More than a quarter of the way through its Atlantic 10 schedule, men’s basketball is off to a less-than-ideal start. The team currently sits tied for last place in the conference with four losses – one a 30-point blowout at VCU – overshadowing one solid win over Davidson at home.
The reasons for the skid are clear: across its first five league contests, GW has the third-lowest scoring offense (68.6 ppg), second-lowest field goal percentage defense (41.0 percent) and the worst turnover margin (-3.78) in the conference.
But despite its bottom-of-the-pack standing, young members of the Colonials squad have provided some silver linings: Underclassmen have gained experience playing important minutes and, forced to hone their games quickly, continue to show growth. Freshman big men Collin Smith and Arnaldo Toro are already invaluable players in the frontcourt, while fellow rookie guard Jair Bolden is slowly emerging as an athletic force off the bench.
All three budding talents have also allowed interim head coach Maurice Joseph to adjust game plans when necessary, providing more options when playing big or small against a given opponent.
Starting in 16 of 18 games in his rookie campaign, Smith is the biggest standout in the 2020 class. After graduating Kevin Larsen last spring, GW needed a strong presence under the rim and so far, Smith has held his own.
The 6-foot-10-inch center leads the Colonials with 18 blocks, boasts the second-best rebounding numbers (5.9 rpg) and averages 7.7 points per game. His most impactful moment this year came on Dec. 3 against UCF, when he knocked down a game-winning three-pointer to lift GW past the Bulls 68-67.
After a 10-point, eight-rebound performance at VCU on Jan. 11, Joseph recognized Smith’s “world of potential.”
“[Smith] can handle the ball, he’s very athletic, has a good skill set for his size,” Joseph said. “He needs to grow in some aspects – obviously needs to mature mentally and physically – and that will come with experience. He’s a heck of a player, and he can be really good if he wants to be.”
Toro has also impressed in his debut campaign thus far, especially on the glass.
After junior guard Yuta Watanabe (13.3 ppg) was sidelined with a leg injury in late November, Toro was placed in a starting role for eight straight games beginning on Nov. 26. Across that span he scored a career-high 12 points at Temple and picked up two 10-rebound games at Harvard and Miami.
The Puerto Rico native currently averages a team-best 2.3 offensive rebounds per game, and he has led the team on the boards overall in six games this season. Toro has shown composure and strength as a freshman down low and hasn’t seemed fazed by big-time minutes.
In the backcourt, Bolden has come into his own as of late after a quiet first half of the season. In GW’s first 15 games, the guard averaged 9.3 minutes per game but played more than 20 in each of the Colonials’ last three contests.
The high school state champion (Westtown School) posted 12 points at VCU last week, followed by a career day at La Salle on Sunday, where he scored a team-high 16 points – going 3-for-4 from deep – in 30 minutes off the bench.
“Jair did a tremendous job all game,” Joseph said after Sunday’s 79-69 loss. “He is doing a better job with his confidence. The last two games, even though we lost them, were very positive for Jair.”
Bolden has also proven to be one of GW’s stronger perimeter defenders in the last handful of games, something the team sorely needs. His ball-handling and game awareness is still developing, but it will be interesting to see how Joseph continues to utilize him off the pine.
“I think I have grown a lot,” Bolden said Sunday. “Coach [Joseph] has taught me a lot since I first landed on campus and a lot of older guys have been showing me the ropes. They’ve definitely taught me a lot about how to be a better point guard, how to be a better player and how to be a better defender.”
Regardless of the rise of GW’s rookies and the versatility they provide, the remainder of the conference schedule – packed with more experienced teams – will continue to be a challenge.
The Colonials (9-9, 1-4 A-10) are back in action Wednesday at 7 p.m. when they play host to the Duquesne Dukes (9-9, 2-3 A-10).