What does the Mike Lonergan era mean?
The new head coach will tell you with no measured pause, no avoidance. He’s clear and direct, holding eye contact, determined to pass along his message.
“I want to win,” he said. “I want to compete for A-10 championships, be in the top third of the league consistently. That’s my ultimate goal. If you’re in the top third of this conference, you have a chance at postseason.”
The quick, pointed answer is from a coach with a mission. Lonergan is, for all intents and purposes, an architect – here to build a new program.
At times, it seems as if Lonergan is working to construct two teams: the squad that will take the court this season and the Colonials of the future.
Lonergan knows his team doesn’t have the depth it truly needs. He knew it when he took over a team without center Joseph Katuka, who graduated last spring, and he knew it when redshirt sophomore center Daymon Warren decided to transfer this fall. He also knows that at the end of this season, no matter what the outcome, he will lose three players, leaving even more holes in the roster.
The situation is almost forcing his hand, detracting from the time he wants to spend with this year’s team as he tries to build for the future.
“Because of the situation we’re in, where we are going to lose three very good seniors and we have to increase the talent level, I’ve had to spend a lot more time recruiting than I normally do,” Lonergan said. “We don’t have as much depth, or as much outside shooting as we like.”
Lonergan wants to bring in size, talent and speed and he wants to attract players that will help him create the powerhouse program he envisions.
But that’s still next year. And more than anything, Lonergan wants to win with the team he has.
Lonergan’s players dwarf him in stature. In practice, it’s easy to lose sight of the head coach as he weaves around the court, running through his team, directing them during play. Then he pops up on the sidelines, blowing his whistle to emphasize a point, handing the ball over for a quick inbound, and returning to the action. Associate head coach Hajj Turner follows, as assistants Pete Strickland and Kevin Sutton take notes from the sidelines, but Lonergan’s in the mix among his players.
In practice, no coach works with a specific category of players, each staff member rotating through each member of the roster. Lonergan and his staff stress a defensive mindset, emphasizing fundamentals and footwork. The team runs through a lot of skills stations, graduate student forward Jabari Edwards said, Lonergan breaking down its play at the most basic level.
When the whistle blows in practice, the team knows to stop, fall silent and turn to its new head coach for direction. They know he wants them to succeed – the biggest indicator is his notoriously thick playbook, which senior guard Aaron Ware calls “football-like.” It’s a tangible measure for the players to see the amount of work Lonergan is putting in to craft the program.
“It’s a lot of plays, but we need them,” senior guard Tony Taylor said. “Basketball games come down to the last five minutes of the game, and that’s when we’re going to need to execute the most.”
The fresh plays from the new coach may pay off, but for the team it is a daunting task to be handed a new way to play the game. But even more daunting is the job Lonergan is tasked with: cultivating relationships – and trust – with a roster while taking them through the X’s and O’s of his style.
Lonergan wants a lot from his team. He wants to see his players go inside more, develop a better post-up game, hinting at a flex offense. He wants to strengthen their basic basketball skills. He wants to see junior forward Dwayne Smith – whose absence because of injury is “killing” the team – return to the court. He wants to see sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic do more than just shoot three-pointers and develop the rest of his game. Lonergan doesn't give a complete glimpse into his game plan, but he wants a defense-first focus, emphasizing the importance of rebounding and follow-through.
More than anything else, Lonergan wants his team to be ready.
“We’ve tried to scale back, but we’re far from really having a good grip on any of our offenses. That’s something that’s taking a longer time than I’ve expected. We need a lot of practice time, and we’re going to keep working on it,” Lonergan said.
Lonergan doesn’t expect miracles, and neither do the people who hired him or who play for him. From players to coaching staff to athletic director Patrick Nero, everyone recognizes the magnitude of what the head coach has taken on, and the length of the process. He’s quick to stress this team will have ups and downs, that not every game will be a victory, not every play will look perfect. The Colonials face a challenging non-conference schedule that may well see more losses than victories. But even that has a purpose: to make the team competitive and prepared, and to raise its profile.
No one is anticipating miracles, but no one is willing to settle, either. Lonergan said though he understood why his team was slotted eighth in A-10 preseason rankings, he still “took it as a little bit of an insult.”
So did his boss. Nero, who wants the “Lonergan era” to be synonymous with the “GW era,” hallmarked by athletic success, doesn’t back down from holding Lonergan accountable for the job he was hired to do.
“None of us came to GW to be eighth, that’s for sure. Maybe eighth in the country, but not eighth in the league,” Nero said. “But it’s a process, and it’s a long process.”
Lonergan didn’t come to settle. And he doesn’t intend to let his players use anything – not the team’s depth challenges, not injuries, not a coaching change, not a difficult schedule – as an excuse.
“It’s not a motivation thing, it’s just factual. When they’re judged on their careers, 10, 20 years from now, no one is going to remember if you made second team all-conference,” Lonergan said. “They’re going to remember if you won.”