Eight years ago, eighth-seeded George Washington edged ninth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington to win its first NCAA Tournament game in 12 years. The Colonials lost two days later to perennial powerhouse Duke and they fell in the first round to Vanderbilt the following March.
GW hadn’t been back in the NCAAs again. Until now. Friday, the ninth-seeded Colonials, 24-8 after going 23-38 in coach Mike Lonergan’s first two seasons, meet eighth-seeded Memphis in Raleigh, N.C.
“I feel real good for our students and for our fans,” said Lonergan, a Bowie native who played and coached at Catholic University, which he led to nine Division III NCAA tournaments, including the 2001 national title. “A lot of people have been around here 30, 40 years and they’ve seen the good and the bad. To see us getting back to the NCAA Tournament, I feel really good for those people.”
Senior power forward Isaiah Armwood, who, like graduate student shooting guard Maurice Creek, reached the NCAAs at his previous school, said making it at GW means more than it did at tournament regular Villanova.
“To see how far we’ve come is definitely more rewarding,” said Armwood, whom Lonergan coaxed to Foggy Bottom not long after being hired in 2011 and is one of just two players in GW history with more than 500 career points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks, 100 assists and 50 steals. “It was definitely an uphill battle building the program back up. But it was well worth it.”
Armwood and Creek, who starred as a freshman at Indiana in 2009-10 before his series of devastating injuries began, expected GW to be here before the season began because last year’s four freshmen “grew up,” in the words of one of them, 6-foot-10 center Kevin Larsen.
“I’m proud of what we [have done], but I was pretty proud of what we did last year,” Lonergan said. “We took a group of four freshmen and [the newly eligible Armwood] and we were competitive with some of the best teams in the country. Doing that allowed us to get the experience we needed to win close games. This year, we’ve won a lot of close games against very good opponents.”
Indeed, the Colonials are an astounding 14-4 in games decided by 10 points or less. That includes an 8-4 mark in contests against its Atlantic 10 rivals, five of whom are also in the NCAAs. Five players, including sophomore guard Kethan Savage, who’s sidelined with a broken foot, average from 11.3 (Larsen) to 14.3 points (Creek).
“Everybody just bought in [to the unselfishness that Lonergan preaches],” said Larsen, who’s agile enough to sometimes bring the ball upcourt. “Last year, we had a few people who didn’t buy in completely. This year, we had all 13 guys buy in and that’s the difference.”
Swingman Patricio Garino, a sophomore from Argentina, who didn’t even know that college basketball existed until he watched Duke win the national championship four years ago, said that GW’s turnaround is about more than full acceptance of Lonergan’s intense style.
“The team is way better,” Garino said. “The chemistry we have is incredible. We’ve been more focused. We have more experience. We know how to close games. And we have better personnel.”
That’s because of the addition of Creek, but Lonergan knows that the Colonials can’t get into a running game with the Tigers tomorrow.
“I really like our chances, but you gotta put it on the court,” said Lonergan, who coached Vermont to the NCAAs in 2010. “[Our players] have worked very, very hard. I’m glad they were rewarded and we got to this point. Now I gotta convince them [that] we gotta take advantage of it. These opportunities come, but they’re not guaranteed for next year even if you’ve got a lot of good players coming back [as GW will].
“We’re [at our] best when we have 20 assists and five double-figure scorers. Memphis is at their best when they’re playing an up and down, run and gun style. We gotta control the tempo. If we get in a run and gun type of game, that’s not our strength.”
GW is even weaker at that frenetic style because of the absence of Savage, who tried to play in the loss to VCU in the A-10 semifinals but was almost immediately in too much pain to keep going. Minus Savage, GW has no reliable reserves, meaning too many minutes for the starters. The Colonials, 15-3 when he went down, are just 9-5 since although they did beat NCAA qualifiers St. Joe’s and UMass.
“I’m not gonna lie, we’re not the same team without him,” Lonergan said. “We have a lack of depth. I wish he was playing, but it’s part of the game. We need other guys to step it up. [Senior forward] Nemanja Mikic stepped it up in Brooklyn [with four three-pointers]. Hopefully he’ll step it up [again] against Memphis.”
No matter what happens tomorrow, GW’s future is bright in a season where it surpassed Georgetown, Maryland and George Mason as the area’s top program. Savage will step into Creek’s role next season alongside Garino and sophomore point guard Joe McDonald while a couple of recruits will vie to replace Armwood up front next to Larsen.
“GW took a chance on me,” said Lonergan, who loves his team’s work ethic. “I kinda feel I’m an under the radar no-name coach, kinda like some of our players. Joe and Kethan were first-team All-Met guys, but the ACC and Big East [schools weren’t] knocking at their doors. There are so many good players in this area. We’ve been able to recruit some of ‘em. We hope that our success this year will allow us to recruit the top guys now. We’re not yet where we want to be as a program.”
Which is bad news for the Hoyas, Terps and Patriots.
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.