United by Hoops
Despite decidedly different backgrounds, GW's seniors have found common ground through basketball
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
"For some reason," the Montreal native Steeves cracked, "Jack thought it would be OK to buy a larger American flag than our two flags, but we'll let that slide."
This is the place where the 6-foot-7, Harvard-educated Steeves will occasionally break from studying artificial intelligence in the living room to whip up a massive quinoa bowl to share with the 5-foot-7, manager-turned-walk on Granger: "His meals don't sound like they'd taste good and they also don't look like they'd taste good," Granger said with a grin, "but then you eat them, and they're actually very delicious."
And where Zeigler, the newest member of the class as a graduate transfer from South Florida by way of Detroit, once guided the Golden State Warriors to a 50-point victory over the Watanabe-led Cleveland Cavaliers in a memorable game of NBA 2K on Xbox: "He's the reason that I stopped playing 2K," deadpanned Watanabe, the do-it-all guard from Japan who arrived in Foggy Bottom four years ago, impossibly skinny and knowing next-to-no English and graduates as a sturdy and increasingly confident pro prospect with more than 1,000 career points.
Despite decidedly different backgrounds, the four Colonials have found common ground here united by hoops.
"I think we've just been trying to spend as much time as we can enjoying the moment, enjoying being in this position as seniors," Zeigler said. "As this time comes to a close, we're just trying to enjoy the process and enjoy each other and have fun."
Heading into Senior Day, the man who assembled the eclectic group said it's been a good match for all involved. Head coach Maurice Joseph has been pleased with the way Granger, Steeves, Watanabe and Zeigler have come together to lead a young squad.
"It's been kind of a constant evolution that's been great to see," Joseph said. "From summertime to now, it's been really cool to watch them gel and build chemistry and become really good friends and not just teammates."
The team pictures from each of the past four years hanging in his living room offer Yuta Watanabe a daily reminder of how far he's come. By now, he barely recognizes the freshman version of himself.
Watanabe had to work relentlessly to make the transition. For two years, that meant 15 hours per week of study hall to learn English and keep progressing in the classroom. On the court, he had to train his body and mind for the demands of Division I hoops, including plenty of late-night solo sessions at Smith Center.
"There were lots of challenges," Watanabe said. "I'm not going to lie. That was really tough for me."
The 6-foot-9 Watanabe has packed on roughly 25 pounds pounds since arriving on campus then thanks to hard work in the weight room and an intensive regimen of protein shakes and peanut butter sandwiches. He's developed into perhaps the top two-way player in the Atlantic 10, capable of guarding four positions and scoring from anywhere on the floor.
As a senior, Watanabe has put together his finest season yet. He's averaging career highs in points (16.0), rebounds (6.4), and minutes (36.8), while continuing to play his usually stellar defense on the opponent's top threat.
In recent weeks, Watanabe has proven increasingly comfortable with a more aggressive approach and vocal presence in the locker room.
"It's been a joy to watch, man," Joseph said. "He really deserves it because he's such an unbelievable person, just a selfless guy and a great teammate. I'm extremely happy for him."
On Wednesday, Watanabe's parents are set to be in the Smith Center crowd for the first time since the opening weekend of his sophomore season. They'll see a guy who's come a long way since then.
"I'm super excited, but at the same time, I kind of don't want to do that game because it's going to be my last game in this building," Watanabe said. "It's weird right now because I want to play, but I'm not ready for it to end."
When Patrick Steeves celebrated Senior Day at Harvard two years ago, he wasn't certain whether his basketball career would continue. Back then, the crafty forward was mostly grateful to have made it through one season healthy after missing his first three with the Crimson due to foot and knee injuries.
After authoring an impressive second act in Buff and Blue, Steeves is set to be honored in a similar ceremony. This time, he's expecting a different set of emotions.
"Now, it's more like the conclusion," Steeves said. "I'm starting to look back a little bit more and appreciate the journey that I went on to get here. It's definitely going to be different now that I think about it."
After feeling healthy enough to keep playing as a graduate transfer, Steeves chose GW, in part, because he'd worked with Joseph while in high school back in their native Canada. That connection has paid major dividends for the Colonials over the past two years.
Joseph jokes that Steeves has an offensive game that sometimes seems more fit for the local YMCA, but he's made a difference in the frontcourt.
Steeves proved a useful piece for last season's 20-win squad, mostly coming off the bench. This year, the forward has moved into the starting lineup and averaged 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds, both career bests.
