The first Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic offered up two compelling games and quite a few things to ponder over the coming days.
Richmond sizzled early. George Mason rallied twice. Short-handed Old Dominion was stellar in the second half. Virginia fell to 0-3 against CAA teams.
With a combined final margin of five points, the doubleheader established itself as a quality basketball event that hopefully has some staying power.
Here’s 10 observations covering all four teams that convened in the Richmond Coliseum.
1. Sherrod Wright will take most of George Mason’s big shots. The junior guard has multiple end-game bona fides, from his buzzer-beater against Virginia Commonwealth in February to his walk-off 3-pointer in Saturday’s 67-64 victory.
He also has three straight 20-point games after dropping 22 on Richmond, becoming the first Patriot to accomplish the feat since Cam Long did it in January 2010 against Hofstra, Towson and Delaware.
Wright isn’t the sort to question himself much, and he’s been let loose this season. He’s averaging 16.9 points and shooting 47.5 percent (19 of 40) from 3-point range. At this rate, he’ll find himself in the CAA Player of the Year discussion. He already has one signature moment for the season.
2. Turnovers —- and transition defense —- will determine Mason’s level of success. The Patriots gave up 15 points off turnovers Saturday, all but three in the first half. Little surprise, then, that Mason was outplayed in the early going but pieced together its two best stretches (the first five minutes after halftime and the final eight minutes) after the break.
The Patriots’ most obvious issue comes and goes. It was their undoing at the end of last season, and has proved costly in some games this year. A strong game from sophomore Corey Edwards (one turnover in 28 minutes) in his third start at the point might go a ways to improving on an obvious problem.
3. What a fascinating player Derrick Williams is for Richmond. The Spiders’ top rebounder and second-leading scorer (teammate Darien Brothers passed him in that category Saturday) is 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, but also can step out and drill a 3-pointer.
He didn’t play much on the Spiders’ Sweet 16 team in 2011, and started on last year’s 16-16 bunch. He takes up a lot of space and plays smart within the structure of the Richmond offense. Mason emphasized limiting his touches, and he took only three shots (two 3-pointers) in the second half. He’s definitely the sort of player who would be fun to get a look at down the road.
4. Every scouting report for the Spiders should begin with “Don’t leave Darien Brothers open on the perimeter.” The junior guard scorched Mason for five 3-pointers (on seven attempts), doing all of his outside damage in the first half.
Regardless of whether he did a lot of his work in transition (and he did), teams still must mind him. It’s not quite worth conceding an open layup to cover Brothers, but he’s now 36 of 68 (52.9 percent) from 3-point range. That’s the sort of option that will make the Spiders scary in Brooklyn at the Atlantic 10 tournament.
5. Blaine Taylor was feeling nostalgic. The Old Dominion coach has taken many teams into the Richmond Coliseum over the years and captured his share of games, including a 13-8 mark in the CAA tournament.
But with the Monarchs leaving the CAA at the end of the year and ineligible for the conference tournament because of league rules, Saturday was the last time Old Dominion was scheduled to play in the Richmond Coliseum (at least in the near future).
“There’s a lot of wins I’ve had over the years, and a lot of them in this arena,” Taylor said of a 63-61 defeat of Virginia. “This’ll go down as one I appreciate most as a coach.”
6. DeShawn Painter is doing his part for Old Dominion. One of the highlights of the Monarchs’ upset was seeing the pure glee from Painter, an N.C. State transfer who wildly ran over to the bench and hugged an assistant at the buzzer.
Painter was mostly a reserve with the Wolfpack, but has thrived even as an otherwise youthful Old Dominion roster has struggled this season. He had 11 points and 11 rebounds Saturday, and is averaging 10.9 points and 7.7 rebounds for the Monarchs.
7. Old Dominion was the day’s biggest winner. Let’s face it: It was jarring to see the Monarchs enter the day at 1-10. Old Dominion is a decade removed from its last losing season. This year’s record, even with an untested team, stands out.
So for the Monarchs to overcome a dreadful first half thanks in part to Dimitri Batten (game-high 23 points) and thrive despite the absence of Nick Wright (illness) and Keenan Palmore (concussion), well, let Taylor take it away again:
“I’d probably trade this win for three others, to tell you the truth. It means enough to our school and in our state and to our kids,” Taylor said. “Then the timing of it, right before Christmas, with what we’ve gone through. Someone said this was an epic win. In some respects, it is an epic win.
“I don’t want to put too much street cred on it, but you look at their roster, look at the record, you look at the time of year, it doesn’t get much better. I kept telling the kids I couldn’t imagine a better present sitting under the tree than going up to Richmond and beating UVa. Doggone if we didn’t do it.”
8. Virginia needs Jontel Evans back —- yesterday. Frankly, the Cavaliers need him back from his foot injury at both ends of the floor. Yes, the offense could run better, and coach Tony Bennett will have to tolerate some freshman mistakes so long as Evans is out.
Nonetheless, the guy (when healthy) is one of the ACC’s best on-ball defenders (if not the best). Old Dominion rattled off 43 points in the second half, the most Virginia has yielded in a half since surrendering 44 to Wake Forest on Jan. 29, 2011. If the Cavaliers’ are going to make a run at a first division finish in the ACC, Evans’ presence (and effectiveness) is a necessity.
9. Evan Nolte is going to be a useful piece moving forward. The freshman had 15 points in 23 minutes for Virginia after scoring a total of 19 points in his last five games combined.
OK, this isn’t going to happen overnight. But Nolte is going to prove some offensive versatility and matchup trouble as he continues to mature. He might only have a couple more days like Saturday the rest of the season, but it never hurts to stockpile guys who shoot well and make good decisions. Nolte looks like the sort of player who will generally do both.
10. Could we get this event moved out of this weekend? The idea of bringing in an ACC team (Virginia or Virginia Tech), an A-10 team (Richmond or VCU), at least one CAA team (Mason or James Madison) and someone else from around the state (Hampton next year) is fantastic. Richmond is the correct location for such an event.
But for entirely selfish reasons, could this be played a week later? The weekend before Christmas makes for brutal traffic, as anyone who trekked down to the state capital from Northern Virginia yesterday can attest (the late-night drive back was hassle-free). On the bright side, nothing eliminates the tension of excessive traffic like two great basketball games. Saturday certainly delivered those.
—- Patrick Stevens