In his first season as official head coach and second at the helm of men’s basketball last year, Maurice Joseph said his team would focus first and foremost on the defensive end while pushing the pace offensively.
He repeated similar mantras in the opening weeks of the season, but the strategy failed to work as intended for the Colonials. The 2017-18 squad finished with its worst record in five years and Joseph said he was disappointed with the showing.
Despite the lack of success, Joseph will return to the same game plan as last year – with the expectation that GW’s newest additions will be the difference that allows the Colonials to successfully execute his vision.
“We’ll space the floor a little bit more, we’ll play with greater pace on a regular basis now that we have the personnel to do so,” Joseph said. “The defensive end won’t change, we’re in fact going to try to increase that now that I have more interchangeable pieces.”
The Colonials return two guards from last season’s roster who saw heavy minutes on the floor. Sophomore guards Terry Nolan Jr. and Justin Mazzulla are the only returning members of the backcourt who have previously started for GW.
With young players handling the ball last year, the Colonials were forced to slow down their speed because of mistakes Joseph chalked up to inexperience. Ten teams in the Atlantic 10 finished the year with more field goal attempts than GW – something players said they do not expect to happen again.
“Last year we played a lot slower and had a lot more sets, so coach will just let us play free this year,” Nolan said. “This summer we were just working on our conditioning, getting stronger, working on IQ, learning how to play with our sets and learning how to play fast – but at the same time play smart.”
The Colonials averaged 12.8 turnovers per game while allowing opponents to score 14.3 points each match off giveaways. Joseph said experience paired with new players in the team’s backcourt will allow the Colonials to maintain their speed in games.
With a season of college basketball under their belts, Nolan and Mazzulla should be in better shape to run the floor and already looked more comfortable in their positions during an exhibition game last month.
Redshirt junior guard Armel Potter, freshman guard Shandon Brown and sophomore guard Maceo Jack will also be able to rotate in at the guard position, which should lend itself well to the quick play Joseph expects from his team again this season, he said.
“Across the board, we have depth in our backcourt, depth that we didn’t have in the past,” Joseph said. “Being up-tempo is not just the personnel, but the depth that will be able to sustain that, so I do think we have the personnel to do that.”
Redshirt junior guard DJ Williams and freshman forward Mezie Offurum, at 6 feet 7 inches and 6 feet 6 inches tall, respectively, are the tallest players who could potentially see action in the backcourt. What GW lacks in height in the frontcourt, it looks to make up for in big players who have the athleticism to make moves on the court.
“I believe that our philosophy is for us to go small,” Nolan said. “That’s our thing, so I feel as though if we would play big, it would kind of be playing into the opponent’s hands.”
While GW has gained pieces on its offensive end, the Colonials lost many of their key defenders in the offseason.
2018-graduate guard Yuta Watanabe was the team’s best perimeter defender and tallied 200 rebounds last season and a team-leading 54 blocks – earning him the title of A-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Graduate student forwards Patrick Steeves and Bo Zeigler also provided stability on the interior defense, as Steeves averaged 5.3 rebounds per game and Zeigler tallied the second-most blocks on the team with 36 on the season.
Despite holes in the team’s returning defense, Joseph said he is still looking to challenge opponents by protecting the hoop better than any team in the A-10 and is confident in the ability of returners like Mazzulla and leading-rebounder junior forward Arnaldo Toro to make significant jumps.
Last season, GW ranked ninth in the conference in field goal percentage defense and allowed opponents to out-score them by an average of 2.9 points per game.
But in their exhibition game against Catholic – a Division III program – last month, the Colonials allowed the Cardinals’ top scorer to put up 28 points against them while being out-rebounded 48–46.
The performance showed GW still has room for improvement if the team is looking to satisfy Joseph’s goal and become a top defensive program.
“The defensive end is not going to change drastically for us,” Joseph said. “We’re still going to try to aim to be a top-five defensive team.”