Tested by Non-Conference Slate, Men's Basketball Eager for A-10 Play

Heading into league play, Yuta Watanabe paces the Colonials in scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg)
Dec. 28, 2017

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

Tired of slow starts, Maurice Joseph went to the tape.

The GW men's basketball coach had no trouble finding clips to show his Colonials where they could bring more intensity early in games.

Those frank film sessions sprang to mind last Saturday when GW reinforced the power of bringing energy from the opening tip. The Colonials held Harvard scoreless before the first media timeout, parlaying a 9-0 run to open the game into a 58-48 win in their final tune-up for Atlantic 10 play.

"Some guys got challenged, some guys needed to take some criticism," Joseph said afterward. "Overall, the message resonated. Now, we've got to continue to do that."

With a new-look roster, Joseph has had to teach plenty of lessons like that through the first seven weeks of the season. So far, the youthful Colonials have done a good job of turning his points of emphasis into progress.

In spite of a torturous non-conference schedule, GW enters Saturday's A-10 opener against Saint Joseph's with a winning record at 7-6. The Colonials have shown growth on both ends with five wins in their past seven games, including the promising start-to-finish effort against the Crimson.

"The progress has been good to see," Joseph said. "We're still not where we need to be, but I think pretty much everybody in the country is in that boat. I like that we have guys that are willing to be coached, guys that are willing to be challenged, guys that are willing to learn. It's been a challenging process, but it's been fun, as well."

This group has impressed since the summer with its chemistry and blue-collar approach, but it's needed time to learn to play together.

The regular starting lineup features a freshman and two sophomores, and seven of the 10 Colonials who saw action against Harvard are either freshmen or sophomores.

They've figured it out while navigating an impressive gauntlet, including five opponents currently ranked in Ken Pomeroy's Top 50. They've scrapped to hold their own against most of them, most recently battling Miami in a 59-50 loss in Foggy Bottom on Dec. 16.

"We've known since Day 1 that we have really tough guys," said Arnaldo Toro, a sophomore averaging career highs of 8.8 points and 6.7 rebounds.

"We know that whatever happens in the game, we'll keep fighting to the end."

Those memories should prove useful as the 18-game A-10 season kicks into gear. This team has seen plenty of size, strength, speed and athleticism already this year.

"I think we have proved that we can play with the best when we are playing up to our capabilities," said Terry Nolan Jr., who has started every game in his rookie season. "When we play to our strengths and listen in to the scout details from the coaches, I think we can be a really great team."

In the face of those challenges, GW has hit on a reliable formula for success.

Offensively, they've shared the wealth with all five starters averaging at least eight points per game. Toro, Yuta Watanabe, Patrick Steeves and Jair Bolden have all scored at least 20 points in a game this season, and Nolan has hit for 18 points twice.

The Colonials don't have anybody taller than 6-foot-9, but they have turned offensive rebounding into a strength with a hard-nosed, team-oriented approach.

Led by Toro's work on the glass, they rank third in the A-10 at 11.2 offensive rebounds per game. They've scored at least 10 second-chance points eight times this season.

On defense, GW has found success rotating between a variety of looks to dictate the tempo. The Colonials rank in the Top 100 nationally allowing 67.2 points per game, including an average of 62.6 in their past seven games.

"Our young guys have got to understand winning is hard," Joseph said after holding Harvard to 28 percent shooting. "We've got to earn every yard. We're not going to out-talent people. We're not going to out-size people. None of that. We've got to out-tough and out-grit and out-play people from an effort standpoint."

Now, GW will try to keep the development going into A-10 play. The Colonials have had a full week off to get ready, which Joseph planned to use for more film study and individual skill work after a short break for Christmas.

GW was slotted No. 11 in the preseason A-10 poll, largely because of how many unknown pieces they'd be counting on. The Colonials have answered some of those questions already and enter Saturday's opener with momentum built over a productive non-conference slate.

"I'm really just excited to tackle it," Joseph said. "It's never easy. Winning on the road in our league is nearly impossible. Winning at home is extremely hard. We're excited about the challenge and getting our young guys their first taste of what conference play is all about."