WASHINGTON – Yes, Fordham was 9-2 and there were many positive signs under first-year coach Jeff Neubauer for a program that hasn’t won more than 10 games in a season since 2007-08, but putting the Rams’ resume under the proverbial microscope suggested they might be due for a bit of a comeuppance in their Atlantic 10 opener at George Washington Sunday night.
Consider that Fordham’s non-conference strength of schedule ranked 351st, dead last in Division I. All of its wins were at home, and none came against an opponent currently higher than No. 240 (St. John’s) in KenPom. The trip to the nation’s capital was the Rams’ first true road game since Nov. 14 and they weren’t exactly taking on a cupcake (not that there are many of those in the A-10, but even relatively).
Other than perhaps Dayton, George Washington has established itself as the conference favorite, beating Virginia (still the only loss for the fifth-ranked Cavaliers and the only time the top-ranked offense in the nation has been held at 1.00 points per game or below). The distant past was also not smiling on Fordham, it has never (ever) won at George Washington in its long and storied history (13 meetings overall). Oh, and did I mention starting point guard Joseph Chartouny hurt his ankle in practice last week and was out, too?
But despite having a dreadful shooting first half and looking like they might be trouble on a couple of occasions, the long-awaited comeuppance never materialized. In fact, Fordham was the better team in the second half, trimming a 15-point deficit to three and if a shot would have fallen here or there on a late possession, we might be talking about a program-defining win instead of an encouraging 69-63 loss.
“That team played hard — very hard,” GW junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh said. “We just have to come out stronger because the first four minutes of the second half are the most important of every game.”
— Atlantic10Conference (@atlantic10) January 4, 2016
Cavanaugh, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, is a matchup nightmare for anyone in the Atlantic 10 and beyond, a 6’9″ post who can score near the rim and also step out and hit threes if you leave him alone out there.
The most positive developments came at the defensive end for Neubauer and Fordham. The Rams’ trapping zones had feasted on weaker teams to get to fourth nationally in both turnover rate and steal percentage, but surely a largely veteran George Washington team with one of the best offenses in the country would shred the traps for layups and open looks all over the court, wouldn’t it?
Nope, although it should be noted that the Colonials (12-2, 1-0) did finish at 1.06 ppp mostly due to a 25-34 performance at the free throw line, George Washington never looked comfortable and turned the ball over 13 times (20.0%), having to rush some shots and taking many others under duress. In the end, the Rams’ aggressiveness committed 27 fouls (as opposed to GW’s 11), but there were hardly any layups or dunks (the Colonials finished 16-35 from two-point range).
“We told the team at halftime that our defense in the first half was reasonable,” Neubauer said. “I thought we did some good things. There were several possessions that we deflected passes, we got a finger on it, and we couldn’t quite get it and they got a layup. There were some things that just didn’t go our way, and in the second half, our defense was better. Our guys are giving themselves a chance to win by competing at the defensive end. Offensively, I have to do a better job.”
Of course, all the positive vibes in the world won’t give Fordham free points going forward and it faces a couple of key home games this week: Wednesday against struggling La Salle and Sunday versus Richmond, who lost at home to St. Joseph’s in its Atlantic 10 opener. For a program that hasn’t won more than three conference games since that 2007-08 campaign (under Dereck Whittenburg before things began to unravel a bit for him), it was a very uplifting start.
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
What else did we learn from the nation’s capital Sunday night?:
1) Depth without Chartouny
The point guard start fell to sophomore Antwoine Anderson, who started 11 games last season, but had not made a start this season. He struggled in the first half, but recovered to score 13 points (on 5-13 shooting). He is 9-17 shooting from outside the three-point arc this season, but the biggest difference between Chartouny and Anderson is in the turnover column, where Anderson had a 34.1% rate last season and now has 25 in 202 minutes this season (4 Sunday in 27 minutes). He showed an ability to get to the rim and had a team-high three steals, but has to hang on to the ball. Chartouny is officially day-to-day, but it does not look like he will play in either game this week.
“I don’t know that he looked comfortable at any point out there today, but Antwoine has improved tremendously over the last nine months,” Neubauer said. “Nine months ago, if you would have told me that he would have played this much for us, there was no way. He has improved drastically, but I don’t think it showed too, too much tonight.”
2) Feeding Mandell Thomas
As the leading scorer and one of the best shooters in the A-10, Thomas will be first on everyone’s scouting report this season, and he was held to just 13 points on 5-16 shooting by the Colonials. One of Neubauer’s strengths at Eastern Kentucky was creating a very good offensive system, and he made some good halftime adjustments that should help going forward. Obviously Chartouny was out, but Christian Sengfelder was also in foul trouble (see next note) all night. Jon Severe was also cold, which led to increased minutes and a valuable 10 points from David Pekarek off the bench. But it is imperative that Fordham get pressure off of Thomas on the offensive end.
“In the second half, we did post Ryan Rhoomes and that allowed us to be more effective,” Neubauer said. “We were also much better in transition in the second half. We had 10 steals that led to some easy baskets.”
3) Going outside the box
Most coaches (including his counterpart Mike Lonergan, who sat Yuta Watanbe for most of the first half) these days don’t like to play someone with two fouls in the first half, positing that the second half is more important than the first. So when Sengfelder got his third foul midway through the first half and Neubauer left him in the game, it had to be a coaching blunder, right? How do you have that many coaches and miss that? Sure enough, Sengfelder was called for a charge with 7:10 left in the half and the gaffe (on national television, no less) was embarrassing for first-year coach Neubauer.
Only it wasn’t an omission at all. Neubauer had gone against the grain and done the same thing against St. John’s earlier in the year and it worked. Many of the advanced stat analysis think that coaches can overdo taking players out of the game with foul trouble and Neubauer trusted Sengfelder, a key player obviously, to be careful.
In this case, as he admitted afterward, he looked silly. However, I admire Neubauer for some ingenuitive thinking. At a program like Fordham, he’s going to have to do something different to succeed in the A-10, and – as I said – the advanced numbers show that coaches tend to use too much caution in such situations, so why not? Of course, there is a fine line between gutsy and crazy, but I don’t think Neubauer crossed it in this particular case. Sengfelder never did foul out, by the way, although he was limited to 20 minutes.
“I certainly in certain games feel like we have to go for it, so I have no problem with that decision that I made,” Neubauer said. “It didn’t work out very well. He only played 20 minutes and we need him on the floor more than that. But guys like Nych Smith and David Pekarek, who have not played much recently, our defense was still good with those two on the floor, I’m proud of that. This night is going to make us better.”
George Washington 54-45, 7:43 left. General Washington doesn’t look too pleased Fordham is hanging around pic.twitter.com/A1unnfAXm5
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 4, 2016