Win over VCU serves as late-season rallying cry for men’s basketball

Media Credit: Madeleine Cook | Staff Photographer

Graduate student forward Patrick Steeves sets up to shoot a free throw during a men's basketball game against VCU Saturday.

This season has not gone as the men’s basketball players expected.

Before GW’s first matchup, returners talked about their aim to win the Atlantic 10 championship and newcomers expressed their excitement to join a team that regularly competes with the best in the conference.

But after 10 games of conference action, the Colonials (12-15, 5-9 A-10) sat in last place – with their second four-game losing skid capped off by a season-high 29-point loss to Davidson earlier this month. They were on pace for the program’s worst conference results in nine years.

To have a chance at extending its 20-win-season streak to five years, GW was in need of revival – and the team has started that process over the last four games.

The Colonials have now won three or their last four contests – all by double digits – and picked up a significant upset Saturday over VCU, a squad that handed GW a 24-point defeat in January.

“We are hoping that trend continues and then we get momentum going into the conference tournament in our backyard,” head coach Maurice Joseph said after the weekend contest. “I like what our team did today, I’m really proud of them. That is a very good team.”

Although the Colonials rank 11th in the conference – the exact position they were projected to hold in the preseason coaches’ poll, players said the dominating victory over the Rams was both the best basketball they’ve played all year and a big step toward earning a desired result by the end of the year.

VCU has regularly been a top-four team in the A-10, so the commanding win gave the Colonials confidence heading into the season’s final stretch.

With four games to play, the Colonials face a fairly favorable slate. They host Richmond next week and Fordham the following. Fordham sits dead last in the conference and played close with the Spiders for 30 minutes in January. The Colonials finish the regular season against Dayton, which fell to VCU last week.

Similarly, GW won each of its final five games last year. Joseph said his staff’s plan is to have the team playing its best in February and March.

“My mentality has always been: it doesn’t matter what happens, the results don’t matter,” Joseph said. “What matters most is that we get better today than we were yesterday.”

The team’s recent play has improved on both sides of the floor and gotten closer to the play Joseph talked about at the beginning of the season. For the vast majority of the season, he emphasized the Colonials’ inability to play for 40 whole minutes – only attaining that result for the first time against La Salle this month.

The biggest change has been GW’s increased offensive success. They have scored at least 80 points in three of their last four games and shot more than 50 percent in each of their last two times out.

As freshman guard Justin Mazzulla has increased his workload and taken over the starting point guard spot, GW’s backcourt has been able to move sophomore guard Jair Bolden off the ball more often, allowing him to play a scoring role.

“We were able to cut Jair’s minutes, which increased our flow, increased our pace and we changed some things scheme-wise,” Joseph said. “I wanted to be able to increase our offensive production about five games ago and we switched up our break, we switched up our philosophy.”

The wins over VCU and Massachusetts showed some of the Colonials’ best defensive efforts. Senior forward Justin Tillman, the Rams’ leading scorer, was limited from leaving a major mark Saturday because of an aggressive man-on-man showing from sophomore forward Arnaldo Toro.

“We focused more on staying physical, playing hard and getting a stop first before going to offense,” Toro said. “I think that helped us and we were poised in offense.”

Although GW is still in the bottom half of the conference, players said they are confident they could beat anyone once the A-10 tournament begins. Outside of Rhode Island, who is 13-1 in conference games, and St. Bonaventure and Davidson, who have played well in recent games, the majority of the A-10 is now roughly close in terms of record.

The trend of teams losing more games this season has continued to the wider NCAA. There were no undefeated teams by Jan. 1 for the first time in at least 69 years.

Joseph, who led the Colonials to a second-round win of the A-10 tournament in his first year at the helm last year, said he aims not to get too high or too low about wins and losses at this point in the season, beginning to focus on the conference standings only at the end of the season.

“I will start looking at it in a couple weeks, I almost force myself to not look at it,” Joseph said. “I just don’t care right now.”

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