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George Washington Keeps Winning: What’s Been Going Right for the A-10’s Biggest Surprise

FOGGY BOTTOM – The Atlantic 10 preseason poll, which is voted on by the league’s head coaches and select media members, and this very site’s preseason power rankings, both projected George Washington to finish 13th. GW’s roster was filled with a number of transfers and players who, despite their relative collegiate experience, had not yet had a chance to share the court. After a promising performance against then ranked Maryland that unfortunately ended in defeat, GW went 1-8 in the following 9 games. Especially poor results included double digit losses against now #257 ranked UMass Lowell and #259 ranked UC San Diego (KenPom). GW then began conference play against Dayton and VCU, getting blown out by 25 and 23 points respectively. In the post game press conference after the Dayton game, Head Coach Jamion Christian called out his players, especially big men Hunter Dean and Noel Brown, about their lack of production.

COVID policies made it so fans couldn’t go to the Smith Center. Rumors were swirling about Christian’s job security. Injury woes were forcing Christian to go deeper into his bench and use non-traditional lineups just to field a team. There was little reason to be excited about basketball in Foggy Bottom.

Then, when things seemed the most bleak, GW somehow started winning games. First, there was an MLK day Revolutionary Rivalry victory over George Mason. A depleted GW roster came back from down 13 late in the second half to snatch a last second win on the backs of star duo James Bishop and Joe Bamisile.

On the road against Rhode Island, Dean, who had had an especially slow start to the year, dominated the paint against the imposing Mitchell twins, having his way with the Rams on both ends of the floor and helping GW squeak out a win. Then, after two exciting home victories against Fordham and LaSalle, GW went toe to toe against conference leader and projected NCAA Tournament team Davidson. Entering the second half with a 42-34 lead, GW was unable to keep up their hot start and ultimately fell 73-78. GW followed up their performance against Dayton by winning three of their next four, and placing the 6th seed in reach going into a huge matchup against Richmond at the Smith Center on Tuesday. 

What changed? What switch flipped for the team that got blown out by some of the worst teams in the Big West and America East? 

1. Chemistry: 

GW has 10 transfers, the second most in the country behind Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Only two players, and no one in Christian’s regular rotation, has been on the team longer than one season. It took time for the team to gel. Players needed to become comfortable with each other’s playing styles, understand each other’s movements, and become closer off the court. It took 15 games for leading scorers Bishop and Bamisile to both score 20 points in the same game (1/17 vs. Mason). As the season has gone on, ball movement has also dramatically improved. GW has averaged 13.7 assists since the Mason game compared to only 10.9 assists before it. Christian has spent the season cultivating a tight knit locker room, preaching values like love and open communication. By doing this, even at GW’s lowest points, the team was able to stay positive and weather the storm. Speaking on that after GW’s win against Fordham, Bishop said, “we know what we got in the locker room, we’re not really proving anybody wrong, we’re proving ourselves right.” 

2. Lineups and Rotations:

Christian began the season with a starting lineup of Bishop, UConn grad transfer and guard Brendan Adams, Bamisile, senior forward Ricky Lindo, and Brown. However, due to COVID and various injuries, Christian was forced to adjust. While Dean had previously earned the starting center role, against Mason, GW started seldom used Florida Gulf Coast transfer and forward Qwanzi Samuels and standout freshman guard Brayon Freeman. The Bishop, Freeman, Bamisile, Samuels, and Dean combination proved successful, going 7-4 in games when they all started (including UMass on 2/9, where Adams started but Freeman played more minutes). Samuels and Freeman have added more ball movement and allowed the offense to run completely through Bishop and Bamisile. 

When Lindo and Adams were in the starting lineup, it was difficult for everyone to get enough touches. Bishop, Bamisile, and Lindo are ball dominant, and the offense often reverted to one of the three of them just playing iso-ball. Samuels and Freeman do a much better job keeping the ball moving and creating an offensive system where Bishop and Bamisile can play to the best of their abilities. While these moves forced Lindo and Adams to the bench, they have thrived in those roles. Lindo’s instant offense always provides a spark when he checks in, and Adams has the ability to slow down an opponent’s best perimeter option. 

3. James Bishop’s Defense:

James Bishop is widely known as a star on the offensive end. He is third in the A-10 in scoring, averaging 17.1 points per game. He can create his own shot, has unlimited range, can hit contested jumpers, and has the dribble moves and handle to break down any defender and drive to the rim. However, this season, his defense has taken a huge step. With Adams shifting to the bench, Bishop has taken on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s best player for the majority of the game. Bishop has developed the footwork necessary to stay in front of his man, has the strength to hold his own on drives to the rim, and the timing and IQ to rarely get beat on pump fakes and jab steps. Bishop’s best defensive performance came against Davidson, where he limited star, and projected NBA draft pick Hyunjung Lee to only 6 points on 1-8 shooting. That was Lee’s least efficient and second lowest scoring game of his season. Bishop’s defense, along with his already elite offensive skills, has solidified his spot as one of the conference’s top players, and has helped provide a new dimension to GW’s signature “mayhem” defense. 

4. Hunter Dean’s Emergence:

Hunter Dean began the year struggling to stay on the floor, dealing with both injuries and consistently finding himself in foul trouble. Before the Mason game (again, a clear turning point), Dean had only played more than 20 minutes twice. Then, against Mason, Dean was able to stay on the floor and made a number of clutch plays at the end of the game, including where he intercepted a pass on the defensive end Odell Beckham Jr. style, and hustled down the court to punctuate the sequence with a dunk off a pick and roll.

Dean followed up that performance with a 11 rebound, 5 block performance against Saint Joseph’s and a 15 point, 11 rebound, 3 block performance against Rhode Island’s supersized frontcourt. Dean’s improvement gives GW a rim protector and athletic interior presence that Christian’s previous squads have sorely lacked. 

GW has four more games left in the regular season to improve their seeding ahead of the A-10 tournament, which will be held in Washington, DC at the Capital One Arena, just a few blocks away from the friendly confines of the Smith Center. In November, most GW fans would be satisfied getting a bye and avoiding the infamous 1st round “pillow fight” between the bottom four seeds. Now, GW will continue to try and prove the doubters wrong and assert themselves as a legitimate contender for the A-10 title.