Updated: Nov. 13, 2016 at 11:02 p.m.
Men’s basketball opened the 2016-2017 campaign on Friday with a 75–71 win at home over Maryland Eastern Shore.
Despite giving up a double-digit second half lead down the stretch, GW pulled out the four-point victory behind exceptional free throw shooting – going 29-for-34 from the stripe – and strong performances from veteran returning starters graduate student Tyler Cavanaugh and junior Yuta Watanabe.
While it’s still too early to make any definitive predictions about the year, here are a few observations from the new-look Colonials’ debut victory:
1. Watanabe is playing confidently.
As one of just two returners from GW’s NIT championship roster this year, Watanabe will have to play a bigger role offensively. Based on Friday’s season-opener, the 6-foot-9-inch guard certainly looks capable of producing.
In his first season as a regular starter in 2015–2016, Watanabe averaged just 8.4 points and four rebounds. Against UMES, Watanabe was the early offensive spark for GW, hitting two three-pointers and putting up 10 points in the game’s first six minutes. He finished the contest with 18 and scored 19 in an exhibition against Bowie State, while adding six rebounds and a game-high two blocks.
Watanabe also looked confident on the Smith Center floor, taking the ball to the rim several times and doing a solid job drawing fouls. He went a clutch 10-for-12 at the line, which helped the Colonials close out the win down the stretch.
Opponents will only get tougher from here on out, but expect Watanabe to continue to be one of the most impactful players on the court.
2. Turnovers may pose issues early on in the season.
The most glaring blemish on the stat sheet Friday was for turnovers.
Last season, the Colonials averaged 11 giveaways per game, and across 38 total contests committed 15 or more on just five occasions. Nineteen turnovers in a 90–50 victory over La Salle on Feb. 21 was a season-high. Against the Hawks, however, GW gave up 20.
Cavanaugh and redshirt junior point guard Jaren Sina each had a four, a game-high, as the offense occasionally looked out of sync and rushed passes, especially when confronted with a pesky UMES press. Cavanaugh called his and his team’s ball control “shaky” at times but thinks improvement will come if the team keeps trusting the system.
Interim head coach Maurice Joseph said he wasn’t worried about Sina’s debut performance, and film work will be key in getting him more in tune with his offense.
“Learning where guys want the ball, learning about how we need to attack press breaks – we’re going to see pressure all year,” Joseph said after the game. “We’ve got to be ready for it. Just getting better in the film room – that’s something we’re going to spend a lot of time on. [Sina] is a talented player. He has a great feel for the game. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about Jaren at all.”
3. Defense looked strong in spurts.
In the first half, the Colonials’ defense held UMES to 25 percent shooting and looked energetic on the floor. There was even a 10-minute stint where GW conceded just one field goal to the Hawks.
As the game trailed on, however, the defense lost steam. UMES shot 45 percent from the floor in the second half, and the Colonials couldn’t stop them from mounting a 16-point comeback.
GW also does not seem to have a lockdown perimeter defender to look to when its having problems with an opposing player. UMES senior forward Bakari Copeland scored 21 points on Friday – with 14 coming in the second half – and was finding open shots regularly. Neither Cavanaugh nor Watanabe could contain Copeland in their attempt to guard him.
“We’ve got to be able to stop guys 1-on-1, and it’s going to be by committee so no blame to Tyler or Yuta or anybody else,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to guard. We’ve got to have more pride in our team defense. We’ve got to take pride in putting teams away when we have the lead. We’ve got to take pride in finishing the job. Today we were shaky, and we’ve just got to get better from it.”
In his first college game, freshman center Collin Smith did not record any rejections, but he posed a constant threat at the rim and altered several shots in the paint. His shot-blocking ability is not something GW could count on last year with Cavanaugh and Larsen in the frontcourt.
4. Strong freshman frontcourt depth will be crucial
It is very possible that Joseph will count on nine or 10 players to take on serious minutes throughout year. While the Colonials usually played seven or eight deep last year and often looked for 30 or more minutes from their starters, the extra substitutions could give returners like Cavanaugh and Watanabe crucial rest.
Especially for Cavanaugh, the young frontcourt rotation, which includes Smith, freshman Arnaldo Toro and freshman forward Kevin Marfo, is refreshing after a 2015–2016 season where the Colonials were forced to play small when their star was on the bench.
Smith will likely continue to start at center, picking up seven points and six boards in 27 minutes against UMES. Toro made his only shot from the field and looked composed, knocking down both of his free throws in the game.
Marfo picked up early fouls and Toro committed three turnovers, but their physical presences will be important as the season progresses.