Making tournament memories

Media Credit: Cameron Lancaster | Assistant Photo Editor

Media Credit: Cameron Lancaster | Assistant Photo Editor

When fans, scouts and reporters from around the country size up GW this weekend, player names and stat lines may blur together.

The Colonials don’t own the kind of superstars that will leave announcers drooling and opponents quaking. Instead, the first GW NCAA Tournament team since 2007 is back in the spotlight because of a steady starting five and a habit of finding the right man to step up at the right time.

As head coach Mike Lonergan has said since the team was picked to finish 10th in the preseason Atlantic 10 poll, the team turns heads because of its discipline.

“I think our guys really bought into it that this is about winning, and they can leave their mark and banners,” Lonergan said in an interview last week. “When they come back to GW – who scored 12 or 17, no one’s really going to remember that. It’s all about what your team did.”

That chance to leave a mark begins Friday as the Colonials take on the No. 8-seeded Memphis Tigers at 6:55 p.m. in Raleigh, N.C.

It’s one of the most evenly matched second-round games – between two teams that play drastically different styles of basketball. The Tigers, who hold a 23-9 record and play in the American Athletic Conference, boast speed and experience that could counterbalance GW’s frontcourt advantage.

After GW was picked Sunday to play Memphis, Lonergan admitted he didn’t know much about Memphis. On Tuesday, he said he now knows taming the Tigers will be a challenge.

“I have watched some film, I know more about their players. I now realize they swept Louisville, which scares the heck out of me because I consider Louisville one of the top three or four teams in the country,” Lonergan said Tuesday.

The Tigers, in addition to making the NCAA Tournament seven out of the last eight years, have played in a number of marquee games this season. Overall, they went 5-5 against teams in the Associated Press top 25, defeating Gonzaga, splitting the season series with Oklahoma State and sweeping AAC champion Louisville. All are NCAA Tournament teams.

Memphis starts three seniors with tournament experience, led by point guard Joe Jackson, who averages 14.3 points per game. His 4.5 assists per game help make the Tigers the third most selfless team in the country, averaging 17.4 assists per game.

Coming off the bench, the Colonials will need to be on the lookout for Memphis’ three-point specialist, senior Michael Dixon Jr. In his three seasons at Missouri, Dixon Jr. played in four Tournament games, scoring 15 and 22 points in two of them. His proven ability to handle the pressure could lead to a huge game.

Like A-10 foes VCU and Massachusetts, the Tigers are known for their athleticism and “run-and-gun” style of play, as they are at their best when they get out and score in transition.

“That’s gonna be our main goal, to get back on defense and stop those transition baskets,” senior forward Isaiah Armwood said. “That’s gonna be one of the main things we’re gonna have to do.”

Aside from sophomore forward Patricio Garino, GW rarely runs in transition. Instead, the Colonials like to use their size and dominance in the paint to find mismatches in the halfcourt and run plays for their shooters. To advance, they will have to control the tempo of the game, like they did in the first half against the Rams, and win the battle on the boards.

GW will again likely be without sophomore guard Kethan Savage, who has been out since January with a broken foot. He tried to play last weekend in the A-10 tournament, but quickly left the court limping. Lonergan said Tuesday that he was not planning on having Savage.

That will be a big loss in trying to keep up with the quick Memphis backcourt. To control the pace of play, Lonergan instead emphasized that his team will need to take care of the ball and lean on its strengths.

“We’ve been a good team, but nobody can go out there and try and carry us. We’re best when we have 20 assists or five double-figure scorers,” Lonergan said. “That’s what I’m trying to preach this week, because some people can get caught up in all the hype and we’ve got to play as a team. It’s got to be all about ‘we’ and not ‘me.’”

Armwood and sophomore forward Kevin Larsen proved themselves one of the best frontcourts in the A-10, but they will have their hands full with Memphis’ sophomore big man – the appropriately named Shaq Goodwin. The forward pulls in 6.6 rebounds per game and averages 1.8 blocks per game.

Goodwin is “a really good post player, we’re gonna have to keep him off the boards,” Armwood added. “He’s their main inside presence and me and Kevin both are gonna spend some time on him and try to keep him off the boards and from scoring.”

The two may also get the chance to go head-to-head with one of their old teammates: graduate student David Pellom, who transferred out of GW last season. The former Colonial, known for his athletic dunks, is averaging 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds for the Tigers this season.

Neither Armwood nor Larsen has much experience going against Pellom, who was injured last year, but they said it does give them an added incentive to show what he’s missed.

“I know he doesn’t weigh as much as me, so I’ll probably have the advantage there. I texted him and said, ‘Good luck, you’ll need it’ – just a little friendly joke,” Larsen said.

Jokes aside, the Colonials know they weren’t expected to still be playing this deep into March. But after exceeding expectations, it’s now time for them to make memories.

“This is not another game. Our Final Four is on Friday. We’re gonna leave everything on the court and we’re gonna play like it’s the world championship for us,” Garino said.

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