Before the season, Joseph challenged Steeves to be a vocal leader for this youthful group. Every step of the way, he's lived up to that charge, offering a dose of perspective and enthusiasm that comes from his unique path.
"He knows what it's like to have the game stripped from you." Joseph said. "He doesn't take anything for granted, and you can see that in his preparation every day."
Steeves has a bright future ahead off the court as he wraps up his graduate degree in Business Analytics, but he's thankful for his time at GW and the chance to finish his college career on his own terms.
"It's really like a fairy tale," Steeves said. "Six years, two senior nights. I couldn't imagine it going better. Even with the injuries and everything, it's still turned out pretty spectacular."
Rising to shoot, Jack Granger's main concern was not getting blocked. The A-10's shortest player added a little extra arc to his normal release to ensure the corner 3-pointer cleared a charging defender and at least had a chance.
Granger's swish for his first career points -- while tumbling back into his gleeful teammates on the bench -- provided a memorable cap to GW's 103-77 win over Richmond last Wednesday.
"Just unbelievable," Granger said. "Really, it couldn't have been more perfect."
That joyous scene represented a new high-water mark for a guy who understandably figured his on-court career was finished after his senior season at Coginchaug Regional High School in Connecticut.
Granger remembers celebrating his acceptance email to GW because even that seemed like a big deal. ("GW was kind of my reach school," he said.) His brother Roby was already a men's basketball manager at the time, so he was eager for the chance to follow in his footsteps.
Granger's time as a manager brought one amazing opportunity after another. He got to go to Hawaii with the Colonials in 2014, snip a piece of the net after the NIT Championship in 2016 and tag along on the foreign tour to Japan before the 2016-17 season.
Then, Joseph asked Granger to join the squad as a walk-on last spring.
Joseph had been impressed with Granger's sunny attitude and commitment to the program. The coach liked the way his manager was always trying to challenge players and staff to games of Knockout and H-O-R-S-E to prove himself. It wouldn't be a glamorous job running with the scout team, but he wanted Granger in uniform.
That explains Joseph's reaction to Granger's shot against the Spiders.
"I just started crying," Joseph said. "There's a minute left in the game, and I'm trying to wipe away my tears. In that moment, I knew what that shot meant to him."
Granger quickly hustled to get back on defense after making the shot, but he made sure to appreciate the moment, from the reaction of his coaches and teammates to the chants of `M-V-P' from the pep band.
In the hours that followed, Granger picked up dozens of Instagram followers and heard from many old friends back home for the first time in years. Later that night, he sent a text message to Joseph thanking him again for making his dream come true.
"It's exceeded everything I could've ever imagined," said Granger, who has seen action in six games. "It's a long season. I knew going in there was a possibility that I might never see the floor, and now, we've really hit our groove and I've been so fortunate to get some chances out there.
"It means so much that coach believes in me to not make too many mistakes or embarrass the program. After (hitting the shot), I'm just thankful, man. I'm just thankful."
During a recent practice, Joseph broke his Colonials into three groups for an intrasquad scrimmage and called for game speed. The coach didn't have to ask twice.
Bo Zeigler was the one who quickly set the tone by barking out defensive calls and hunkering down to check his man as if an A-10 title hung in the balance. The rest quickly followed the graduate transfer from South Florida.
"He's kind of been determined to put a different spin on the end of his career," Joseph said. "That energy and that grit in his mentality is contagious, and it's trickled over to our team pretty consistently."
Zeigler brought off-the-charts athleticism and a blue-collar approach when he arrived on campus over the summer. He's settled into an important role off the bench for the Colonials with a penchant for high-flying dunks and the kind of hustle plays that can swing momentum.
Zeigler has put in the work to fit in Joseph's system. At USF, he was often stationed on the perimeter as a small forward. He fits as more of a power forward with the Colonials, which meant getting comfortable spending more time down low.
After a slow start, Zeigler has found a groove, averaging 7.9 points per game in A-10 play. His 63.5 percent (87-137) shooting from the field ranks fifth in the conference, and he's averaging career bests in almost every offensive category.
"It's just good to see the fruits of our labor from our hard work," said Zeigler, who has hit double figures in two of his past three outings. "I'm just trying to be as consistent as possible and keep guys up and keep guys encouraged, so we can keep playing the way we've been playing lately."
With his college career winding down, Zeigler said he's glad he chose to spend his final season with the Colonials.
"It's like a family, man," Zeigler said. "This is the most games I've ever won in my college career, and I'm having the time of my life with this group of guys."
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