Well, it appears I backed the wrong George in the NCAA Tournament. George Mason and Georgetown both pulled the requisite upsets to advance to the Sweet 16, but GW could not overcome #1 Duke to complete the D.C. George trifecta. More on the rest of the tourney later, but first I am afraid I am going to have to bore those of you who don't care about GW for a few more minutes. And then it will be the offseason until October. That's right, no hypetastic recruiting updates, no breathless summer league reports, no coaching carousel conversation. Great season, see you in the fall.
The Blue Devils won the game because they handled and attacked GW' s pressure defense and completely disrupted GW's offense with their own aggressive man-to-man defense in the halfcourt. The Colonials beat the perimeter defense a few times but Duke big men Shelden Williams (7 blocks, 14 rebounds) and Josh McRoberts (2 blocks, 13 rebounds) dominated the paint. Time and again, the Colonials needed to make one extra pass and failed to do so, leading to a turnover or forced shot.
To read long, irrational and profane complaints about the refereeing, head over to gwhoops.com; my complaints will just be long. Williams blocked shots with such force, it often looked like a foul to me, but the refs swallowed the whistle for the most part when he was on defense. He came from behind to block one of Pops Mensah-Bonsu's shots after Pops had him sealed in the post. Williams is an All-America center, but Pops goes pretty strong to the hoop, and that's a play that gets a foul call 90% of the time. At a key point in the first half, Omar Williams got a step on Lee Melchionni and drove to the hoop; Melchionni had one hand on Williams' back and wrapped the other hand around him to strip the ball as Williams went up for his shot. If this were a pickup game, Melchionni would have called a foul on himself, and GW would have checked the ball in from the top of the key. If Melchionni is good enough to make that play, he should be starting and playing 40 minutes a night, not coming off the bench. And why does J.J. Redick get to take an extra hop in the lane after a jump stop? The guy is a great player, but he neither needs nor deserves the advantage he gets when he is allowed to do that. There are other examples of calls that went against GW, but these were the most egregious, and I am sure a Duke fan could find some blown calls in favor of GW.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, I don't believe that the refs collaborated with CBS to make sure that Duke won, but I do believe that refs are human beings who make mistakes and hold grudges just like all other human beings. Mike Krzyzewski has been among the top coaches in the game for many years; Karl Hobbs won his first NCAA Tournament game as a head coach this weekend. Coach K says things to officials during the game that are, shall we say, a little coarser than the lines he reads from the script on his omnipresent TV commercials, but Hobbs jumps, screams, and stomps like Rumpelstiltskin on the sideline. Until Hobbs gets to a Final Four, he's going to have to accept that his histrionics may have a negative impact on the officiating. I have never met a coach who thought that referees deserve the money they earn, and I have never met a referee who didn't seem to have an answer to every question. These are two forces who will be in diametrical opposition until the end of time.
Having gotten that off my chest, let me state that GW lost this game not because of the referees or the Greensboro home court advantage for Duke, but because they failed to execute when they had the opportunity. Duke played great defense, but the Colonials had two chances to take the lead in the first half and missed makeable shots: a short jumpshot in the lane by Danilo Pinnock and a three-pointer by Carl Elliott. The next GW possession ended with the no-call on Melchionni that I mentioned earlier. Duke then grabbed control of the game with a 16-4 run and took an 11-point lead into the half. The Colonials fell further behind as the second period began, and despite a few bursts of energy, were never able to get closer than nine.
Playing from behind was one of GW's strengths this year; teams took leads and believed they could run with GW, only to see their advantage dissipate under a barrage of steals and dunks that seemed unthinkable only a few minutes earlier. Duke, however, remained composed and answered the Colonials' quick scores with daggers of their own. GW also failed to capitalize on some potential foul troouble for Redick and Williams. Both players had two fouls at halftime and Redick picked up a third five minutes into the second half, but the Colonials were so desperate to score they didn't have the luxury of targeting a particular playter. Also credit the Duke coaches for putting Redick on Regis Koundjia, who was generally the fifth scoring option in the GW offense whenever he was on the floor.
GW won games all season by imposing its will and superior talent on the opposition, but Duke gained the upper hand and never let GW's fire get enough oxygen to put the Blue Devils on the defensive. UNC-Wilmington played nearly perfectly and lost to the Colonials on Thursday night, so the margin for error is slim for every team in the NCAA Tournament. Just ask Iowa, Kansas or North Carolina. There's no shame in losing to the number one team in the country, but there is no glory either. Still anyone who hadn't seen GW this year got a good look at what the Colonials were all about in their two tourney games. They saw Pops rise to amazing heights to block shots and throw down dunks, they saw Mike Hall stroke three-pointers and will his team to victory against UNC-Wilmington, they saw Williams drive, spin and hang his way to big baskets in the lane, they saw Elliott hit huge threes and free throws, they saw Pinnock grab steals and sky for slams or blocks, they saw Maureece Rice come off the bench to score 20 points while barely breaking a sweat, and they saw Karl Hobbs exerting himself as he exhorted his team.
A month ago, I said GW had to be considered as a potential Final Four team. Then Montrell McDonald got suspended and Pops got hurt, and the Colonials' slight chance at Indianapolis shed a few pounds. Still, they finished 27-3, the best record in school history, were ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in 50 years, and were undefeated at home and in the conference. Thursday's win over UNCW was GW's first NCAA Tournament win since 1994.
For the seniors - Hall, Williams, Mensah-Bonsu, and Kireev - it was the end of a rebuilding process that took the program from 12 wins their freshman year to the school's first Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and back-to-back appearances on the NCAA Tournament. In a few years, when they are eligible for the GW Athletic Hall of Fame, I hope they are considered as a group.