Role shifts, stronger defense give men’s basketball hope during final stretch

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Hatchet Photographer

Junior guard Yuta Watanabe dribbles the ball during Suday's men's basketball game at Duquesne. Watanabe held the Dukes' top scorer, Mike Lewis II, to only five first half points.

Now 6-8 in league play after a 77–70 road win at Duquesne Sunday, men’s basketball sits ninth in the conference with just four games remaining on the schedule.

But despite the team’s mediocre standing, the Colonials have reason to be hopeful as they close out the regular season. After opening Atlantic 10 play with a 1-4 record, GW has since won five of its last nine games and even came less than a second away from defeating the league’s top team.

Over the 5-4 stretch, the development of individual roles and the team’s willingness to buy into a defense-first attitude has helped the Colonials become a more competitive opponent and potential threat as the postseason approaches.

Interim head coach Maurice Joseph has stressed the importance of complete team defense since November, and it seems to be sticking. GW has limited its adversaries to less than 42 percent shooting in seven of its last nine matchups, while only accomplishing that feat seven times across its first 18 games.

We put in some new junk, wrinkles and all that stuff and they executed it, so our guys are growing.

The Colonials’ defense still experiences occasional gaps, but Joseph said his squad has recently grown and been able to adapt.

“That’s two games in a row where our guys came out with unbelievable focus just following a scouting report, that we did something different. To do that with four or five freshmen in your rotation is a scary thing,” Joseph said Feb. 11, following a 76-70 win over St. Bonaventure. “We put in some new junk, wrinkles and all that stuff and they executed it, so our guys are growing. They’re really starting to understand the importance of paying attention to details.”

At the forefront of the Colonials defensive game plan is junior guard Yuta Watanabe. He has always been a solid and lengthy defender since arriving in D.C., but in his third year, he has also established his ability to guard each of the top perimeter players in the conference.

Watanabe has frustrated A-10 stars like Davidson guard Jack Gibbs, St. Bonaventure guard Jalen Adams and VCU guard JeQuan Lewis, holding each of them to low shooting percentages and well under their scoring averages.

“Yuta really guards pipsqueaks every game,” Joseph said. “[He] fatigues himself and empties his tank chasing guys around. Yuta doesn’t get much time off and he doesn’t complain either.”

Due to his non-stop defensive effort, Watanabe’s scoring has taken a hit. After averaging 13.3 points and scoring double-digits in all but two outings through the first 18 games, the Kagawa, Japan native has scored only 9.8 points per game during the past nine while making two or fewer field goals in five different contests.

The Colonials seem to be confident in their newly established backcourt pair of freshman guard Jair Bolden and redshirt junior guard Jaren Sina. Sina was the primary point guard for the majority of the early season, and Bolden has emerged as an athletic contributor with the talent to make waves on both ends of the court.

“Jair has really grown throughout the season,” Sina said. “I think with his relationship with [Joseph] and myself, the three of us have worked really well together these last couple of weeks. If he keeps bringing his effort defensively and staying poised out there, he’s doing a phenomenal job.”

Since Joseph has moved Sina off the ball, the team has had fewer turnovers. During the previous nine games, during which Bolden has recorded all of his career starts, GW has averaged 2.5 fewer giveaways per game and turned the ball over 10 times or fewer on five occasions.

Graduate student forward Patrick Steeves’ role has also become more prominent after returning from injury. His playing time has increased two-fold, and his 50.7 percent shooting clip is the highest of players in the regular rotation and would rank 12th in the conference if not for his mid-season absence.

Joseph relies on Steeves not just for his consistent contribution, but also as a veteran presence in the locker room among a young team, he said.

“[Steeves] is rock solid, he executes well,” Joseph said. “He has been phenomenal leading, energy, efficiency, scoring the ball and being sharp in the film room. He is an older guy, experienced and knows what we are trying to accomplish, he knows how to win.”

Getting a road win in this league is so tough…It does a lot for our confidence, it does a lot for our seeding, for our standing, it does a lot for a young team.

Of GW’s final four opponents, two have losing records – Fordham and Massachusetts – and one – George Mason – fell victim to the Colonials earlier in the year. The team’s final regular season game will then be against co-conference-leader Dayton before the A-10 Championship, which begins March 8.

The favorable remaining schedule and a win in Pittsburgh Sunday – just the team’s second on the road in conference play all season – gives the Colonials momentum heading into the postseason.

“‘[We’re] two weeks away from March, so every game is so vital,” Joseph said after Sunday’s victory. “Getting a road win in this league is so tough…It does a lot for our confidence, it does a lot for our seeding, for our standing, it does a lot for a young team.”

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