Head coach Mike Lonergan and junior forward Kevin Larsen knew it was coming since the end of last season.
With the exit of one half of last year’s frontcourt tandem in Isaiah Armwood, opposing teams were inevitably going to double-team Larsen in the post whenever he touched the ball, forcing him to make plays as a passer and putting pressure on the teammates around him to become finishers.
Last Friday against UVA, the Cavaliers proved how debilitating a successful double-team could be to the Colonials’ production. Almost every time Larsen touched the ball in his 31 minutes of play, Virginia players magnetically swarmed, pressuring the GW big man and forcing him to turn over the ball after errant pass attempts sailed over the heads of teammates or were simply out of reach. (Larsen did connect with guard Patricio Garino in the lane on one occasion, but Garino was denied at the rim.)
Larsen must start playing like the player he claims to be and the big man the team needs him to be. Otherwise, as more proficient teams apply the double-team in the post, the Colonials will be forced to rely on its outside shooting and guard penetration to carry them. The Armwood safety blanket is gone.
Larsen, one of the team’s best passers, turned the ball over a game-high four times Friday, marking only his third game as a Colonial in which he has tallied four or more turnovers – the others include against Rutgers his freshman season, with four, and against VCU in last year’s A-10 tournament semifinal, when he totaled six. Of the five GW starters last season, Larsen committed the least turnovers while playing the second-most minutes.
Larsen currently leads the Colonials with eight turnovers on the season.
But beyond the turnovers, UVA shut down Larsen’s entire game. His stat line from the second half of Friday’s game: 0-1 from the field and one rebound.
If it wasn’t evident in the Colonials’ first two games of the season, it was proved Friday night that the GW offense revolves around Larsen, and his struggles against the Cavaliers caused their offensive strategy to disintegrate.
His inability to produce offensively, coupled with low production from frontcourt mate John Kopriva, took away the Colonials’ low post threat for the game. GW became a one-dimensional team, taking ill-advised and contested shots in the second half that resulted in shooting 20 percent from the field.
Granted, Virginia has a noted defense (currently ranked fourth in the country in points allowed per game), and Lonergan called Larsen’s errors uncharacteristic.
But Larsen’s performance against the Cavaliers shouldn’t have surprised Colonials fans – in reality, his performances against top-ranked opponents over his career have been hit or miss.
Friday’s two-point (on three shot attempts), three-rebound performance was almost identical to his production in a loss to Kansas State in 2012 (two points, three shot attempts, two rebounds). Against Marquette last season, Larsen went scoreless while collecting six rebounds and totaling four assists. But Larsen has also had his fair share of strong performances, including a 14-point, six-rebound effort in a win over Creighton and a 22-point, seven-rebound night in a victory over VCU.
Overall, it’s been a sluggish start to the season for Larsen, who in each of the Colonials’ three games has taken a while to get into a rhythm in the early going. This time last season, Larsen was averaging 13 points and eight rebounds. Through three games this year, he has averaged eight points and seven rebounds despite playing slightly more minutes.
If Larsen continues to struggle with the double-team, Lonergan may want to consider another way to utilize his go-to big. Though Lonergan has said that he wants Larsen to operate more in the paint this season, the fourth-year head coach, who has previously relied on Larsen as a ball-handler, could consider using him at the top of the key – like he did at different points last season in the absence of junior guard Kethan Savage. This could give Larsen room to work and his teammates the ability to flash into a possibly more vacant lane for Larsen to find them.
Larsen will have a game to work out the kinks against a lesser Longwood team Wednesday night, but may run into another double-team defense against an undefeated Seton Hall team Nov. 29.
Sean Hurd, a junior majoring in exercise science, is The Hatchet’s sports columnist.