A rebuilding program’s next step

Mike Lonergan hates losing.

He hated losing at the beginning of the season, before the Colonials took the court. He hated losing throughout the year, as GW saw skids mount to multiple games before they were able to add a tally to the win column. And he’s still vocal about how much he hates losing after his team’s season ended in the first round of the A-10 tournament at Dayton.

But the good news about losing, he admits, is that it provides an incentive to make a statement.

“I’ve lost before. But it makes winning more satisfying and more fun. I hope I never have a season like we did – record-wise and losing close games – because I’m not used to losing close games. It hurt. It still hurts,” Lonergan said. “But I try to focus on all of the good things going on around our program and in the athletic department. And there are a lot of good things going on.”

As Lonergan sits in his office, glancing through the windows that look across the street to the Smith Center, it is clear his mind is still on the court. The season might be over but the head coach’s work isn’t. His desk is piled high with papers, his phone is buzzing and around him, his staff is providing updates on their recruiting prospects.

Though the Colonials’ season ended with a disappointing 10-21 record, athletic director Patrick Nero sees a promising future in the foundation being laid behind the scenes.

“Our goal, ultimately, was to build a program that can compete in the NCAA tournament year after year. And that’s going to take four or five years,” Nero said. “I’m going to be patient, I know it drives [Lonergan] nuts, he wants to win every game, that’s his personality.”

Key factors in their calculations are the incoming recruits, the players who will form the true future of the program. The Colonials will have at least five new bodies next year: Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood and incoming recruits Kethan Savage, Patricio Garino, Joe McDonald and Kyprianos Maragkos. The recruits represent “the mix that we want,” Nero said, with three talented local players and two international students.

With next season’s incoming recruits, Lonergan aims to solve what he believes was one of the program’s biggest Achilles’ heels: its lack of depth.

“You looked down the bench and just didn’t have a lot of options. Good teams usually have a lot of competition in practice and for playing time, and we really didn’t have that,” Lonergan said. “Subconsciously or not, guys knew they were going to play, and it was just harder, when they were having a rough night, to really hold them accountable.”

Lonergan sees room for many of the Colonials to make significant strides in their play­, but he is also hopeful that the incoming players will challenge their teammates for time on the court. Next season, he will lose Tony Taylor – a point guard who oft carried the team during his tenure – to graduation, and Lonergan potentially sees junior guard Bryan Bynes competing with incoming recruits for the starting slot.

“My hope is Isaiah will be a starter and then maybe two of the returnees will start. We’ll probably end up starting a couple of freshman,” Lonergan said. “But we’ll have more depth, just because we’ll have more bodies and guys that are talented players.”

The current players are now taking time to rehab from the season and prepare for next year. Lonergan said junior forward David Pellom underwent successful meniscus surgery on his left knee last week, after playing through injury this season. Bynes is taking time to rehabilitate his left shoulder after struggling with injury over the year, Lonergan said.

An NCAA rule change will allow greater summer access for training, granting programs the ability to have student-athletes complete eight hours of athletic activity a week, up to two of which can be skill-related instruction. In addition to that, the Colonials will receive 10 full practices to prepare for their five-game trip to Italy in August, an opportunity that Nero and Lonergan hope will afford the team benefits in skills and in chemistry.

“What I like to do is almost break them up and assign them so that they’ll be spending time with different teammates. So not only will you get to know them on the basketball court, but all of a sudden you’ll be spending 10 days in a foreign country with teammates you’ve never spent time with before,” Nero said. “Maybe switch up their roommates on the road, that type of stuff, so they bond a lot quicker rather than waiting until early September.”

Strong chemistry will remain important as the Colonials stare down another tough schedule for next season. VCU, Notre Dame and Kansas State are among the programs already on the books for next season, and both Lonergan and Nero said that additional high-profile opponents are in the works. Playing a tough schedule, they agreed, is good for the program, both in preparing its players for the A-10 and in bringing new bodies into its ranks.

“We want to play a schedule every year that if we have a team that is playing at the level, that they could be invited to the NCAA. We never want our schedule to hurt us,” Nero said. “If we don’t make the tournament, it’s because we’re not good enough. And this year is a good example. We played a schedule that if we were good enough, there was no way we would not be in the tournament.”

And so, even though the season is done on paper, in many ways, Lonergan and Nero feel that the work is just beginning. This year was just one step in rebuilding the program – a disappointing step, Lonergan allows – but not one that dissuaded his belief in GW’s ability to reach its former heights.

“I still believe more than ever that we can be successful here,” Lonergan said. “I almost felt after the season ended like I did last May 3, when I started.”

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