Reporting David Elfin
His father picks up his kids from their schools in his native Bowie every day. He’s back coaching in the city where he played high school and college hoops and began his career as an assistant. His sport is No. 1 at his university.
But six games into his second season at George Washington, Mike Lonergan’s life isn’t that much easier than it was during his 10-21 debut on Foggy Bottom.
The Colonials, who start three freshmen and a transfer, are 3-3 heading into Sunday’s matchup with Manhattan in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center just 16 blocks from their Smith Center home. GW has reached .500 the hard way, winning at Boston U. and James Madison while losing at home to Youngstown State and Mount St. Mary’s so only the blowout loss at Notre Dame and home romp over Hofstra have been predictable.
“We’re trying to find ourselves and playing more together,” said shooting guard Lasan Kromah, the only returning starter who’s adjusting to being a team leader and role model.
“We’re up and down,” agreed Lonergan, the former Catholic U. point guard and coach who thrived during seven seasons at Vermont before coming to GW. “It was good to win at BU, but we’ve lost two games I expected to win. Youngstown has a pretty good team that nobody really knows anything about. Coming off the Hofstra game which was the best we’ve played since I’ve been here, Mount St. Mary’s was probably one of the worst losses I’ve suffered in my career. It was a brutal night. That’s why it was so important to win that game at James Madison two nights later.”
The Colonials are outrebounding their foes 38-33 and outshooting them .453 to .404, but have a minus-26 turnover ratio.
“Our basketball IQ is higher,” Lonergan said. “I like our team a lot. Last year I just couldn’t get the team to play hard all the time. I had never had that happen before and it was frustrating. If you get used to losing, it can be hard to change the culture.”
After making the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons under coach Karl Hobbs from 2005-07, GW has failed to even win an Atlantic 10 Tournament game since. And the A-10 will likely be even better this year with the additions of Butler, a 2010 and 2011 NCAA finalist, and Virginia Commonwealth, a 2011 semifinalist.
“It’s a real good conference, better than most people think it is,” said forward Isaiah Armwood, a transfer from Villanova of the Big East.
The Colonials lost top scorer Tony Taylor and two other seniors from last year’s top nine players. Big man David Pellom (last year’s top rebounder and No. 3 scorer) is out after a second wrist surgery and fellow seniors Dwayne Smith and Bryan Bynes are struggling.
So freshman Joe McDonald (Landon) has joined Kromah (the No. 2 scorer the last two years whose shot selection has markedly improved) in the backcourt while freshmen Kevin Larsen (Denmark via Montrose Christian) and Patricio Garino (Argentina via a Florida boarding school) are meshing up front with Armwood, whose toughness Kromah said GW needed and who’s leading the team in scoring and rebounding.
“Getting Joe was huge because we really didn’t have a point guard and it’s always hard to get a [6-foot-10] kid like Kevin,” Lonergan said. “Patricio is going to be special. He’s our best defender already. He and Joe took over the game down the stretch [in Wednesday’s 54-53 victory at JMU which Armwood preserved with a late blocked shot]. Isaiah’s a high-energy guy and a good leader, but we’re relying too much on freshmen. With our schedule, I worry about their confidence.”
After facing Manhattan, GW goes to Bradley (5-1) on Tuesday and visits Rutgers (4-1) and struggling Georgia with a home game against Kansas State (5-1) also on tap before the A-10 season starts on Jan. 9.
“No matter how good they are, it’s going to take some time for freshmen to get adjusted,” Armwood said. “I was completely lost.”
Although nine Colonials are averaging at least 10 minutes and Pellom and McDonald’s fellow 2012 All-Met Kethan Savage (Episcopal) could be demanding major minutes come January, Lonergan still doesn’t have the roster he believes he needs to truly compete in the A-10.
“I know these kids better as people,” Lonergan said. “I know their strengths and weaknesses better so I know how to coach them. We’ll play hard. We have a good nucleus, but we’re gonna need a couple more recruiting classes to build it back up to where we want to be.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin