MHERST - Just a few days removed from Saturday's 63-53 win over Temple at the Mullins Center, there is cautious optimism around the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team.
Is UMass' slide over?
Tonight's home game at 7 against a retooled George Washington team could be a good indicator.
If the season were to end tomorrow, GW coach Karl Hobbs would be the leader for coach of the year honors in the Atlantic 10.
After losing three of its top four scorers from a year ago, GW was picked to finish fifth in the West in the league's preseason poll. The Colonials are third in the league at 3-3, with a 10-7 overall record.
The departure of SirValiant Brown, who went undrafted after declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, seems to have helped more than it hurt. The Colonials have been more balanced and cohesive without him.
"I think we're progressing," Hobbs said. "They're playing hard, unselfish basketball. The last part is trying to play a little smarter basketball. That's going to come with time. I'm thrilled where the team has progressed so far."
Much like Richmond, which UMass faced a week ago, GW starts one player inside and four on the perimeter.
Junior Chris Monroe is the undisputed leader for George Washington. At just 6-foot-3, Monroe has effectively guarded power forwards. He is averaging 21.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
"We rely on Chris for everything - scoring, rebounding, defense," Hobbs said.
Monroe likely will guard 6-11 Micah Brand.
"Hopefully, our big guys can take advantage of their size. Otherwise, we might as well go small," UMass coach Steve Lappas said.
Small would mean using sophomore Raheim Lamb at power forward, a position he's played at times in the last two games. When he's in the game, he'll guard Monroe. Otherwise, senior Shannon Crooks or Brand will get that task.
Aiding GW's solid showing so far has been the rapid development of several players.
Senior center Jaason Smith has blossomed. He's averaging 9.4 points, a team-high 7.4 rebounds and leads the A-10 with 2.47 blocked shots per game.
Freshman point guard T.J. Thompson has played well in his first season, averaging 11.4 points and 4.0 assists. He is among the top candidates for rookie of the year honors.
He's joined in the backcourt by Greg Collucci, who is averaging 11.8 points, up significantly from 3.9 points last year.
Other than Smith, freshman Tamal Forchian is GW's other inside presence, averaging 7.8 points and 4.0 boards off the bench.
After watching UMass' game against Temple, Hobbs said the Colonials have to play better defense to contain the Minutemen.
"They played exceptionally well in that game," he said. "We have to defend them from shooting like that."
Notes: UMass will be selling special UMass Minuteman Bobble Head Dolls at tonight's game. They cost $15 each and only 1,000 will be sold. Proceeds will be donated to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.