Atlantic 10 Tournament: George Washington Crashes Against St. Joseph's

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Atlantic 10 Tournament: George Washington Crashes Against St. Joseph's

The past few seasons have not exactly been the glory years for the George Washington University men’s basketball program.  After a strong run in the mid 2Ks that featured three consecutive NCAA bids and a brief stay in the top 10, the team has fallen on hard times in recent years.

Coach Karl Hobbs has a reputation as an excellent recruiter, but after allegations came out that the team had several graduates from “diploma mill” high schools, the school became much more discriminating in its admissions process.  As a result, the talent level on the team suffered.

Without superior talent, Hobbs’ poor in-game coaching skills were exposed.  The team recorded back-to-back losing seasons, where they did not even qualify for their conference’s postseason tournament.

Last year seemed to be a step in the right direction, as the team finished with a winning record and played a game in the postseason CBI tournament.  There was some hope that the team would continue its upward ascent this season.

Those hopes were quickly dashed as last season’s leading scorer, Lasan Kromah, suffered an injury in preseason that would keep him out all season. 

Without Kromah, the team looked lost on offense in the early going.  They seemed to have no direction, and it was painful to watch their offensive futility.

It looked like it was going to be another bad season for the Colonials, but surprisingly, the team turned things around. 

Early in the season, point guard Tony Taylor looked to be conflicted between trying to distribute the ball and looking for his own shot.  He finally began to assert himself more as a scorer, and as a result, the offense began to fall into sync. 

After a horrendous start to the season, the team played strong in the final two months and finished the regular season at 17-13.  Their reward was a home game in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.  Their opponents would be the St. Joseph’s Hawks led by coach Phil Martelli.

Martelli has a good reputation nationally, which is a result of knowing how to work the media.  He uses his unattractive appearance (I’m not trying to insult him here – well, maybe I am a little bit – but he definitely tries to use his looks to his advantage) and St. Joseph’s small size to portray him and his team as lovable underdogs.

The truth is, Martelli is somewhat of a bully who becomes especially nasty when things don’t go his way.  For examples of this, see how he reacted to Billy Packer in 2004 or John Chaney in 2005.

In 2004, St. Joseph’s became a national sensation as they reached No. 1 in the country behind point guard Jameer Nelson.  Since that season, the Hawks have gone on a steady downward spiral. 

This season, they had a 9-21 regular season record, and there have been rumblings that Martelli’s job was in danger.

This looked like the perfect opportunity for GW to earn its first postseason win since the 2007 A-10 championship game. 

Surprisingly, the Charles E. Smith Center had a lively crowd.  I’ve been critical of the GW student population in recent years, but apparently they realized that there was an important, nationally televised (CBS College Sports) game last night, and they came out in force.

The crowd didn’t help GW much in the early going.  The Hawks were on a mission to slow the pace of the game down, and it was working well. 

St. Joseph’s would work the shot clock down to single digits before getting off a good shot.  The Hawks were also clamping down defensively, preventing the Colonials from getting out on a break. 

In addition, the Hawks were coming up with just about every loose ball, and every bounce seemed to be going their way.  There were several plays in which a scramble for the ball resulted in an easy basket for the Hawks.

The Colonials didn’t seem to be able to do much right in the first half.  There were multiple easy opportunities near the basket that they didn’t convert.  There were also several poor decisions (most notably by center Joseph Katuka) and fundamental breakdowns.

Particularly galling was a sequence at the end of the first half when GW turned the ball over, and after making a defensive stop, failed to secure the rebound, allowing the Hawks to make a three-pointer, giving them an 11-point lead at the half.

The crowd’s energy had effectively been killed.  They continued to chant “air ball” at Hawks point guard Carl Jones (he missed the rim on an early three-point attempt), but that chant seems hollow when the visitors are ahead by double digits. 

I guess I shouldn’t be too critical of the students, as most of them have never experienced a meaningful game in their time at the school.

Early in the second half, GW seemed determined not to make a comeback.  There were more poor decisions near the hoop, more turnovers, and on multiple times, they fouled a Hawks player with less than five seconds left on the shot clock.

Midway through the second half, with the deficit still in double digits, Tony Taylor came to life.  He had been stymied for most of the game, but he began to assert himself, and the offense began to show signs of improvement.  More importantly, the defense tightened and kept the Hawks from extending their lead.

With the crowd re-energized, the Colonials furiously fought their way back and tied the game with less than two minutes remaining.  Sadly, despite some excellent opportunities, they were never able to take the lead.  

On the last possession of regulation, Taylor missed a makable shot, but Colonials forward Jabari Edwards grabbed the offensive rebound.  Edwards was in perfect position for the putback, but appeared to not realize how much time he had.  His rushed attempt missed, and the game headed to overtime.

While it seemed like GW had all of the momentum heading into the overtime, I was a bit nervous.  Many times, when a team makes a huge comeback, they relax a bit once the score is tied, losing the intensity that fueled the comeback in the first place.

I also was wary of the Hawks getting off to a quick start in overtime.  In most overtime games that I’ve seen, the team that jumps off to an early lead is usually the winner of the game.  That proved correct as the Hawks scored on their first two possessions, and didn’t look back.

Taylor attempted to lead another comeback, but he was clearly worn down, as his shots were coming up well short.  On the other end, St. Joseph’s didn’t seem to be missing anything in overtime, especially from the free-throw line, where they sealed the game.

This was a very disappointing end to an encouraging season.  While St. Joseph’s played well (shooting over 50 percent from the field and 87.5 percent at the free throw line) and had a solid game plan, they were still a nine-win team coming into the game. 

If the Colonials had simply played solid, fundamental basketball, they would have won the game.

Still, there are reasons to be encouraged for next season.  With the expected return of Kromah, he and Taylor should make up an excellent backcourt. 

The team will also have highly touted center recruit Erik Copes join the team.  It is certainly reasonable to expect the team to be a factor in the Atlantic 10 and to earn a bid to the NIT.

And who knows, maybe the CBI or one of the other lesser postseason tournaments will deem the Colonials worthy of an invite.  They might get another chance at ending an encouraging season on a high note.

Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land

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