As Shan Foster's last-second jumper bounced high off the Georgia Dome rim, the Commodores' hopes of capturing their first SEC tournament title fell by the wayside. So, too, did Vandy's chances of securing a solid seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Or so it seemed. Even coming off consecutive SEC losses for the first time all season, Vanderbilt nabbed the No. 6 seed in the East region. They'll travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a match-up with the 11th-seeded George Washington Colonials.
The Colonials reached their third-straight NCAA tournament by winning the Atlantic 10's automatic bid. Seeded third in the conference tournament, Coach Karl Hobbs' team avoided the top two seeds, Xavier and UMass, en route to beating Rhode Island in the championship game. The win over URI was the eighth in a row for George Washington, who finished 11-5 in A-10 play.
Having lost four starters, including star forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu, off the team that achieved a top-ten ranking last year, the Colonials were supposed to experience a rebuilding year this season. Instead, they beat Virginia Tech in December and used a five-game winning streak to finish conference play in third place. Then, convincing wins over St. Joeseph's and Saint Louis propelled them to a championship game victory and a trip to the Big Dance.
The Colonials have had their share of bumps in the road. They were thumped in non-conference games at Providence and at home against then-#17 Air Force. After a 6-1 start in the A-10, they dropped four straight conference games. Of those four losses, three of them came by double digits, including a 29-point rout at the hands of regular-season conference champion Xavier. Had GW not nabbed the automatic bid, they would have been left out of the NCAA tournament.
Coach Karl Hobbs relies on a pair of indestructible guards to carry his team's offense. Senior Carl Elliott and junior Maureece Rice each average almost 35 minutes per game, and they each earned a spot on the A-10's all-conference third team. Elliott and Rice continued their steady play into the conference tournament, combining for 31, 33, and 29 points in the Colonials' A-10 tournament run.
Elliott is George Washington's 6-4 version of Vandy's Derrick Byars. He doesn't put up quite the scoring numbers or three-point percentage Byars does, but he is undoubtedly the heart and soul of his team. Elliott's 4.9 assists and 2.6 steals per game both led the conference, and his 5.1 rebounds per game rank second on the team. The senior notched a triple-double in mid-February with 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a win over Temple, the first victory of the team's current winning streak. He doesn't shoot all that well from three-point distance (28 percent), but at 220 pounds, he has the strength to create space and get shots in the lane. While the offense runs through Elliott, he tends to force the action too much at times. The Colonials thrive in transition, but their leader's turnovers (3.5 per game) can hurt them. The senior is the team's best perimeter defender, and he'll likely see a lot of Derrick Byars on Thursday.
While Elliott is GW's best all-around player, Maureece Rice is the team's leading scorer and most dangerous perimeter shooter. His 16.3 points per game, 63 three-pointers and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc lead the Colonials. Named the Most Outstanding Player in the A-10 tournament, he is the one guy Vanderbilt cannot afford to give open looks from the perimeter. Though Rice takes on ball-handling duties with Elliott, his 1.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio doesn't stand out. Like his backcourt mate, the junior has above average strength for a guard, giving the Colonials another guard who can rebound well. Rice isn't the quickest defender, but he thrives in GW's active zones and presses, as he averages 1.4 steals per game.
Senior forward Dokun Akingbade gives the Colonials an active rebounder and effective scorer around the basket. Akingbade leads the team with 5.5 boards per game, but he's especially effective grabbing his own teammates' misses. At 6-9 and 220 pounds, he's not strong enough to body opponents out of position, but his height and athleticism make him dangerous on the offensive glass. The senior leads the team with 69 offensive rebounds, including seven in the conference championship game en route to a career-high 15 points. While Akingbade averaged just 7.3 points per game this season, he leads the team with 55 percent shooting from the field, and his ability to get second and third shot attempts could make him an important factor in Thursday's game. The Colonials are 9-1 when the senior scores in double figures.
Another senior, Regis Koundjia, joins Akingbade in the GW frontcourt. At 6-8 and 224 pounds, his size and numbers parallel Akingbade's. However, Koundjia is comfortable playing on the wing, while his frontcourt mate rarely ventures out on the perimeter. A transfer from LSU, the Africa native is a good finisher on the break and gives the Colonials another steady rebounding presence, as he's one of four GW players averaging at least five rebounds per game. Koundjia is a long, tenacious defender capable of guarding multiple positions, but he often limits himself by getting into foul trouble. He committed at least four fouls in 19 of the team's 31 games.
Freshman Damian Hollis rounds out the GW starting lineup. A 6-8 jumping jack, Hollis saw his minutes increase dramatically toward the end of the season, and he showed that Karl Hobbs wasn't making a mistake, scoring in double figures in five of the team's last six regular season games. He is the Colonials' best three point shooter, making threes at a 45 percent clip, but the freshman is tall and athletic enough to get shots for himself around the basket. Hollis isn't an outstanding defender, but his size may earn him a match-up with Vanderbilt's Shan Foster.
Though he comes off the bench, sophomore Rob Diggs plays perhaps a more important role than either Akingbade or Koundjia. Fourth on the team in minutes played, the 6-8 forward is GW's best post scorer and defensive presence in the paint. His 10.7 points are good for third on the team, and he gets almost all of them around the basket. Diggs averages almost two blocks per game, and he is easily the Colonials' best post defender. The sophomore left the A-10 championship game with an injured nose, and his status is questionable for Thursday; if he can't play many minutes, his team will have a hard time finding points down low.
