In Lonergan’s third season, question marks hang over high hopes

Rebuilding: The word on everyone’s lips two years ago when head coach Mike Lonergan was hired to lead the men’s basketball program.

It wasn’t a sign of desperation or hopelessness, though, as it usually is for big-time sports teams, just an honest realization for a program that hasn’t felt much pressure to “win now” lately. But as the end of former head coach Karl Hobbs’ era saw mediocre recruiting classes become mediocre teams, it was time for a change. And Lonergan was the answer.

Now, after a combined 23-38 record and no Atlantic 10 tournament wins in his first two seasons, that rebuilding could drag the program further into A-10 irrelevance, unless GW turns promise into production this year.

Why? Because the five starters – including a quartet known last year as “the freshman four” – are all back. Time to be a contender in the reinvigorated A-10 and compete for one of the four NCAA Tournament bids that Lonergan foresees the conference snagging.

“I think the expectations are high,” Lonergan said. “A lot of my friends who aren’t real knowledgeable, they’ll go, ‘Hey, you’ve got five starters back, you’ll win twenty games.’ And you know, we lost some good players.”

Those five starters – senior Isaiah Armwood and sophomores Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino, Kethan Savage and Joe McDonald – all have lofty ambitions for themselves in their second years at GW: to block more shots, to be more physical, to knock down more jumpers and to have fewer turnovers.

“I think we had the pieces last year, we just weren’t experienced enough to fill out that potential yet,” Armwood said. “But this year we got Kevin, Kethan, Joe and all those guys have grown up on and off the court. So they’re gonna be required to do a lot this year.”

More experience, though, isn’t a cure-all for a team that went 13-17 last year. A 10th-place predicted finish in the conference’s media poll proves that tall expectations from fans don’t mean much. You need results.

“They say you can be a good 13-17 team. I thought we were a pretty good team with the strength of schedule we played,” Lonergan said. “So now, we want to have a winning record and we want to make the postseason.”

Almost: The best word to describe the end to last season. Year two saw a glimmer of hope – a glimpse of the future – but still ended below expectations and below the .500 mark.

Almost missing out on the A-10 tournament. Almost earning the upset against Kansas State, against Butler, Temple, Rutgers, La Salle, Saint Louis. And then almost winning their first A-10 playoff game since 2007.

The bright spot for the bleak season: Armwood. Zeke. The “Blockness Monster.”

Fans passed around huge cardboard cutouts of his face throughout the stands, as Armwood quickly took over the GW fan base and the A-10. The transfer from Villanova led both the offensive and defensive attack, with 11.9 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, and 68 total blocks – good enough for second in the conference.

He’ll be tested this year, though, with opposing teams likely highlighting his name in their game plans. But he has the potential to turn into one of GW’s biggest breakout stars since former big man Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

“The freshman four,” who didn’t expect to be thrown into the system that quickly, endured with Armwood through those matchups, only failing to close down the stretch.

“We lost a lot of close games. There are seven games that I have sort of memorized, all against pretty big-time opponents that we lost down to the wire,” Lonergan said.

Offense: A word that made GW fans shudder last year because, well, there wasn’t much of it. Now, it marks the key strength of Lonergan’s offseason additions.

While GW’s defense remained sturdy for most of last year, offensive troubles prodded Lonergan to storm up and down the sidelines during games. The free-throw shooting hovered around .600 percent all season. The scoring generated just 66.3 points per game. The three-point shooting sometimes saw only one made basket a game.

For Lonergan, who coached sharp-shooting teams at Vermont and Catholic, GW’s three-point woes were hard to swallow.

“It’s funny, I made my living on three-point shooters most of my career, and we were last in the league in three-point shooting,” Lonergan said. “I don’t think we’re gonna jump to third, that’s for sure, but I think Maurice Creek and Nemanja [Mikic] should have a much better shooting year than last year.”

A small class of newcomers all come with a strong ability to score often.

There’s Creek, a transfer graduate student from Indiana, who spent the majority of his Hoosier career sidelined with injuries. He comes to GW for one last attempt to find the All-American scoring ability he showcased his freshman year (16.45 points per game and .448 percent three point shooting). He, along with freshman Nick Griffin, are already among GW’s top three shooters, Lonergan said.

Then, there’s Miguel Cartagena, the speedy point guard who will spend at least the first few games of this season filling in the shoes of injured McDonald, and Skyler White, the sharpshooting forward who will get to let it fly against zone defenses, Lonergan said.

“We have a good mix of experienced and young guys,” Lonergan said. “Don’t have a lot of depth, but we’re definitely fighting to win the league and try and get in the postseason.”

Last year, the Colonials were the fourth-best rebounding defense (32.4 rpg) and the second-best rebounding offense (37.6 rpg) in the A-10. It’s the type of statistic Lonergan pushes to help jumpstart the offense, and it’s one that probably won’t change as Armwood and Larsen return to patrol the paint.

If GW’s offseason changes are any sign of what’s to come, this may be the year that GW sees results. This is also the year, with a roster made up almost completely of his own recruits, that we’ll see Lonergan’s full-fledged system in action.

“We’re definitely gonna look to run a lot this year, and we’re definitely gonna throw the ball inside a lot like we did last year, but it depends on the style and how we play each game,” Armwood said. “We could slow it down, since Coach Lonergan runs the flex offense a lot, it just depends on how that game is being played.”

The Colonials’ game plan may seem in order, but does that mean a trip to the NCAA Tournament?

“For this year, it’s a hope,” Lonergan said. “You know, you’ve got to crawl before you can walk.”

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