Colonials Lead Some Gorgeous Georges
The team with the best record in big-time college basketball entering the final weekend of the regular season doesn't play in Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C. The team with the 25-1 record and the nation's longest winning streak isn't from Lawrence, Kan., or Storrs, Conn. The team with the best winning percentage on the first weekend of March doesn't live in Lexington, Ky., or Tucson.
The dateline reads FOGGY BOTTOM. When Florida State knocked off Duke the other night, giving the top-ranked Blue Devils a second loss, it left George Washington as the only one-loss team in Division I. And although George Washington's final regular season opponent, Charlotte, could very well be the second-best team in the Atlantic 10, the Colonials ought to be able to finish with a victory at home today on senior day, sending GW into postseason play with that one solitary loss at North Carolina State two days before the new year.
We knew GW was returning a bunch of players who got NCAA tournament experience last year. We knew the Colonials had a coach still very much on the rise in Karl Hobbs. We knew they were good, that the nonconference schedule wasn't taxing and that the conference didn't really figure to have a team that could challenge GW this season.
But 25-1 with 17 straight victories?
It's been a great year for the Georges overall; right there in alphabetical order between Gardner-Webb and Georgia are George Mason, George Washington and Georgetown. And all three Georges seem bound for the NCAA tournament. The most vulnerable would appear to be George Mason, because the Patriots play in the Colonial Athletic Association, which certainly isn't a conference that can count on multiple bids. And depending on various league tournament results, conferences such as the CAA and schools such as George Mason always seem to get pinched. However, George Mason's RPI ranking -- 22 as of yesterday -- not only is better than GW's RPI rank of 30, it's only one behind Georgetown's 21.
GW, which most likely will be seeded the highest of the three, has something of a Cinderella quality. In this TV age of wall-to-wall hoops every evening, teams such as GW make March unlike any other month in sports, providing an element of uncertainty and therefore excitement. As Jack Kvancz, GW's athletic director and a former college basketball coach, said earlier this week: "The kids around campus are walking with a different step, with their chests poked out a little more. This is what you ask for. It's phenomenal. Believe me, this is what you ask for."
Unlike GW, Georgetown and George Mason didn't enter the season necessarily as sure things for the NCAA tournament, but now that they're going to be in, both are a threat.
Georgetown, as we saw when it handed Duke its first defeat on Jan. 21, has size and skill enough in its front court to threaten most anybody, what with 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, 6-9 Jeff Green and 6-9 Brandon Bowman. Green enters tonight's season finale on an 11-game roll, averaging 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.1 blocked shots over that span. And Hibbert, who averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman, is up to 13.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in his last 10 games and has to be one of the four or five most improved big men in college basketball. Coach John Thompson III's offense is so efficient, the Hoyas record an assist on 65 percent of their baskets. What Georgetown has to do, starting in the Big East tournament next week, is find a way to deal defensively with quick, penetrating opposing guards, which has been a weakness teams can't wait to exploit.
Defense isn't George Mason's problem. In fact, if you're one of those people who loves teams that rank near the top in all the defensive categories, you might want to look at the Patriots as a bracket-busting dark horse. Folks can offer up any number of bogus stats to argue on behalf of a team, but this combination is one of my favorites: Coach Jim Larranaga's team is sixth in the nation in field goal percentage allowed (38.3 percent) and tied for eighth in the nation in field goal shooting (49.1 percent). That's a whole lot more impressive than points scored or points allowed because it doesn't speak to the pace of the game or some extremist strategies. Mason can score efficiently and take away the other guy's ability to score efficiently. That and a couple of senior guards (Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler) can take you a couple of rounds in the tournament, even against teams with bigger reputations.
Of course, with the best record in the country and a 17-game winning streak, George Washington won't sneak up on anyone. The names Danilo Pinnock, Mike Hall, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Maureece Rice, Carl Elliott and Omar Williams aren't household. But basketball fans might be able to figure out to whom they belong in a multiple-choice hoops exam.
The question is where will they be seeded, and that relates directly to GW's Charmin-soft nonconference schedule. Kvancz spent several years as a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, so he knows there will be questions. Kvancz said he still believes the Colonials will be a 3 or a 4 seed.
"It reminds me way back of Gonzaga when they first started to play on TV," he said. "We'd sit there and ask: 'Is this team a media darling or a good team? What is this we're watching?' And yes, it's difficult. But there are guys who will be in that room who've watched us play in person, and I think that's good."
It's also good for the team (and the committee's perception of the team) that Mensah-Bonsu is expected to recover from his knee injury in time for the NCAA tournament.
A 29-1 record almost certainly will get GW that 3 seed, and therefore a weaker first-round opponent, though Kvancz doesn't want to obsess about it.
Former Kentucky athletic director and committee member C.M. Newton once told me: "'You can play your way out of a bad seed. But you can't play your way into the tournament if you're not on the board.' "
George Washington isn't just on the board, it's close enough to the top to have earned a little bit of the consideration traditionally reserved for college basketball royalty.