Colonials hope to keep their wits against Rams’ frenzied defense

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

Guard Joe McDonald loses the ball due to a VCU double team last season.

“Havoc” takes over the Smith Center on Tuesday.

Now two games into conference play, the men’s basketball team will look to defend its perfect 8-0 record at home against one of its toughest, most anticipated opponents of the season: VCU.

GW (13-3) vs. VCU (13-3)

Where? Smith Center
When? Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Last meeting: VCU 84, GW 57 (Feb. 16, 2013)

The game, an expected sellout against the 2011 Final Four program, has been on players’ minds all season.

“The team I’m really looking forward to playing is VCU because we took a big L to them last year when we lost by like 20 or 30 points,” sophomore Kethan Savage said in an interview last week. “Their style of basketball is something I’m really accustomed to playing. It’s always a fun game going up and down. I think we’ve got the tools to handle that type of basketball, so it’s going to be a real fun game.”

The Rams (13-3) enter Tuesday’s game having won nine of their last 10 games, with their most recent win coming against George Mason in its conference opener, 71-57.

And VCU, known for a suffocating defense, will be fresh. The Rams will have five days off before they take the floor against the Colonials. If they can pressure the GW backcourt and disrupt the Colonials’ halfcourt offense, much like Kansas State did earlier this season, GW will have their hands full.

While the Rams do not struggle for offensive production, their defense separates them from the rest of the pack. Head coach Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” defense typically rattles, contains and stops other teams with ease. The Rams press after every score and dead-ball inbound, play at a frenzied pace and try to wear down their opponents.

Media Credit: Cameron Lancaster | Assistant Photo Editor
Isaiah Armwood drives up against a Rhode Island defender on Saturday. The Colonials will face a much tougher opponent Tuesday.

The Rams are first in the nation in total steals (208), averaging 13 steals per game. To put that in perspective, the teams that rank second in steals – UCLA and Louisville – have just 162 total steals each. Sophomore guard Briante Weber anchors the defense, ranking first in the nation with 59 steals.

In the teams’ lone matchup in Richmond last season, the VCU defense forced 25 turnovers on its way to a 84-57 slaughtering of the Colonials. They also managed to shoot 53.5 percent from the field, while draining eight threes, rounding out their complete domination of GW.

If the Rams have a similar offensive performance to go along with their likely defensive success, GW will have to play its best basketball of the year to pull out the win.

“I think we’re going to have to shoot the ball better,” head coach Mike Lonergan said after his team’s win over Rhode Island on Saturday. “I like that we’re not turning the ball over like last year, but they’re going to bring that ‘Havoc’-type defense that they call it in here, so we have to be confident and strong with the ball, and hopefully we’ll shoot a little better.”

Despite two straight, quiet games, graduate student Maurice Creek continues to lead the team at 14.8 ppg, while much-improved sophomore Kethan Savage follows close behind at 13.8 ppg. The two create a tough backcourt matchup for the Rams, as they serve as threats driving the lane and shooting from the outside.

In the frontcourt, senior Isaiah Armwood and sophomore Kevin Larsen will need to win the battle on the boards against a VCU team that has been out-rebounded in nine of its games this season, including its last six. Armwood (7.9 rpg) and Larsen (6.1 rpg) can control the glass to limit the Rams’ second-chance points and get GW into transition quickly so they can beat the press of VCU’s defense.

“Our secret weapon against the press is Kevin,” Lonergan said. “He does a really good job, so we’ll let him handle the ball a lot against them.”

The difference-maker in the game for the Colonials may be the return of sophomore Patricio Garino. Since getting regular playing time over the last four games, Garino has averaged 12.25 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

If GW can handle against the pressure of the VCU defense and get hot against a team that allows opponents to shoot 43.5 percent from the field, the Colonials could find themselves fighting to hold onto a lead late in the game.

“The key with VCU is you’ve got to keep your composure and get shots, not turnovers,” Lonergan said.

Media Credit: Sophie McTear | Hatchet Design Assistant

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