Reverse the course: Wave of new players brings optimism to unsteady programs

Media Credit: Dean Whitelaw | Staff Photographer

The men's and women's basketball squads are looking to bounce back from overall poor performances last season with a lineup of new players.

Coming off a season marred with disappointment, men’s and women’s basketball are armed with an influx of new players looking to rebound for the 2019-20 season.

Both teams hit historic lows last season, winning just 19 combined games – the lowest total in three decades. This season, the men’s and women’s teams will both rely on a combined crop of 15 new players and new offensive strategies to turn their programs around.

The women’s squad ended last season with just 10 wins, its worst record since 2010-11. Injuries and NCAA transfer rules kept the Colonials’ bench short, but seven of 13 members will see the court for the first time, and the team hopes its new pieces spark a return to its former glory.

“They understand that they underachieved, and I think everyone is on the same page on what they want to accomplish going forward,” women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said.

On the men’s side, the team earned just nine wins during the 33-game season, resulting in former head coach Maurice Joseph’s firing. The squad’s .273 winning percentage is its lowest since the 2000-01 season. With new head coach Jamion Christian at the helm, along with overhauled offensive and defensive systems and eight new additions to the team’s roster, the Colonials aim to flip their downward trajectory.

“It’s going to come all down to how we connect though, because the connection gives you the ability to make plays that maybe you can’t draw on the whiteboard,” Christian said.

Preparing new players for action

Across both programs, 15 players will see the court for the first time as Colonials. In offensive systems rampant with scoring woes, the new pieces will play a key role in generating scoring opportunities, Christian and Rizzotti said.

On the women’s side, the offense continued to be a sore spot for the Colonials throughout last season, but the team is heading into the year with seven new faces ready for action on the court. Projected to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10, the women’s team will need to rely on its new players to increase production and remain competitive.

The men’s team is slated to finish 12th in conference play, but Christian has eyed a complete transformation of its offense well before the poll was released last week. Players have focused on three-point shooting and pick-and-roll to create a scoring threat down low and on the perimeter.

The women’s squad returns nine members of last season’s roster. Among the returning players, junior forward Neila Luma leads the pack offensively, averaging 10.4 points per game last season. But the remaining roster averages less than a combined 20 points per game.

Rizzotti said the lack of a returning core is “scary” because the new members’ adjustment to the pace of collegiate play is unknown, and her starting rotation is still up in the air. Three of last season’s five starters graduated, leaving the team with holes to fill at the point guard position, from the three-point line and on defense.

“It’s not perfect, but I don’t think any team is at this point in the season,” Rizzotti said. “The fact that they’re accepting that there’s room to grow is what’s important to me.”

On the men’s side, nine players are returning, and eight players will wear a GW uniform for the first time. Junior guard Maceo Jack hit his stride down the stretch and leads all returning players with 11.5 points per game. The men’s squad scraped together a combined average of 38 points per game among eight players last season.

Christian said he wants to weaponize each player’s different background and skillset to outpace the team’s competition this season, using last season’s shortcomings as a learning experience.

“We come here armed with a staff of guys who are able to really come in here and evaluate the guys for what they do well,” he said. “Not to be critical of them in the past, but to have the right mindset to help them learn from it.”

Women navigate uncharted waters

Rizzotti’s first full 13-member roster comprised of her own recruits relies heavily on new pieces following the departure of three seniors. 2019-graduates guard Mei-Lyn Bautista, forward Kelsi Mahoney and guard Anna Savino were key fixtures for the Colonials last season.

Mahoney topped the team in three-point shooting, draining 63 from behind the arc and firing at a .360 clip. Savino was a walk-on turned starter for the Colonials last season who played a disruptive defensive style. As a three-year starting point guard, Bautista was a vocal and experienced leader who guided the team on and off the court, leaving a void for this year’s team to fill.

Rizzotti said a trio of guards – sophomore Maddie Loder, junior Sydney Zambrotta and redshirt freshman Tori Hyduke – are expected to handle the ball this season. Zambrotta and Hyduke are untested in A-10 play after missing last season because of NCAA transfer rules and an ACL injury, respectively. Loder holds the most experience at the point position with 770 minutes played last season.

Luma, a junior forward, said the new team members have brought a newfound and much needed energy to the roster.

“That’s something that we need,” Luma said. “We need motivation, helping our teammates out, just overall being inclusive to members of the program.”

Rizzotti said she wants five players who can act as a cohesive unit. She said the starting five is not set in stone because she wants to play around with different lineups.

A duo of transfers and a pair of freshmen round out the Colonials’ roster. Rizzotti said the level of competition has increased in practices, which makes her want to offer game time to players who push themselves in practice.

“If we don’t have nine or 10 guys on the floor consistently early in the season, I’ll be surprised because there’s a lot of people who have earned the opportunity to play,” Rizzotti said.

Men look to rebuild program

Christian rebranded the program when he stepped in this year, introducing a new offense, defense and team culture.

The Colonials will play mayhem defense, an aggressive style focused on a full-court press and trapping. Christian said the team aims to propel its offense through its defense, forcing turnovers and making stops to give the squad more time in the offensive zone.

Among the nine returning players is senior forward Arnaldo Toro. He started the first seven games of last season but was quickly sidelined with a hip injury after averaging 10.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He will be back on the court this year for his final season with the team.

Toro and the seven other upperclassmen will collaborate with Christian to construct A-10 Conference game plans because they have more experience in A-10 play than Christian does, he said.

“In that situation, it’s going to be important for me to listen to them,” Christian said. “It’s going to be important for them to listen to me, but I’m going to listen to them because they may have a little bit more experience on the personnel.”

Four players transferred out of the program after Christian signed on as head coach. Sophomore guard Shandon Brown, junior guard Terry Nolan Jr., sophomore forward Marcus Littles and senior guard DJ Williams announced their intentions to leave the program. The quartet averaged 26.7 points per game.

After Joseph departed and Christian joined the staff, Jack, the junior guard, said a shift toward a positive mentality was the biggest change to the team.

“We’ve definitely been asked to look at things in a very positive manner, and everything is a learning experience,” Jack said. “I think that’s the biggest thing coach has brought to the table, was that they’re going to love us and we’re going to love them back. There’s a large amount of positivity in this culture that he’s creating.”

The women’s team will open the season on the road against Villanova Wednesday at 7 p.m. The men’s team will travel to Towson to kick off the 2019-20 season Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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