There is no question in my mind that Tuesday's trip to Foggy Bottom is a litmus test.
To be clear, it isn't a statement game. The season won't end in Brooklyn nor end in Arlington based on what happens. Don't assign it fictional drama. It isn't anything other than the opportunity to go 2-0 in the A-10, pick up a very important and very good road victory, and discover more about where we are as a basketball team.
However it matters. George Washington isn't 13-3 because they've beaten up on the Nevada Culinary Institute. The Colonials have beaten Creighton, Maryland, Miami, and Manhattan (check the rankings). Their three losses: at Kansas State, at LaSalle, and vs. Marquette the day after Thanksgiving.
This is a litmus test game for VCU for two reasons:
1. George Washington is really good. I don't need fancy adjectives. That matters for everything from a "quality victory" on the resume to a potential tiebreaker need for Brooklyn.
2. VCU is on the road. So-called "good teams" find ways to win these games, and use the victory to propel them further. It's an opportunity for VCU to continue the building process, but this is, without question, a gas-can win opportunity.
Hence, a litmus test. It's appropriate because if you remember back to chemistry class a litmus test, the results of which are measured on a pH scale, determines whether a solution is acidic or basic. Ironically chemistry is vital in college basketball.
Anyway, the pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. For VCU, "pH" stands for the performance of HAVOC and relates specifically to turnover differential. A pH of 7 is neutral. If the Rams commit seven fewer turnovers than they force, that's okay.
Further, a pH less than 7 is acidic, as in "leaves a bad taste in your mouth." And it goes to follow that a pH greater than 7 is basic. HAVOC at its most basic is turning people over at will, and taking care of the basketball. Those extra possessions allow you additional chances to score. Everything flows from that basic starting point, including the important "points scored" and "points allowed" category.
It's important that VCU always push that pH scale towards, and into, double figures.
It's doubly important Tuesday because GW is no slouch. The Colonials turn teams over on 21% of possessions, good for 43rd nationally. What's more, they take pretty good care of the basketball–a turnover rate of 17.3% is 95th nationally. The Colonials are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation.
GW is a team with very good pieces–shooters, ballhandlers, rebounds, defenders. The shortcoming is that head coach Mike Lonergan doesn't go particularly deep. Only six players log 15 or more minutes per game. We will touch on that later.
The Other Guys
We will start with Indiana-transfer Mo Creek (14.8ppg), who brings a shooting dynamic to the Colonials that they missed last year. Creek was one of the best freshmen in the country but has battled injuries his entire career. He's 39-98 from three this year and the Rams are going to have to chase him off the arc.
Kevin Larsen (10.5ppg, 6.1rpg) is much better than his numbers suggest. The 6-10 Larsen dropped 20 pounds in the offseason and cut his body fat by half, so he is more nimble around the basket. He is averaging 13/9 in the two GW conference games.
The guy you hate to face but would love to have on your team is Isaiah Armwood (11.3ppg, 7.9rpg). Armwood is a workhorse and a shot blocker who does not take possessions off. At 6-9 he causes problems but never strays too far from the rim. Side note: VCU has #MoSaysNo, and GW has the #BlockNessMonster.
Joe McDonald (8.3ppg, 4.9rpg, 4.3apg) runs the point and runs it with a solid head. McDonald is more of a driver and is a competitor; however, he can shoot the three if given time (10-25 on the year). McDonald, it's worth noting, had eight turnovers last year against VCU. He is also battling a bum hip this year.
One of the most improved players in the conference is combo guard Kethan Savage (13.8ppg). He isn't much of a threat from the arc, but he can create his own shot as well as anyone. He can also get to the rim and finish (which I guess is the best kind of shot-creation).
Patricio Garino (8.4ppg, 3.8rpg) isn't a gigantic numbers guy, but he does a lot of things very well. He is high motor and their best wing defender. Garino will, however, gamble on defense. Keep your eyes there.
There are your big six. The half-dozen will see a majority of GWs minutes. Each averages 25 or more minutes. Two others will make guest appearances. Nemana Mikic is a 6-8 perimeter-oriented big man–22 of his 29 field goals are threes. The Rams just have to run him off the arc. John Kopriva is a hard-fighting backup post player.
How Does VCU Win?
It's an anti-Rope-A-Dope attack for VCU. The Rams cannot sit back and play around with a finesse version of havoc, hoping to wear down the thin-benched Colonials. GW is too stout for that.
VCU has to fire body blow after body blow. That means good, hard, legal, body-to-body screens. Get-your-ass-on-someone boxing out. Attacking the paint, playing physical inside/out basketball, but also guards attacking the lane in an attempt to pistol-whip GW.
You take that pounding and combine it with the frolic portion of the attack, deflecting passes and diving on the floor and playing free-spirited, energetic basketball, and you have a combination that truly wears down an opponent.
That's not easy. It takes a special form of emotional toughness because things won't always go according to plan. As written earlier in the George Mason review, GW will be trying to win and they have talented players.
The environment should be a good one, which is an advantage for the road team. That will help create the enthusiasm. Then it's a matter of doing those things that floats the pH scale towards double figures. A passed litmus test.