6 points per game.

Then there are the Philadelphia schools: Saint Joseph’s (9-4), Temple (6-8) and La Salle (6-9). St. Joe’s has five players averaging in double-digits, including senior Pat Calathes, who averages 18 points and eight rebounds per game. The Owls and Explorers are two teams with whom the Colonials may be able to contend.

Charlotte already has solid wins against Wake Forest and No. 19 Clemson and has a strong roster led by star Leemire Goldwire. Perennial cellar-dwellers Richmond, Fordham and St. Bonaventure have all improved.

GW certainly has enough talent to battle any of these teams, but it will be tough to beat them consistently. LaSalle, St. Bonaventure, Richmond, and Fordham are all teams the Colonials should beat, while St. Joe’s, Duquesne, Massachusetts and Charlotte will be extremely tough match-ups for this young Colonials roster.

As far as the Colonials are concerned, this is a team somewhat in disarray. While the Saint Louis victory could provide GW with some confidence, it may end up being an aberration rather than the norm. The squad has struggled to find consistency all season and has just two players, juniors Wynton Witherspoon and Rob Diggs, averaging in double figures.

Given the Colonials’ uneven play so far this year, combined with stellar play from the rest of the league, expecting even a .500 win percentage in the conference would be a bit of a stretch. Almost the entire squad must exceed expectations the rest of the season, or the A-10 schedule could be a rough one for the Colonials.

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