For the first time since 1956, the GW Colonials are in the Top 10 in the polls, taking advtantage of a weekend where a lot of teams that were ahead of them stumbled. I got to see them in action on Saturday at the Smith Center against the Rams of Rhode Island, and I have got to say that I do think a number 10 ranking seems a little high for these guys. (For instance, I'm not sure they'd be favored in a rematch with #17 North Carolina State, who now trails them in the polls and beat GW convincingly, albeit in Raleigh.)
A real test of the legitimacy of that ranking comes tonight as the Colonials go to Cincinnati to face the Musketeers of Xavier, who've had GW's number more often than not lately. And it will be televised on ESPN, with Dick Vitale presiding, no less. Lots of people who are scratching their heads at the #10 ranking of a team with an RPI still in the 40s, below such luminaries as George Mason (#35), Utah State (#41), and Missouri State (#37). Well, here's their chance; Xavier is the best team and the toughest challenge (ahead of St. Joe's, and well ahead of anyone else) left on the schedule. Xavier has a win against crosstown rival Cincinnati under its belt and a history of beating GW; a win here would serves some serious notice to all observers.
Why am I scratching my head at #10? The Colonials are solid in the sense that focusing on one player and shutting him down isn't going to be a productive approach, and that they can survive one of their better players having an off-day. In the case of Saturday's tilt with the Rams, neither Mike Hall, generally the heart and soul of the squad, nor Omar Williams contributed much to their win, in no small part because both players were in foul trouble from very early on. J.R. Pinnock and Pops Mensah-Bonsu really stepped it up. Even without a great perimeter game, they can score points quickly because they are adept at forcing turnovers and grabbing quick fast break points and transition baskets. Of the regular rotation, there doesn't seem to be anyone (other than maybe Mensah-Bonsu) who flat out can't handle the ball, so the trap isn't really a good strategy for opposing teams. Gambling defenses are going to find themselves burned as often as not.
ESPN should have been televising these guys more, since their uptempo game is a lot of fun to watch. They produce more than their share of highlight-reel worthy dunks, flashy fast breaks, and dramatic runs that change the fundamental nature of the game. They really know how to get a crowd - especially a Smith Center crowd - into a game.
However, not everything about them would cause Dickie V to shout "awesome, baby!" The passing can be a little haphazard at times as they try to rev up the game's tempo. For a team that's going to be looking to the low post rather than the perimeter (Carl Elliott notwithstanding), the free throw shooting is weak enough to creative an incentive for opponents to foul to stop high-percentage baskets. In particular, hacking Pops didn't work all that well for Rhode Island on Saturday, but it's easy to imagine a game where it works perfectly, provided you have enough people to spread the fouls around like the Rams did. An agressively physical offense might cause them some problems, as any foul trouble for Williams, Pops, or Hall hurts the team quite a bit. And while they most definitely spread the points, assists, boards, and steals around, they're still not that deep a team. URI went on a big run when Hall and Williams were taken out with 2 personals each, especially when Pops had to sit as well. The backup big men are adequate at best, and the only real impact player off the bench is swingman Maureece Rice. (That said, Rice is a two-way sensation when he plays; great defense, solid ball-handling, and sometimes a nice shot touch.)
Most importantly, this is not a team that's all that sound when it comes to a bread-and-butter halfcourt offense. Any halfway competent team that is careful and deliberative enough - especially on defense - to keep the tempo down and force the Colonials to play it straight is going to beat them; see N.C. State, the one team to take GW down thusfar. They are not built to hit from outside, so any team that gets position on Pops or whoever else is trying to post up is going to have a significant advantage in the paint and on the boards. They will take risks in trying to force a breakdown of the defense, and a disciplined and skilled defense will be able to turn those risks into transition points and sometimes offensive fouls as well.
It would be just like GW has been the last few years to fall flat on their face against Xavier. The Cintas Center has a track record of being a graveyard for the Colonials in recent years. There's no David West or Romain Sato anymore, but there is a physical presence in Brian Thornton and a deadly shooter in Stanley Burrell. They hold opponents to 60 per game, and they're going to try to slow the Colonials down.
But this GW team is a year older than they were last year, with more experience and the chance to really make a splash on national TV tonight. The X-Men have fallen to St. Louis at home and Temple on the road, and GW has proven a better team than either. Let's do this one guys; after this, no computer is going to be able to call George Mason a better team without people laughing derisively.