Every coach will tell you that over the course of a college basketball season, each game matters. In terms of building a strong case for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, some games matter more than others.
George Washington's Mike Lonergan makes it rather clear what a win at No. 10 Saint Louis on Saturday night (8 p.m., CSN-plus) would do for the Colonials.
"You win this, you can pretty much lose the rest and make the tournament," the coach cracked.
Lonergan has no intention of mailing in the remaining games, but downing A-10 leading Saint Louis (24-2, 11-0) would indeed make a trip to the ultimate March Madness event all but official. It would also end the Billikens' 18-game winning streak.
Of course the Colonials (20-6, 8-4 Atlantic 10) have already put themselves in strong position for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament field of 68. They can move into sole possession of third place in the A-10 with a victory, 1/2 game ahead of VCU and Massachusetts. The top four teams receive a double bye for the conference tournament in Brooklyn next month.
Even with a loss, GW's RPI, currently 32, will rise. St. Louis is 14th nationally in RPI.
Not that anyone on the Colonials side is thinking about losing. What about Saint Louis is Lonergan focused on?
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"Their defense is what really has my attention," the coach said.
The senior-laden Billikens entered this week ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense (58.9 ppg) and fifth in 3-point defense, holding opponents to 28.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The backcourt tandem of Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. will put pressure on GW point guard Joe McDonald throughout. Leading scorer and rebounder Dwayne Evans mans the middle.
"They really do such a great job at denying wings and taking you out of your offense that we have to be really strong with the ball," Lonergan said. "We're going to have to get a lot out of our other guards. Joe just can't handle the ball himself."
The Colonials handled another road test earlier this week, defeating Richmond 73-65 on Tuesday behind points from Maurice Creek, who came off the bench for only the second time this season. McDonald and Isaiah Armwood each had 14 as GW won its 20th game in a season for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign.
GW defeated No. 20 Creighton back in December. The program' last victory over a top-10 ranked opponent came in December 2004 over Michigan State in the BB&T Classic.
On Wednesday, Saint Louis survived overtime against George Mason for the second time this season. Jett scored 25 points and forward Rob Loe sank two 3-pointers in the extra session for an 89-85 victory over a Patriots squad that has only two conference wins this season.
The veteran Billikens have won their last three games by a combined eight points. Rather than focus on the winning streak, the Colonials are focusing on the possible end-game opportunities that others have yet to capitalize on.
"They're winning close games and they're a really good team, experienced," Armwood said. "But they're definitely a little vulnerable because they're so close in games. We think we have a good chance of winning."