With a taller, older and more athletic roster than a season ago, men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian said the team has its nose to the grindstone to improve its defense.
In his first year as head coach, Christian made his distinctive “mayhem” defense a cornerstone of his GW coaching philosophy. But when the squad didn’t produce the defensive outcomes it was hoping for, Christian said the team will add a more consistent press and strengthen its interior defense, while also possibly incorporating some zone.
“It’s really about, ‘Can our defense be good enough to win us a game in a real slug match when we’re not making a lot of shots?’” he said. “And we’re really trying to find the right defense that allows us the ability to do that.”
Using mayhem defense last year, the Colonials only made marginal improvements in areas like shutting down three-pointers. Opponents made 33 percent of their shots from beyond the arc compared to 35.6 percent the previous season. In the 2018-19 season, GW allowed 71.7 points per game. Last season, that rate decreased to 70.1 points per game.
These small gains might have helped the Colonials go from a 9-24 overall record in 2018-19 to the 12-20 record they finished with last season. But through a broader lens, the defense remained largely the same.
Turnovers, which the mayhem style is designed to encourage, saw a small regression compared to the previous season. The Colonials forced 11.7 turnovers in 2018-19 and 10.6 turnovers in 2019-20. That mark placed them second-to-last in the conference. As for steals, the Colonials held pace at 5.2 per game in 2018-19 and 5.4 per game last season.
Christian gained experience coaching zone during his time at William and Mary and Bucknell. At Mount St. Mary’s, he said his team effectively utilized matchup zone play against conference opponents.
“I’ve always appreciated zone,” Christian said. “I just think it’s hard to be good at two things, and I think it’s just better to be good at one. We’re always going to have a foundation of man-to-man and try to push it up the floor. But looking at lone zone coverages is something that we’ve been bringing in early here.”
He added that zone won’t be GW’s primary defense but could be useful in throwing off an opponent in tight games. In preseason practices, the team has been running zone drills with promising results. While man-to-man defense is the norm in men’s college basketball, teams like Syracuse and Duke have been known to use zone when the squad needed a spark.
“I don’t know if we’ll do it, but we’ve been pretty good at it,” Christian said. “It might be able to give us a changeup when we need it, but we’re going to keep working on it and see where it goes. And if there’s something there, we’ll do it.”
Christian said the squad’s added length will improve not just its three-point defense, which ranked No. 10 in the Atlantic 10 and No. 178 nationally, but also its two-point defense – an area the squad lagged behind in last season. GW is about two inches taller than the average 6-foot-5 height last season with four players reaching 6 feet, 10 inches or taller.
Last year, the Colonials allowed opponents to net 2,243 points throughout the season. Just 555 of those points came from long range as GW held its competitors to a .330 clip. But 1,294 of its opponents’ total points – 57.7 percent – came from two-point territory.
Christian added that young rotations – like his trio of starting freshmen last season – develop interior defense at a slower rate than perimeter protection. He said he hopes his players continue to learn how and when to play aggressively.
“We just want to get better internally and defensively,” he said. “And then when you look at guys – typically younger guys get better at interior defense slower, people think. It’s just a different combination in college, looking at how much you can push, how much you can basically foul without getting calls.”
In addition to improving interior defense, Christian said he was “excited” for the team to press and generate more offensive opportunities from the defense.
Graduate student forward Matt Moyer, who transferred to GW after two years at Vanderbilt, said he does not have a lot of experience with the press, but the style is a good fit for this team. He said the addition of players like Moyer and junior forward Sloan Seymour, both standing at 6-foot-9, allow GW to cover more ground defensively.
“I just think it fits our playstyle and it’s going to allow us to get up and down, get myself and Jameer [Nelson Jr.] some easy dunks and easy layups,” Moyer said. “It’s going to be an exciting brand of basketball to watch going forward.”
Sophomore guard James Bishop, a transfer from LSU, said he and the squad spent preseason practice adjusting to the new systems, working on fitness and maintaining mental strength if they start experiencing fatigue from their high intensity style of play.
“Working on our pressing every day, making sure we’re in the best shape possible because with that style of play it’s going to take a lot of energy,” Bishop said. “Being able to get up and down the floor and still be effective, still be locked in. And so I think that’s the main point: staying focused while we might be tired.”