GW’s journey back to prominence trying to run ahead of schedule

Something old, something new.

It’s been four years since the women’s basketball program reached the postseason, as a life cycle of players have seen the program slide from former glory.

Now, expectations have reached a peak in head coach Jonathan Tsipis’ second year. The squad was one win away from a Women’s National Invitational Tournament bid last year, and was picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10 this year. Even the last Colonials postseason team didn’t win an A-10 playoff game, making last year’s first-round win that much bigger.

Something old, something new.

The Colonials should be able to count on a balanced recipe of experience and youth this season to meet the expectations.

Heading into year two, Tsipis said he has a better hold on his program, with a strategically strong schedule and a team made up of key returning seniors, energetic transfers and new recruits that are gelling to help bring the team back to national recognition.

“It is a lot more fun this year. I don’t feel like I have 13 freshmen,” Tsipis said.

Tsipis said he looks for improvement each year, and winning an A-10 postseason game is a start. But he knows the expectations are higher with the prestige of the program not too far in the past.

In the 2007-08 season, the Colonials had just won their seventh straight A-10 title and were headed to their second straight Sweet Sixteen appearance as a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The team is just one generation removed from the kind of prominence that had it mentioned in the same breath as Maryland each year.

To return to that glory, Tsipis said, “I think a big part of what we’ve tried to do is not just set long-range goals, but also look at how we conduct ourselves on the day-to-day basis, and that’s a championship mindset, a championship culture.”

It is a storied recent history to live up to, but Tsipis has brought his team up to the challenge – starting with courting two seniors to return for grad school and a final year of eligibility: Danni Jackson and Megan Nipe.

“For a personal goal I think it’s just to not really be worried about making A-10s or anything like that, but I want to put a banner up because I haven’t done that while I was here,” Jackson said.

On-court chemistry could lift GW to that goal.

The team took advantage of new NCAA rules that allowed teams to practice over the summer for the first time this year, hitting the court in July for two hours a week. Tsipis was able to establish the fundamentals early on as his team continued to grow together following its first-round playoff win over Richmond and its quarterfinal loss to top-seeded Dayton 74-49 last year.

“[Chemistry is] what they’ve built together, knowing that when we stepped off the floor last year, we left something out there to prove for the following year,” Tsipis said. “And I think they’ve done that from the spring workouts into the summer.”

The team pushed itself harder in preseason workouts than in years past, Jackson said, a testament to both Tsipis’ and the players’ increased comfort with one another. Jackson said that going through training with her teammates helped them grow stronger together.

The Colonials will lean on that prep work early on. The team takes on No. 6 Maryland in College Park Nov. 19 and will play 2013 Final Four team California a few days earlier at home, Nov. 15. Later in the month they will take on No. 22 Georgia.

The difficult non-conference schedule should improve their strength of schedule and national profile to heighten their chances of an NCAA Tournament bid.

It will also arrange baptism by fire for the three new freshmen.

The Colonials have their athletic post player in the local 6-foot-2-inch product out of Georgetown Day, forward Caira Washington. Tsipis said she can score around the basket, run the floor and will influence other team’s offenses as her energy empowers both her and the rest of the team.

Meanwhile, Tsipis said, Shannon Cranshaw, their 5-foot-9 guard from Florida, can stretch their defense. And then Florida product Hannah Shaible will give the team second opportunities with her offensive rebounding skills.

“I think we’ve held [the freshmen] to a standard of where they can’t ever say, ‘Well, I’m a freshman, I can’t do that,’” Tsipis said.

He also brought Clemson standout Jonquel Jones back home to the D.C. area, where she grew up and played high school ball. A sophomore transfer, the 6-foot-4 Jones was ranked as the No. 17 recruit in the nation coming out of high school, and nearly averaged a double-double through the eight games she played for Clemson, before announcing her intent to transfer. In that period, she averaged 9.8 points per game and 10 rebounds and ranked fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in blocks.

This year, the Colonials will only be able to rely on Jones down the stretch, though, as she will not be eligible until the 11th game.

For recruiting, Tsipis said he has two main factors on his side: a basketball-centric conference in the A-10 and a strengthening brand in GW athletics.

“We’ve had kids now that have made visits, that are making visits, making a swing and they’re visiting Maryland and GW,” Tsipis said. “I think we still have work to do on the court, and to be able to be in that way [like Maryland]. But I think the first part of it is when you’re attracting high-caliber kids like that, you got to get them on campus first.”

Those positive steps remind Tsipis that his program is moving in the right direction, and, as he said, ahead of schedule.

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