Only one Washington-area men’s basketball team won an NCAA Tournament game last season. It wasn’t haughty Georgetown, more recent national champion Maryland, or former Final Four darling George Mason. American, George Washington, Howard and Navy didn’t even have winning seasons.
The answer is Catholic, which reached the Division III Tournament for the first time in six years and won a game for the first time in nine.
Coach Steve Howes’ 25-4 Landmark Conference champions relied heavily on senior big men Chris Kearney, just the second first-team All-American in school history, and All-Conference pick Shawn Holmes. However, their departures don’t faze Howes, whose Cardinals are 3-1 heading into Wednesday night’s game at Loyola (Md.), their first Division I opponent in eight years.
“We were short on depth last year because of injuries, but it was the tightest group I’ve been around and the most focused,” said the ever-upbeat Howes, who’s 178-80 during his nine-plus seasons, during only one of which the Cardinals had a losing record. “Those seniors gave everyone the road map on how to do it. We just gotta follow that road map. This is not a program where we rebuild. Our goal is to win 20 games and go to the NCAA Tournament every year.”
But getting back there last year changed the equation at Catholic.
“We were hunting last year,” Howes said. “Now we’re the hunted. It would be easy to say, ‘We don’t have any seniors. We have two years to get this done.’ I say, ‘Let’s not wait. Let’s do it now.’ We don’t have any seniors, but I still think our ceiling is pretty high.”
Unlike most Division III programs, Catholic used to compete in Division I (1976-81) and the Cardinals are one of just 23 schools to win a Division III national title. That happened in 2001 under current GW coach Mike Lonergan, who was Howes’ coach at Catholic, too. Howes shows all of his teams a video of that championship season.
“There was a standard even before we got here,” junior Steve Limberiou said. “Everyone knows the program’s history. Last year kind of got us back to where it’s been in years past. When you experience something like we did last year, the motivation’s there for us to experience that again. I can’t picture not [making the NCAAs], now that we’ve been there.”
Filling the void left by Kearney and Holmes has been a group effort. Limberiou and classmate Jared Prince, sophomores Riley Kirsch and Austin Calling, and freshman Corey Stanford are dominating down low as CUA has shot more than twice as many free throws as its foes while averaging 12.7 more rebounds.
Limberiou is also the team’s top three-point shooter while sophomore guards Bryson Fonville and Kyle Phanord, backed up by freshman Louis Khouri (Bishop Ireton High), are largely responsible for the Cardinals’ better than 2-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio.
“I have to bring scoring to the table, but my role is to make sure that everyone around me is making everyone else around me better,” said Fonville, who leads CUA with 5.3 assists per game while his 11.5 points per game are third behind Limberiou’s 19.5 and Prince’s 14.3.
The Kearney-less defense is still a work in progress given that the Cardinals have already allowed more 70 points four times, just one shy of their total for last season’s 29 games.
“Defense wins championships, it did for us last year, and we need to improve in that area,” Howes said. “We have to learn to play with each other defensively.”
While it’s near-impossible to see the Cardinals beating Loyola tonight, given the Greyhounds’ 4-2 record that includes conquests of four Division I teams and a 10-point loss to 12th-ranked Connecticut, the players are still pumped for the game which was scheduled when CUA alumnus Jimmy Patsos was still Loyola’s coach.
“We expect to play a close game,” Limberiou said. “We’re not just going there to have fun.”
CUA has played exhibitions the past four Novembers against Florida, Notre Dame, GW and Maryland, but this one’s for real.
“I’ll play anyone anywhere, but I understand why the Division I schools don’t play us,” Howes said. “If I were in their shoes, I probably wouldn’t schedule a successful Division III school like Catholic either.”
CUA has had just three losing seasons since 1990-91. But seeing that 2001 championship banner every day doesn’t intimidate the current Cardinals, who were in elementary school when it was earned.
“We all dream to reach that,” Fonville said.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at the banner every day during practice,” Limberiou said. “I think we have the talent to win it.”
The last Division I team that CUA defeated was Albany in November 2000. Four months later, the Cardinals won the national championship. So if they can pull off the upset tonight …
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. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.