Less than a week from basketball season, questions loom about how the programs of two second-year coaches will perform with unproven but eager players.
In the past few years, both GW teams were considered among the most dangerous competitors in their conference and challenged teams at the national level. The men’s side garnered a program-record 28 wins and the team’s first NIT Championship just two years ago, and the women were ranked in the nation’s top-25 for 10 weeks over the past three years.
But drastically different rosters enter 2017-18 than in years past. Only one men’s player – senior guard Yuta Watanabe – returns with more than a year of experience in Foggy Bottom, and the women graduated three players who have started since they first arrived on campus.
Preseason polls dropped men’s basketball into a projected 11th place finish in the Atlantic 10 after they secured the No. 6 seed in last year’s conference tournament. The women were slotted in sixth, their lowest preseason ranking since 2012.
With decreased outside expectations, this year provides an opportunity for both teams to either catch opponents off guard and continue both program’s four-year streaks of 20-win seasons or break the streaks and quietly rebuild for the future.
But before worrying about end-of-season results, both programs will have to address numerous question marks on both sides of the floor and determine the types of teams they can be based on their lineup.
The uncertainties cover the much-needed development of the four-man freshman class, filling the scoring void left by former graduate student forward Tyler Cavanaugh and the Colonials’ ability to play without a big man. But head coach Maurice Joseph said his team knows it will take time and effort if they want to answer in the affirmative.
“This is going to be a daily thing and it’s not going to happen overnight, we know that,” Joseph said. “That’s where the grit comes in, being able to do it over and over again on a daily basis, not just because you have to, but because you want to be good.”
The women’s side will also be attempting to solve its uncertainties early on in the season, including what they can do inside of head coach Jennifer Rizzotti’s new run-and-gun system and who will take up the rebounding and defensive role of players past.
They will be trying to make up for an offseason where more than 63 percent of their scoring output was lost, following the graduation of Caira Washington, Hannah Schaible and Shannon Cranshaw and the exit of Lexi Martins – who was a graduate transfer.
If either GW team is able to answer these pending questions and find a consistent lineup before Atlantic 10 play begins in late December, then they should have an opportunity to compete with anyone in the conference.
“You always have an opportunity to win in our league because every team has talented players and every team has talented coaches,” Joseph said. “It is an unpredictable league and I think it has proven that year in and year out.”
Although other women’s A-10 teams return more star power, the Colonials are in a better position than most, coming off three consecutive regular season crowns.
The one steadying force that both programs have compared to last year is the return of both head coaches following the replacement of both during last offseason. GW was the only school in the A-10 where that occurred that season.
Joseph was promoted to interim head coach after former head coach Mike Lonergan was fired last year. The 31-year-old former Division I player led his team to a 20-15 season, culminating in a second-round loss in the CBI and an official contract for head coach in March.
Rizzotti came to GW after 17 years at the helm of Hartford to fill the spot of former head coach Jonathan Tsipis, who left for the same position at Wisconsin. Rizzotti and the Colonials finished 13-3 in the A-10.
Her second year has allowed her to be more comfortable in her style than when the team featured multiple vocal veterans last year, she said.
“I have been more myself as a coach just in terms of how hard I’ve been on them and the things that I’m expecting, the things that I maybe let go a little bit last year,” Rizzotti said.
Women continuing conference dominance
When players learned about the team’s No. 6 projection in the A-10 coaches poll, Rizzotti said they were not disappointed, but instead motivated to prove people wrong.
“I think that it will be a fun challenge for us to redefine who we are,” she said. “They have always loved taking that role of ‘oh we are going to finish higher than we were picked’ so I’m sure they will have the same mentality coming into this year.”
After a No. 4 projection last year and a three-game losing streak in December, the Colonials surprised the league with seven straight victories to end the year and tie Dayton for a share of the regular season title – their third in as many years.
But GW’s first postseason under Rizzotti’s helm was the program’s shortest since 2012-13. The team lost by four to the No. 7 seed Duquesne in the first round of the A-10 tournament, missed an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and lost to Navy in overtime at the WNIT.
This year, the Colonials welcome three new freshmen and three transfers to the program.
Prior to A-10 play, GW will host South Dakota State and Georgetown along with Vanderbilt, Wisconsin and Syracuse in the relocated Paradise Jam – all of which will test the squad against better-performing teams.
Throughout the season, Rizzotti will look for junior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista to lead the offense along with senior guard Brianna Cummings and senior forward Kelli Prange – who will take on more central roles this year.
Mentality for the men’s team
During the offseason, the Colonials added nine new faces to the roster – the most the program has seen in at least 15 years. Joseph brought in three freshman guards and one first-year forward, along with a walk-on and four transfers – two of whom are immediately eligible.
“There are a lot of incoming players this year, both freshmen and transfers, so we’re making sure that we instill the culture of the program in them,” graduate student Patrick Steeves said.
Steeves’ role will take on new importance as both a leader and a playmaker on the offensive end, but his knees have caused him to miss games due to injury in recent years.
Some of the biggest tests for the Colonials come early in the year. Their second game is a mid-week road contest against Florida State – a squad that defeated GW by 19 last December – and they head to Las Vegas on Thanksgiving to take on No. 17 Xavier. In the final home stretch before A-10 play begins, No. 13 Miami comes to the Smith Center, attempting to sweep the home and home.
Joseph said these matchups provide important experience early in the year and that he isn’t concerned about falling early.
“We go into every game thinking we can win,” Joseph said. “That’s why we watch film, scout and try to figure out game plans. We feel that if we execute them and make shots and do our different things, than we can be successful.”
Both squads tip off their first game of the season Friday night against teams they beat last year. The men play Howard at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith Center, while the women travel to Princeton, N.J. to take on the Tigers.