Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fordham/George Washington Preview

Mike Lonergan and George Washington take sensational start to Fordham, where Colonials battle Rams Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

Five games into the Atlantic 10 season, Fordham has yet to break into the win column in league play. The Rams' next matchup, at Rose Hill Gym against a 14-4 George Washington team that defeated Fordham there last March in the last home game for warrior point guard Branden Frazier, suggests that the difficulty in earning a conference victory may have reached its highest point to date.

Entering Thursday night's matchup with just one league loss against a deceptively strong La Salle team, George Washington looks every bit like the NCAA Tournament team it was last season, and just as much the A-10 championship-contending outfit the Colonials were projected to be this season for head coach Mike Lonergan, in his fourth year in Foggy Bottom since arriving from Vermont.

With four starters averaging inside or near double figures in scoring, led by junior swingman Patricio Garino, George Washington has used their quartet of stars, plus a dependable fifth veteran in John Kopriva and Japanese freshman Yuta Watanabe to vault themselves right back into the forefront as the greatest threat to preseason A-10 favorite VCU, the choice to break through once and for all following losses in the conference championship game in each of the past two seasons.

To get everyone further acquainted with the Colonials and their inner workings, we are honored to welcome Patrick Stevens back to the site. Patrick, whose name you may recognize from his annual list of coaches and where they rank among their peers in tenure on the bench, or perhaps from his ever-popular chronicles of the whereabouts of charismatic referees Karl Hess and Ron Cherry, (an archive of such inquiries can be found on the Twitter hashtag #whereintheworldisKarlHess/#whereintheworldisRonCherry) is the one-man band behind, (subsequently, he's also the namesake of what we've referred to on Twitter as a "@D1scourse timeout" and an expert analyst of college basketball in the mid-Atlantic and along the Eastern seaboard. Here's the insight Patrick had to offer in regards to George Washington, and what they bring to Rose Hill:

Jaden Daly: With 14 wins in their first 18 games, have the Colonials lived up to expectations at this point? In addition, who or what in particular has impressed you most in Foggy Bottom so far?

Patrick Stevens: George Washington was --- and is --- a team that has a measure of predictability. The Colonials have a core four in their junior class, and it was plenty clear in the preseason they would go about as far as Patricio Garino, Kethan Savage, Joe McDonald and Kevin Larsen will take them.

But the fifth piece of the puzzle, at least when George Washington is at its best, is freshman Yuta Watanabe. He's a more-than-capable sixth man with athleticism and skills to spare for a 6-foot-8 guy. He's already impressive, and when he gets some weight put on over the next couple years, he's going to be an all-conference sort for the Colonials.

JD: Before the season, Mike Lonergan said he needed John Kopriva to produce as the Colonials' fifth starter. His numbers might not be as gaudy as those of his teammates, but is it safe to say Kopriva is carrying his share of the load so far?

PS: I think so. Kopriva isn't as talented as the rest of the starting lineup, but he is smart and knows exactly what his limitations are. He's a complement on offense, whether it's through putbacks or 3-pointers (his increased range was something of a surprise early in the season). While he's not a monster rebounder, he is a technically sound player.

Given George Washington's depth issues, Kopriva has filled a valuable role as well, if not better, than anyone could have expected coming into the season.

JD: In Yuta Watanabe, GW has, arguably, one of the biggest X-factors in the Atlantic 10. What about him makes a game plan for him difficult?

PS: As mentioned a bit earlier, Watanabe is really athletic and really skilled. He is in no way a project; he has a lot of polish at this stage in his career, and George Washington makes great use of savvy (he is averaging a turnover every 39.7 minutes).

Watanabe is a threat to make a 3-pointer or two a game, but is also quick enough to easily get to the basket and put his above-the-rim skills to use. Throw in the on-floor smarts, and he's an unusually developed player for a freshman.

JD: Fordham's three-point shooting has fallen off the mark recently, yet the Rams remain trigger-happy at times. Should we expect more shots from beyond the arc against the Colonials' 1-3-1 zone?

PS: Yes, but don't expect to see George Washington use that zone a ton. It is something the Colonials dust off every game, certainly, but it is far from a primary defense. It's a great way for a team with limited depth to hide foul trouble, and it has a way of confounding opponents.

If George Washington's man works well early on, don't look for the 1-3-1 until sometime in the second half.

JD: The matchup between Patricio Garino and Eric Paschall could be one of the best one-on-one battles in the conference to date. Who has the edge on each side of the ball, and how much of an advantage is it, all things considered?

PS: It's funny, the one time I saw Fordham earlier this season was when the Rams came to Maryland. It's the only game all season that Paschall didn't play in (he missed it with an irregular heartbeat), so I don't have as good a read on him as I do the rest of Fordham's roster. 

Garino is a guy who largely plays within himself, and he gets his share of points in transition after disrupting passing lanes. If he's going to get the better of Paschall, that's probably going to be the catalyst for it.

JD: We've asked everyone else around the league this question, so we'll seek your input too: How much else do you feel Fordham needs to do to justify retaining Tom Pecora after the season? In four-plus years, has Pecora, from where you sit, improved what is legitimately a challenging predicament?

PS: I think any conversation about Pecora's job performance comes with the caveat you alluded to. Fordham is a really hard job, and after nearly two decades in the A-10, it's fair to wonder what can realistically be expected of the program. With two .500 or better seasons overall and three .500 or better seasons in league play, it doesn't look like Fordham is going to sustain much success in the A-10. For basketball purposes, I can think of at least two leagues where it would be a better fit (and, not coincidentally, it has spent time in both of them).

With all that said, Pecora had to have a better idea than most what he was getting into when he jumped from nearby Hofstra, and he's gotten five years in a time when plenty of coaches only get three or four seasons to prove themselves.

I'm not a believer in calling for coaches to be fired unless they are blatant cheaters or do something to embarrass their employer. Pecora's done neither. But if Fordham finishes in the A-10 cellar for the fourth time in five years, I don't think you could fault its administration for making a change.

JD: Ultimately, where do you see GW in March? Can they be an A-10 championship team, and what would you say their ceiling is as far as seeding is concerned on Selection Sunday?

PS: The issue for the Colonials is depth. They're going to get in a few games that are really tightly called, and are going to have to rely on guys like Nick Griffin, Darian Bryant and Paul Jorgensen to give them something. Mike Lonergan has every reason to love his top six; it might be the best top six in the league (or a close second to VCU). But Griffin, the top guard off the bench, averages 8.8 minutes. That tells you what you need to know about the drop-off.

Still, George Washington is going to win plenty of games, and its schedule was largely good enough to avoid being an issue (though the Colonials might regret playing RPI bottom feeders Grambling AND UMBC AND Longwood). If things go right, George Washington can probably be in the discussion for a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. More realistically, the Colonials are a league title contender that winds up in the 7-10 range.

JD: One last one for you: How has the adjustment to life without Karl Hess gone?

PS: You're only the 257th person to ask in the last two weeks.

For starters, I'm empathetic to anyone who flushes away a second career by doing something dumb but ultimately not very harmful. I hope that if he wants to officiate in the future, he gets that opportunity. People are granted second chances after doing far worse things than Hess did.

For now, though, there's a little less entropy in college basketball without King Karl's temper (which is ironic considering he is such a law-and-order sort on the floor), and that means a little less amusement for me. But there are still games to keep an eye on, whether or not refereeing royalty is presiding over them as well.

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