Defense Key as Men's Basketball Hosts URI Saturday

Yuta Watanabe has keyed GW's defense, leading the team in blocks and regularly guarding the opposition's best player
Jan. 4, 2018

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

Maurice Joseph isn't joking around when he says he wants his GW men's basketball team to lead the Atlantic 10 in home runs.

The Colonials borrow from baseball to describe getting three defensive stops in a row. In preparing a new-look group to lock down opponents, the coach has continually stressed the importance of swinging for the fences.

"It's a gradual thing," Joseph said. "You've got to keep on building towards getting guys to play with a sense of pride defensively. You've got to be able to get guys revved up about getting stops."

GW displayed its strides there in posting a 5-2 mark during December, allowing just 62.2 points per game for the month. The Colonials did it largely by clamping down man-to-man, while sprinkling in various zone looks to keep the opposing attack off balance.

Wednesday's 69-52 loss at Duquesne, in which the Dukes shot better than 48 percent from the field, provided a reminder that it's a nightly battle, though.

GW will try to get its defense back on track Saturday afternoon when it returns to Charles E. Smith Center for a matchup with preseason A-10 favorite Rhode Island. The Colonials will have to figure out a way to stop an offense that ranks third in the conference at 76.4 points per game.

"Everything's about defense," forward Arnaldo Toro said. "Offense is going to come to us. That's how it's been the past two years. If we just focus on defense, we are going to win a lot of games."

Joseph developed much of his defensive philosophy learning from his college coach, Hall of Fame Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

The second-year coach wants to find recruits who enjoy playing defense, and he devotes a lot of time and effort through practice and film study to that side of the game.

That background laid the foundation for tracking what he calls "Ghost Stats," the kind of hustle plays -- like deflecting passes or taking charges -- that a winning defense needs to be able to make consistently.

"All those little gritty, tough things that don't show up in the box score," Joseph said. "Can we do those things consistently? That's what we're working towards."

The goal is for the Colonials to showcase that brand of intensity every time out -- and do it without fouling.

In practice, every coach has a whistle, and Joseph encourages his assistants to blow plays dead when there's too much contact.

The coach wants to be as picky as any referee the Colonials will see, emphasizing good habits that will keep them out of foul trouble when it matters.

So far, so good: They rank third nationally at 13.5 fouls per game.

"We know we're not going to get away with anything (at practice), so we don't even try it," guard Jair Bolden said. "It can be a little frustrating sometimes, especially when we're competing, but we all know it's for the better."

Slowly but surely, that defense-first culture has paid dividends this season.

After allowing at least 75 points in three of their first five games, GW has held 10 straight opponents under that mark. They Colonials have had success slowing down the tempo and forcing the opposition to work for their points.

Yuta Watanabe is at the center of those efforts, leading the team in blocks and defensive rebounds. The 6-foot-9 guard provides a unique defense piece with his ability to guard any position on the floor or frustrate opposing guards with his length at the top of a zone.

"That's my job," said Watanabe, an A-10 All-Defensive pick last season. "It's the thing I have to do every single game. Doing this, young guys look at me and think `Yuta is doing this, so I've got to do it, too.' I'm just trying to be a great example."

GW's December defensive highlights included holding high-scoring Miami to 59 points in a nationally televised home game and limiting Harvard to 48 points on 28 percent shooting a week later.

In last Saturday's win over Saint Joseph's to open A-10 play, GW weathered a six-minute scoreless stretch late in the first half by holding the Hawks to only one field goal in that span.

Afterward, Joseph said it was as well as the group has followed the scouting report for the full 40 minutes all season.

"We know in A-10 play all the teams know each other, so energy-wise and scout-wise, we've got to be locked in," said Terry Nolan Jr., the freshman who has provided an instant defensive spark with a team-high 22 steals and many more of the deflections that Joseph loves to see. "That's what we did."

Unfortunately, Wednesday's effort at Duquesne represented a step back from those good feelings. The Dukes were able to find lanes to get to the paint and create one quality look after another in their wire-to-wire victory.

In other words, the loss backed up the lessons that Joseph has been preaching since the summer. And the value of home runs.

"If you don't play defense, you're not going to win," Watanabe said. "We've proved that if we play defense we can beat a lot of really good teams. Defense has to be our identity."

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