As someone who has been watching Maryland basketball for more than four decades and remembers the Terps as a national power, capped by the 2002 NCAA Championship, I cringed more than a little when the students stormed the court at Comcast Center after the last-second victory over N.C. State on Jan. 16.
At a school with Maryland’s hoops pedigree, beating the 14th-ranked team should be more a matter of course although, in fairness, the current students haven’t had much to celebrate.
Tomorrow, the No. 14 team will be in town again. Only this time it’s Butler, the upstart from Indianapolis that played for the national title in 2010 and 2011. When the Bulldogs, new to the Atlantic 10, take on George Washington, coached by former Maryland assistant Mike Lonergan, they’ll be the highest-ranked visitor to sold-out Smith Center in 13 years. So if the Colonials win, GW students should go crazy.
“We’re trying not to get too excited,” said senior Lasan Kromah, who scored a season-high 19 points off the bench to lead four Colonials in double figures in Wednesday’s 79-57 romp at Duquesne. “We’re really trying to see it as another game. We just want to execute our stuff. Hopefully we can just keep playing our game like we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks.”
Lonergan’s young team – four freshmen start along with Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood – has been playing its defense-first game better lately. After GW finished a collective 23 games under .500 the past five seasons, including a 10-21 mark in Lonergan’s debut last year, the Colonials are 11-10 overall and 5-3 in the A-10. That’s tied for fourth in the newly-expanded, 16-team conference, just a game behind co-leaders Butler, VCU and St. Louis.
So if VCU loses at Charlotte tomorrow and St. Louis falls at Richmond while GW pulls off the upset …
“It’s a good measuring stick for us [but] we’ll try to enjoy it,” said Lonergan, who joked that he wanted to return to the University of Vermont when he heard that Butler and 2011 Final Four participant VCU were joining the A-10. “We’re going to try to play loose. We’re definitely not there yet, [but] when we play defense and rebound, we’ve been pretty competitive. If we win, it doesn’t guarantee us anything. If we lose, we’ve still got to move on and play VCU next.”
The blowout of Duquesne was GW’s fourth victory in five games. Since Lonergan inserted Kethan Savage (Episcopal) alongside playmaker Joe McDonald (Landon) in an all-local freshman backcourt, the Colonials have won three A-10 road games, walloped St. Bonaventure and Charlotte and were nipped by Temple. Only Xavier and LaSalle were truly too much for GW and its frontcourt of the 6-foot-9 Armwood (Montrose Christian), defensive stopper Patricio Garino (Argentina via Florida) and 6-10 Kevin Larsen (Denmark via Montrose Christian).
The Colonials went to the NCAA Tournament every year from 2005-07 under Lonergan’s predecessor, Karl Hobbs, and got that far four times from 1994-99 under Tom Penders and Mike Jarvis after a Sweet 16 appearance for Jarvis in 1993.
Despite the sub-par past five seasons, Armwood, who played in the tournament at Villanova, was aiming for the NCAAs when practice began and hasn’t wavered from that. Lonergan wants “to get GW basketball back where it was not that long ago,” but has a more realistic goal in mind first.
After Butler and VCU, GW faces St. Louis as well as solid St. Joe’s, Richmond and Dayton and the rematch with LaSalle. Only the visit from Fordham seems like a gimme, but then the Colonials, who lost at home in November to Youngstown State and Mount St. Mary’s, can’t count on sure things as they aim to be included among the 12 teams who’ll battle for the A-10 title March 14-17 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“My theme is ‘no sleep ‘till Brooklyn,’ said the 47-year-old Lonergan, who’s just two shy of 400 career victories during his 20 seasons at Catholic, Vermont and GW. “[Only] 12 out of 16 [teams] going is something I wasn’t in agreement with … because that’s going to be a heck of a team that comes in 13th place.”
Even a split of their remaining eight games would put the Colonials at 15-14 overall and 9-7 in the A-10, a pretty serious accomplishment for a program starting four freshmen in one of college basketball’s best leagues. And if the final month starts with an upset of Butler tomorrow, maybe even the usually even-keeled Lonergan will storm the court.
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