There’s great news for college basketball fans in the D.C. region: The Atlantic 10 Tournament is coming back to Washington in March.
I had the chance to cover the 2018 edition of the tournament at Capital One Arena, and it was one intriguing game after another, with the only one of the 13 that didn’t feel competitive entering the second half being the obligatory “Friday evening blowout in the 3-6 game.”
This year’s edition, like the 2017-2018 vintage, has its preseason darling with St. Bonaventure this year’s Rhode Island (except while the Rams merely received votes the Bonnies are 23rd and 24th in the AP and Coaches Preseason Polls). While Richmond and VCU are both picked to finish in the top four, George Mason eighth and George Washington 13th.
The Colonials enter their third season under head coach Jamion Christian.
“I definitely believe we’ve made a ton of strides starting with the talent we’ve been able to put together on the roster,” Christian said. “Moving into our style of play, and just understanding a deeper belief of where we need to be at to be a top four team in this league and I think we’ve made tremendous strides to be able to get there.”
G.W. won its opener Tuesday against St. Francis (PA) 75-72 as Connecticut transfer Brendan Adams tallied 22 points in his Colonials debut while Virginia Tech transfer Joe Bamisile scored 20 points in his G.W. first game. Christian also has his eye on a freshman guard who notched two points, two assists and a steal against the Red Flash.
“Brayon Freeman is one of the most highly-touted freshmen coming into the A-10. I don’t think he’s getting enough due out there — how good he is. He picked us over some really great schools and we’re really happy to have him,” Christian said. “His ability to create and to make passes and create for guys is really special.”
Back in Foggy Bottom is junior guard James Bishop. The Baltimore native is another transfer (from LSU) who is the A-10’s returning leading scorer — but he provides more than just the 19 points and five assists he netted in his first season with the Colonials.
“From the day he walked into our program, our program got incredibly better because of how he leads on a day-to-day basis,” Christian said. “How he cares about his teammates. How he creates for them, how he challenges those guys to better and how he accepts challenges from them.”
Also returning is junior forward Ricky Lindo Jr., who averaged a double-double in his first season with G.W. after transferring from Maryland.
The Colonials allowed the fourth-most points per game in the A-10 last winter, and the coach knows that needs to change: “We’re going to be tough defensively: We’ve got a lot of versatile pieces, a lot of good athletes. So you’re going to see us really being able to get up and down on the offensive end of the floor. And then defensively just being able to get after you.”
With the added incentive of playing the Atlantic Ten Tournament in their backyard, there’s an optimism that this will be the year his program makes the leap.
“We’ve got a great league to showcase what we’re able to do. A lot of respect for the coaches and the players in this league man, it’s unbelievable,” Christian said. “But I like being the dog that’s chasing a little bit right now. I feel like we’ve got a hungry group of guys that are talented, hungry and smart.”
Before league play begins, they’ll be tested-starting with a trip to No. 21 Maryland this Thursday.
While Christian has his foundation in place, Kim English is looking to establish a new era in Fairfax. The former Tennessee and Colorado assistant was named George Mason’s Head Coach last March, and over the last eight months he’s been implementing an offensive philosophy, a defensive mindset and a program culture.
“The baseline — the absolute standard — is going to be how hard we play every possession,” English said. “How tough we are in moments where toughness calls. How competitive we are as individuals and as a group.”
With any new head coach, there are going to be changes to the roster, especially with the transfer portal now allowing players to move without sitting out seasons before playing in their new surroundings.
Three of the five incoming transfers come to Fairfax from schools like Tennessee (Davonte Gaines), Colorado (D’Shawn Schwartz), and Wake Forest (Blake Forest).
“They are high major players that have been around elite programs,” English said. “They understand the toughness, the work ethic the competitiveness … they know what goes into winning.”
One of the holdovers who has remained during the transition is their anticipated producer in the pivot.
“There’s not a post guy in America that I would trade for Josh Odoro,” English said. “I think he’s that good. I think he’s that special. He’s a hard worker. He’s incredibly humble. He’s shown great toughness and competitiveness. He’s our kind of guy.”
Odoro led four starters in double figures with 16 points in Mason’s season-opening 74-52 win over Stony Brook on a night where they held the Seawolves to 34% shooting and 6-28 from three-point range while also winning the battle of the boards by 13.
They take their turn in College Park next week when they visit the Terrapins on Wednesday. But the new coach is ready for the challenge.
“We’re going to have ebbs and flows in games where we’re getting up-tempo, and it’s going to be ebbs and flows of the game where we slow it down and get a good shot,” English said. “They’ll be moments in the games we’re playing aggressive and pressing full-court. It’ll be moments of the game in which we’re in a half-court solid-based defense.”
George Mason visits George Washington at the Smith Center on Jan. 17, while the two teams tangle at Eagle Bank Arena on Feb. 27.