Here’s one way to put the turnaround of George Washington’s men’s basketball program in perspective: If the Colonials beat St. Joseph’s at home on Wednesday and finish out their regular season with another victory at Fordham on Saturday, they’ll have as many victories (23) as they did during Mike Lonergan’s two previous seasons as their coach.
“We’ve made a lot [of progress],” said Lonergan, whose team improved to 21-7, 9-5 in the Atlantic 10 with Sunday’s 66-58 conquest of visiting George Mason (10-18, 3-11). “Last year we made a good step [although] our record didn’t show it. We lost seven games down to the wire against pretty good teams. We were starting four freshmen. I knew that experience would pay off.”
It certainly has.
Although off-guard Kethan Savage has been out six weeks with a broken foot, fellow sophomores Patricio Garino, Joe McDonald and Kevin Larsen have joined with fifth-year senior Isaiah Armwood and graduate student Maurice Creek to keep it together on Foggy Bottom. GW is just 6-4 without Savage, but is 13-1 overall at Smith Center with an average margin of 16 points.
If the Colonials win their last two while Massachusetts falls to 10th-ranked St. Louis and ever-dangerous Virginia Commonwealth, and St. Joe’s loses its respective crosstown battles with Richmond and La Salle this week, Lonergan’s team will finish second in the A-10.
GW’s RPI is 30, just ahead of defending national champion Louisville. The Colonials have beaten Big East power Creighton (ninth) and VCU (15th), as well as Patriot League regular season champion Boston University and ACC foe Maryland. St. Joe’s (21-7, 11-3 A-10) is 34th. Frontrunner St. Louis is 14th, a spot below UMass, which is tied with GW for fourth in the formidable conference that could receive six or seven NCAA Tournament bids.
“We’re playing a pretty good schedule,” Lonergan said. “We’re going to play anybody, anywhere. By playing a tough schedule, I think it puts you in a good position at the end of the year to reach your goals and our goal is to make the NCAA Tournament.”
That shouldn’t even been a question this season, which is huge for a program that was just hoping to make it to the A-10 Tournament two years ago. GW, 10-21 after Lonergan’s arrival in 2011-12 and 13-17 last season, has surpassed Mason as well as longtime top dogs Georgetown and Maryland as the top team within an hour of the Beltway.
The Colonials, who have never reached the Elite Eight, haven’t been the local kings of the hill since 2004-05. That was three years after the Terps’ lone national title, the year before the Patriots’ only run to the Final Four and two years before the Hoyas’ last such trip.
But GW isn’t a finished product yet.
As smart as swingman Garino is, he picked up a couple of silly fouls Sunday and fouled out with 4:53 remaining. Point guard McDonald, who has been gutting it out for weeks with an ailing hip, didn’t make a basket and had as many turnovers (five) as assists. The 6-foot-10, 264-pound Larsen, who’s nimble enough to bring the ball up in a pinch, had an off-day, too.
“I was worried about our depth and now missing Kethan, it’s kind of showing,” said Lonergan, who didn’t play one backup more than six minutes during the tight first half while eight Patriots played at least nine minutes. “We’ve got good coaches in our league. They know we don’t have a lot of depth and they’re coming after our guards. We’ve gotta hide our weaknesses better. I never thought I’d have [Larsen] out there taking pressure off our point guards.”
What really took the pressure off GW’s sophomores was Creek’s sizzling shooting coming out of the locker room. After going 0-for-6 until sinking a three-pointer with 1:40 left in the first half, the transfer from Indiana nailed jumpers from the left corner, the right corner and above the top of the key on the Colonials’ first three possessions of the second half to balloon a 26-24 edge into a 35-24 advantage.
After Mason closed within 42-41 with 10 minutes to go, Armwood fed Garino for a three-pointer. The transfer from Villanova yanked down three rebounds over the next 2:20 and added a steal shortly after Garino exited with GW up 64-56.
Creek, who famously beat Maryland with a last-second jumper and leads the Colonials with an average of 14.0 points, bounced back from an ugly game at St. Louis to lead all scorers with 22, while Armwood was tops with a career-high 14 rebounds. In just two seasons at GW, Armwood is just five assists from becoming the second Colonial with at least 500 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks, 100 assists and 50 steals.
“This is crunch time now,” Lonergan said. “This is where seniors really step it up. Maurice has been a big part of our success. Isaiah has gotten better. I think it’s great that we didn’t play our best [Sunday] and were able to get a win.”
Which says how much GW has grown during Lonergan’s three years.
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.