Sean Hurd: Tweak the offense to power GW past conference opponents

The men’s basketball team is in need of an offensive spark.

After beginning Atlantic 10 play 4-1, it’s becoming increasingly clear that despite a superior defense, what will hold the Colonials back as they continue conference play is their offense, which, for the time being, lacks an identity.

GW can attribute its recent offensive miscues to poor ball movement, poor energy from the starting five at the start of games and the lack of both a three-point threat and go-to scorer.

With two games against subpar competition remaining until they face their toughest three-game conference stretch of the year, the Colonials could benefit from a few tweaks to its offensive approach: move the ball, lean on junior point guard Joe McDonald to become a scorer and insert freshman forward Yuta Watanabe into the starting rotation.

The red flags have begun with the starting five’s inability to consistently get off to quick starts at the beginning of games – due, in large part, to a lack of energy on the floor.

Against La Salle on Jan. 10, their worst offensive performance of the season, the Colonials failed to score for the first 12 minutes. Against Richmond last Thursday, starters didn’t connect until eight minutes into the opening half. A quick start on Saturday against George Mason was quelled by an ensuing seven-and-a-half-minute scoreless streak.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Sean Hurd

For much of this season, Watanabe has provided energy off the bench, and remains one of the team’s better shooters. Head coach Mike Lonergan should insert Watanabe into the lineup and have junior swingman Patricio Garino come off the bench.

While Garino has been exceptional on defense, he’s tended to pass on open-shot attempts, instead trying to penetrate and create shots in a crowded lane.

Inserting Watanabe could put the Colonials in a position to start games with the same energy they tend to find midway in the opening half. And Garino has performed well off the bench, most notably in a winning effort against VCU last season when he scored 25 points.

Despite the chemistry and shared experience among the Core Four, the juniors haven’t been able to move the ball at the same level at which they effectively broke down defenses last season.

Isolated play has led to poor shot selection, contested shots, turnovers or a ball-handler dribbling out the shot clock.

Team assists have decreased (though turnovers remain roughly identical to last season). Through the first 18 games last season, GW totaled 252 assists. This season, at the same mark, the Colonials have totaled just 222. The team has totaled single-digit assist totals in 10 of its 18 games, four of which have come during conference play. The Colonials recorded just two single-digit assist games all of last season. They rank 13th in the conference in assists per game at 11.1, just above George Mason.

Individually, McDonald has totaled 23 fewer assists through 18 games this season compared to last – although he’s increased his rebounding presence, totaling 29 more rebounds. Assist numbers are also down for junior guard Kethan Savage, who’s totaled six fewer.

Notably, junior forward Kevin Larsen’s assist numbers are up, as the big man has 13 more assists compared to last year – a credit to the forward’s strong court vision in the low post. However, in recent games, it appears oftentimes that when Larsen receives the ball in the low post, instead of looking to score, he takes a pass-first approach – sometimes passing the ball before making any kind of attempt toward the rim. Lonergan said after the win over Mason that Larsen needs to be a scorer first.

But while ball movement at different points in games is sometimes missing, it’s not without reason – the Colonials are missing a scorer to, well, assist. Long gone are the days of the imposing presences of Isaiah Armwood in the paint and a trigger-ready Maurice Creek on the perimeter as go-to scorers.

In recent games, Lonergan has experimented with different rotations on the floor, looking for a combination that will yield offensive production ­– including going three small in the backcourt among Savage, McDonald, Paul Jorgenson and Nick Griffin.

The opposition has, for the most part, defended in various zone formations, which, if run correctly, clog up the paint and force the three-point reluctant Colonials to score points from beyond the arc.

Developing a presence from the three-point line can open up the middle for penetration and post play as well as spread the defense, but GW has yet to find a consistent shooter from the outside this season. The Colonials have taken the third-least three-point attempts in the conference, have converted the fourth-least three-point field goals and are the only team in the conference without a player who has made at least 25 three-point field goals.

McDonald has begun to heat up, however, since starting conference play, and leads the team with seven threes on 41 percent shooting. Lonergan is pushing McDonald to shoot more, even giving him offensive possessions on the wing, away from the ball-handler role, to force him to become a scorer.

McDonald is no stranger to big shots. He made a big three against Miami last season and most recently hit the most important GW field goal against Richmond on Thursday, cementing a double-overtime win.

While you could also argue that GW should push the ball more offensively and get out on the break, it’s hard to picture a team that has only six players averaging above nine minutes being able to sustain that kind of up-tempo presence for 40 minutes, let alone an entire season.

GW’s defense is one of the best in the league, as it holds the best rebounding margin, second-best field goal defense and third-best scoring defense. But the defense likely won’t carry them past the top teams in the conference that yield better scoring offenses – like VCU – or, in the case of Dayton and Rhode Island, a better defense.

In the meantime, at least the free throws are falling.

Sean Hurd, a junior majoring in exercise science, is The Hatchet’s sports columnist.

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