By all accounts, the George Washington men’s basketball team has virtually an airtight case for a berth in the NCAA tournament. Those credentials include nonconference wins against the likes of ninth-ranked Creighton, Maryland and Georgia and an RPI ranking that lingers around 30.
Still, the Colonials (20-7, 8-5 Atlantic 10) are proceeding as if nothing is certain, especially given their seven-year absence from the sport’s showcase event coupled with the many surprises that often accompany Selection Sunday.
So the priority over the final three regular season games is to secure a top four seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament and earn a bye into the quarterfinals. In fifth place entering Sunday’s game against George Mason at Smith Center, the Colonials are vying with VCU, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph’s for seeds 2-4, with Dayton and Richmond close behind them.
“It’s important because it gives [players] the day off,” GW Coach Mike Lonergan said. “But I also told them, ‘Hey, we’re trying to make the NCAA tournament, and you’ve worked really hard.’ We’ve hit a rough spot here with the schedule being tougher and Kethan [Savage] being out. We’ve got to get back on track, and we’ve got a perfect opportunity with these last three games.”
The Colonials have dropped three of four and are coming off a 66-59 loss to No. 10 Saint Louis, which was 12-1 in conference play entering Saturday night’s game at VCU. It was GW’s ninth game in a row without Savage, the guard who broke his foot and has not been in the lineup since Jan. 18 against Saint Bonaventure. The Colonials are hoping to get Savage back in time for the start of the Atlantic 10 tournament in less than two weeks.
Before then, GW has a favorable closing stretch that includes two games against teams (George Mason, Fordham) that entered the weekend with a combined five wins in Atlantic 10 play. Its other game is Wednesday at home against Saint Joseph’s, which is in second place in the conference.
On Jan. 25, GW beat the Patriots, 75-69, in the Colonials’ first game without Savage. Thanks to placing all of its starters in double figures, GW built a 16-point lead late in the second half on the way to capturing the first leg of the men’s basketball portion of the Revolutionary Rivalry. The first-year competition between the schools separated by less than 20 miles comprises 16 sports, with the winner claiming the newly created Tri-Corner Hat Trophy.
The Patriots (10-17, 3-10), meantime, are near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings but have won three of five, including taking Saint Louis to overtime Feb. 19 in Fairfax before falling, 89-85. They also forced overtime against the Billikens in the first meeting on Feb. 1, an 87-81 loss.
“We’re moving the ball and just taking better care of the ball,” George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt said. “We just started talking about making sure not to turn the ball over and getting shots.”
George Mason most recently beat Richmond, 69-60, behind a combined 37 points from its senior back court of Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen. The duo also combined for 41 points in a 91-80 road upset of Massachusetts on Feb. 12.
The Patriots’ recent upswing has them in contention to finish no lower than 11th in the Atlantic 10, meaning they can avoid a de facto tournament play-in game on the event’s first night. The 12th- and 13th-place teams play each other in the first round and face potentially five games in as many days if either advances to the final.
“We’ve got three games left, but for us seniors, we know it’s the last go-around,” Allen said. “For us to win, we’ve just got to give it our all each game like we’ve been doing the whole time.”