George Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Lonergan chalks up his 10-21 (5-11 in the Atlantic 10) debut to a lack of talent and his adjustment to his players and vice-versa. Lonergan notes that the Colonials started four freshmen and a transfer while only rising to 13-17 (7-9 in the A-10) last season, a year that began with a stunning home loss to unheralded Youngstown State.
But this year, GW expects to win, as was the case in last Friday’s 72-54 spanking of visiting Radford that kicked off the program’s 100th season. Led by sophomore guard Kethan Savage’s career-high 18 points and sophomore center Kevin Larsen’s 16, the Colonials made half of their shots while limiting Radford to 33 percent shooting despite the absence of sophomore defensive stopper Patricio Garino, who was sidelined with an injured finger. GW also won the rebounding battle 43-34.
“You’ve gotta crawl before you walk,” said Lonergan, a Bowie native who captained Catholic’s 1988 team before coaching the Cardinals to the 2001 Division III national title and securing an NCAA berth and two NIT bids during six seasons at Vermont. “Last year was kind of like starting over. I thought we were a pretty good team with the strength of schedule we played.”
Indeed, the A-10 had five NCAA teams last March, one more than the supposedly lofty ACC. GW also played NCAA qualifiers Notre Dame, James Madison and Kansas State. This year’s schedule includes eight games that went dancing last season, but despite being picked to finish 10th in the 13-team conference, the Colonials are confident.
“We’re definitely fighting to try to win the league and get in the postseason,” said Lonergan, who endured just three losing seasons during his 17 in command prior to coming to GW. “The expectations are high. We have a good nucleus back. We’ve added more pieces to the puzzle. I feel good about this team. I hope we can run a little bit more. Our strength is going to be our inside game, but we gotta shoot the ball better. We’re going to defend and rebound. We had to grind it out to be competitive and we didn’t have enough [offense] late in games.”
The Colonials believe that they’ve taken steps to remedy that major deficiency with: the addition of shooting guard Maurice Creek, who averaged 16.4 points as an Indiana freshman before being hamstrung by injuries the past three years; the added maturity of Garino and sophomore point guard Joe McDonald; the 6-foot-10 Larsen’s reshaped physique; and the determination of senior power forward Isaiah Armwood, who played on two NCAA teams at Villanova.
“You see teams that we beat last year picked in front of us [in the preseason A-10 poll of coaches and media], it was like a slap in the face,” said the 6-9 Armwood, a Montrose Christian product who led GW with 11.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in 2012-13. “We mention it all the time. We’re going to advance in [the conference tournament in] Brooklyn instead of losing in the first round. This is my last college basketball season. I’m going to leave everything out there on the floor. I’m going to look at every game like it’s my last.”
Garino, a 6-6 swingman from Argentina, set a school freshman record with 68 steals, but his shooting percentages of .427 from the field, .286 from three-point range and .648 from the free throw line were emblematic of the off-target Colonials.
“It was really frustrating that we didn’t achieve our goals last year, but it was a good season for the freshmen because we got so much experience,” Garino said. “We realize we can win. We just need to win the close games. We need to be more focused at the end of games.”
GW doesn’t figure to need total focus to beat Maine tomorrow night, but Saturday’s visit to Manhattan should be the start of a tough month in which the Colonials will play defending ACC regular season champion Miami, Maryland, Boston University, which is favored to win the Patriot League, and perhaps Elite Eight participant Marquette. Kansas State, Georgia, and the A-10 schedule, which includes two games in the reborn rivalry with new conference member George Mason, lie ahead.
“Losing was tough last year,” said McDonald, a Landon graduate who’s a coach on the floor for former point guard Lonergan. “Our core group was here over the summer which should make everything easier. We’re definitely improved. We have more experience. We’re not a team that’s that well-known, but I think we can surprise people. Last year we came close so many times. If we make those one or two extra plays or prevent those one or two extra turnovers, we think we can do great things. We’re young, but we’ve got a year under our belts. We want to let everyone know we can play.”
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.