Travis King, a 6-2 freshman, gives the Colonials a steady ball-handler off the bench. A good perimeter shooter (41 percent on threes) and solid defender (1.5 steals per game), Hobbs can insert King for Elliott or Rice without losing a whole lot. Second to Elliott with 2.5 assists per game, the freshman capably handles point guard duties and is the heir apparent to Elliott's spot when the senior leaves after this season. King will play important minutes on Thursday, and Vanderbilt cannot expect a significant drop-off when he checks in for one of GW's stars.
Sophomore guard Noel Wilmore is the last player in Karl Hobbs' eight-man rotation. Averaging fewer than ten minutes per game, he shoots just 35 percent from the field, but he'll knock down a three-pointer or two if left alone. Wilmore isn't as much of an offensive threat as King, and he'll likely receive around the ten minutes he saw in the A-10 championship game.
The Colonials like to force the action and play at a fast pace on offense and defense. Their offense relies on points in transition, so they have to move the game out of a half-court setting by forcing turnovers and bad shots. To do that, GW employs a number of different defenses, of which the 1-3-1 zone is used most.
With Akingbade, Koundjia, Hollis, and Diggs, the Colonials have several tall, quick forwards that can play just about any spot in the 1-3-1. They like to extend the zone into a half-court trap, using Koundjia at the top to force the ball-handler into the trapping areas. Even after dropping back, the wings constantly play the passing lanes, and they'll gamble to get a steal and an easy basket. GW led the A-10 with 9.3 steals per game.
Offensively, the Colonials prefer to strike early in the shot clock whenever possible. With solid outside shooters in Rice and Elliott and a bevy of forwards who can finish in transition, Hobbs' squad pushes the ball at every opportunity. Their offense becomes stagnant when forced to play a half-court game, so teams that can impose a slower tempo on the game have a great chance to shut down the Colonials.
Coming off consecutive losses for the first time since dropping the first two games of the season, Vanderbilt seem to have lost the momentum they built by winning four out of the five games prior to the Arkansas debacles. However, the Commodores got a favorable draw in the East region, matching up against a George Washington team that would have fallen far short of an NCAA bid had it not been the surprise winner of the A-10 tournament. Though the Colonials lack a signature win, they've played very well down the stretch, and they have athletes capable of flustering a lot of offenses. For the ‘Dores to regain some momentum and move on to the second round, here are the keys to the game:
- Protect That Ball: The Colonials' rely on their pressure to get them easy baskets by forcing opponent mistakes. Their 1-3-1 and full-court presses make taking care of the ball the top priority for opposing teams. GW forced a combined 62 turnovers in their three-game run to the A-10 championship – think of them as the Tennessee of the Atlantic 10. Vanderbilt has dealt well with backcourt pressure all season, averaging just 12.5 turnovers per game. The ‘Dores have a number of seasoned, steady ball-handlers, and they shouldn't be caught off guard by a full-court press. Further, Vandy's deadly outside shooting and great passing make it very hard for opponents to stay in zone against them. In particular, Byars, Foster, and company torched the 1-3-1 zone of East Tennessee State en route to a 42 point thrashing of the Buccaneers. If the Commodores can take care of the ball as they have all year, they can manipulate the tempo to their advantage, and they'll be able to break the GW press and score some easy buckets.
- Crash the Boards: Arkansas destroyed Vanderbilt on the glass in two straight games. The Razorbacks' big, athletic forwards like Michael Washington and Darian Townes made life miserable for the ‘Dores down low. The Colonials have their own athletic forward corps, and they are a very good offensive rebounding team. The way they attack in transition, though, means that shots will often go up before Vandy's defense is in position. Rebounding by non-post players, then, will be important for the Commodores. If Byars, Foster, Cage, Gordon, and Beal are aggressive on the boards, Vanderbilt should be able to neutralize GW's rebounding advantage.
- Backcourt vs. Backcourt: Derrick Byars and Shan Foster were outplayed in two consecutive games by the Arkansas backcourt; Gary Ervin and Patrick Beverley combined for 41 points in Nashville, and Beverley and Sonny Weems combined for 35 in Atlanta. Carl Elliott and Maureece Rice present a similar threat, as they are both strong guards who can connect from the perimeter as well as get to the basket. Not only must the Vanderbilt guards play a more inspired brand of man-to-man defense, but Byars and Foster must assert themselves offensively and be the best guard tandem in Thursday's game. If Vandy's star duo outmatches GW's, look for the Commodores to advance.
Prediction: George Washington is an athletic team led by a couple of heady guards, but the Colonials will be the clear underdogs on Thursday. Their trapping defense has wreaked havoc on the Atlantic 10 lately, but Vanderbilt has seen better full-court pressure from the Volunteers and better perimeter defense from the Razorbacks. As Mark Gottfried and Alabama can attest to, teams that zone Vandy don't last very long, so the Colonials will likely have to play a lot more man-to-man than they're used to. Look for a nip-and-tuck game until the final six or seven minutes, when GW's propensity for foul trouble will hurt their aggressiveness on defense. As long as the ‘Dores limit their turnovers and have at least an average shooting day, they should move on. Final score: Vanderbilt 76, George Washington 67.