With all the hype surrounding the men’s basketball team, it’s easy to join in the optimism for the Colonials, who are off to a 2-0 start after wins against Grambling State and Rutgers in their opening weekend.
But once the smoke clears and GW begins to match up against more formidable opponents, fans may be reminded of the team’s most glaring weakness from last year: bench production.
That single shortfall was the most significant obstacle to GW’s chance at competing with the nation’s elites last season, when the team finished 24-9, totaling its second-most wins in program history.
Of the Colonials’ 33 games last season, GW’s bench was outscored 24 times. For comparison’s sake, Saint Louis, which finished the season 27-7, had its bench outscored 15 times and VCU, which finished 26-9, had its bench outscored just eight times.
Can GW’s starters power through and compensate for lackluster bench performances this year? After all, they did it for the majority of last season: Out of the 24 times the Colonials bench was outscored, GW still emerged victorious 17 times.
But the pressure on GW’s starters to consistently produce every game is hefty for any collegiate starting five. And when a starter has an off night – a la Maurice Creek against Memphis (nine points on 2-13 shooting) in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament – you start to cringe at the sight of the boxscore – which reveals the bench was outscored 25-3 by the Tigers.
Head coach Mike Lonergan, who has said on multiple occasions that he wishes his roster were deeper, can’t afford to play with a seven-man rotation like he did for most of last season. He added last night that he hopes to play 10-deep.
Junior guards Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage are both making full returns to the floor after rehabbing injuries sustained last season – McDonald to his left hip and Savage to his foot.
But despite both McDonald and Savage looking healthy to start the season, I can’t help but grimace every time McDonald hits the floor after a drive for fear of last season’s shaky replacements. Luckily, they’re a mere memory: Nemanja Mikic graduated in May and Paris Maragkos, Miguel Cartagena and Skyler White have transferred to other programs.
But this year’s bench features just two players with prior college experience: junior forward Ryan McCoy, who has been sidelined the last few weeks with a minor back injury, and sophomore guard Nick Griffin.
Lonergan needs Griffin to step in as the team’s best three-point shooter in the absence of Mikic and Creek. Griffin had a 48.8 three-point shooting percent last year – that needs to carry over into this season.
After a nice showing against Grambling State, where he totaled eight points in nine minutes (including two three-pointers), Griffin turned in a six-point effort in eight minutes against the Scarlet Knights.
He appeared hesitant at times, though, and with five minutes left in the first half, had a lay-up attempt blocked after a steal by Larsen at half court. Lonergan will be forced to trade a deep offensive threat for Griffin’s less proficient defensive presence.
McCoy’s production, though, is a question mark: He averaged nine minutes, 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds per game through two seasons for the Jaspers, but we have yet to see him take the floor as a Colonial.
The rest of the bench is filled with five promising but still inexperienced freshmen, of whom Lonergan said he hopes two will emerge as impact players right away: freshmen guard Darian Bryant and forward Yuta Watanabe.
Watanabe has already begun to carve out his impact for the Colonials after just two games of the year. Undoubtedly, he still has work to do in the weight room, but he’ll likely become a threat at Lonergan’s disposal, displaying the ability to get to the rim and sink a three-point shot – he finished 3-5 from deep in GW’s opening contests. Watanabe will likely become Lonergan’s sixth man in due time.
In the first half against Rutgers on Sunday, Watanabe was the team’s second-best scorer, and Lonergan rewarded him with 17 minutes of playing time. Watanabe’s maturity on the floor and confidence to take shots was no better demonstrated than with three minutes left in the first half, when he stole the ball in the paint from Rutgers’ Greg Lewis and then on the other end hit a three-point shot in transition off of an assist from McDonald.
Bryant’s main hurdle will come on the defensive end – he seems to be a step behind at times, and often allows players to get past him. Offensively, Bryant has shown the ability to run the floor and plays with a certain tenacity that with time, can develop into another formidable bench option for Lonergan.
The freshman class has little breathing room before stepping into a high-stakes game situation. And it’s unlikely, nor is it fair to expect, that the freshman kinks will be straightened out before their first major test.
GW’s much anticipated matchup against UVA is just five days away, and the Colonials will have to square up with the No. 9 Cavaliers in Charlottesville, relying heavily on the junior core to do most of the heavy lifting.
The Colonials’ starters, health permitting, have the capability to take this team far, but if the starting five’s production goes uncomplemented like it did for most of last season, GW will struggle against the country’s better teams.
Sean Hurd, a junior majoring in exercise science, is a former Hatchet sports editor and The Hatchet’s sports columnist.