Times are changing in the capital.
When then-freshmen Kethan Savage, Joe McDonald, Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino joined the men’s basketball team for the 2012-13 season, they became part of a group that had gone just 10-21 the year before under new head coach Mike Lonergan, who had come to GW after an impressive six-year run at Vermont.
That season, GW went just 13-17, while around the District, Maryland finished the year 25-13, George Mason finished 22-16 and the team of the city, Georgetown, finished 25-7 after earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, its third-straight appearance.
Although they didn’t have a record that came close to the marks of their neighbors, the Colonials made headlines for other reasons. Against St. Bonaventure on Jan. 9, Lonergan started all four true freshmen, the only team in the nation to do so at the time.
The four continued to start for Lonergan, gaining experience and building chemistry. And the following season, they took the team from predicted conference bottom feeder to a 24-9 overall record and an at-large NCAA tournament berth. By season’s end, GW basketball was the talk of the city as Mason, UMD and Georgetown had each struggled all year long, and all three failed to make the tournament.
After several years of program mediocrity and upsetting seasons, GW has gone from being a team that was overshadowed, to being in the spotlight – a position that can only be maintained through repeat performances.
“Last year was our year, things worked out right,” Lonergan said. “We’ve gotten great publicity from the media, we’ve got great support here from GW but nothing is automatic. We want to stay mentioned up there and not with some of the low-majors or mid-majors in the area.”
Lonergan – who grew up a Maryland fan, coached at Maryland for a season and played high school basketball against Georgetown coach John Thompson III while at Carroll High School – knows what it takes to flip a program: The fourth-year GW head coach has done it twice after stints with the Catamounts and at Catholic University. Despite the Colonials’ fortunes last season and being picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches poll this year, Lonergan said the team still isn’t where he wants it to be, but they’re making progress.
“We’re not there yet,” Lonergan said. “We haven’t come close to reaching my goals, so we’ve got to keep working hard. Right now, I keep telling our players we are not close to being the second-best team in this conference, but we do have the potential to get there.”
With the exits of his top two producers last season in Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood, both of whom are now playing professionally overseas, two major holes in production will need to be filled.
Lonergan is worried about the weaknesses created by the absence of his primary rim protector in Armwood.
“Truthfully, we’ll probably not be as good of a rebounding team,” Lonergan said. “We don’t really have a guy ready, a post player game ready.”
Lonergan will turn to junior forward Kevin Larsen and senior forward John Kopriva to hold down the painted area to start the season.
Larsen, who is coming off a sophomore season in which he was the conference’s most improved player, is ready to add another “bump” to his game, and is another step closer to becoming the conference’s best big man, a feat he believes he’s already attained.
“I feel like if I get the ball one-on-one I don’t think there are many people that can stop me,” Larsen said. “I’m not just saying that to be cocky or arrogant but my skill, my size and the way I play, I feel like I’m the best. I’m so ready to prove that this year.”
Another player with something to prove is Kopriva, a three-year captain from whom Lonergan needs to see increased production. Kopriva, who has a career average of 2.1 points and 2.03 rebounds per game, will be expected to double his numbers this season. Lonergan will also call on junior transfer Ryan McCoy, who came to GW from Manhattan last season, though McCoy is currently sidelined with a minor back injury.
Lonergan said in an effort to try and hide some of his newfound defensive weaknesses, he may play in a 1-3-1 formation, but added that team rebounding would be key for the formation to succeed.
While Lonergan is preoccupied with fostering production from his bigs, he is not as worried about replacing scoring. Lonergan returns his starting backcourt of juniors Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage along with swingman Patricio Garino – who were each injured for multiple games last season.
“Mo Creek did a lot for this program, big shoes to fill, but I feel like I’ve put in hard work and I’m really ready for that,” said Savage, who along with Garino said they have both improved their jumpshots this offseason.
Savage, who was sidelined for the majority of last season after fracturing his foot in a game against St. Bonaventure in January, does not seemed to have regressed since rehabbing his injury. Analysts agree, and they have predicted Savage to be one of the top scorers in the country next season.
Off the bench, sophomore Nick Griffin will look to expand on a freshman season in which he became a threat from the three-point line, netting 14-29 attempts at 48.3 percent. Lonergan said the 6-foot-2 Rockville, Md. native isn’t quite there yet but will need to develop quickly out of team need.
“[Nick’s] gotta expand his game,” Lonergan said. “He’s gotta be better defensively to stay on the court, but I think if teams zone us, Nick will play more – we need that outside shooting of his.”
The idea of replacing top scorers seems daunting, and the expectations of the University and city at-large are looming with first tip off just weeks away, but the players say they’re calm. They have put their trust in the hands of Lonergan, and have bought into his system and his vision that has gotten the team to its current position – as one of the best teams in the competitive A-10 conference.
“We believe in ourselves and believe in the system,” Garino said. “I think if we all do what we want to do personally, we’re not going to go far. I think if we listen to coach Lonergan and do what he says and what he instructs us, I think we’re going to do very well.”
Larsen echoed Garino’s words.
“We’ve bought into the coach’s philosophy, we listen to everything he says,” Larsen said.
Lonergan was also able to sell the same vision to prospective recruits, who have said that they wanted to be a part of the coach’s system.
They came in droves this year. Seven new faces joined the team, including transfers Matt Hart and Tyler Cavanaugh, who generated buzz among many programs this summer after he decided to leave Wake Forest. Cavanaugh and Hart will not play this season, so the pressure will fall on five freshmen who should see some time on the court and are talented but not all game-ready or ready to face the physicality of college ball.
“I’m excited about this class. This is not the class we had two years ago, a lot of people are trying to compare them,” Lonergan said. “Right now, it’s not even close. The good news is these guys, most of them, are going to have some time to develop.”
Freshmen Yuta Watanabe and Matt Cimino should add a handful of points per game but need to develop strength before becoming legitimate forces to contend with. Watanabe is athletic and more game-ready at the moment, but Cimino is skilled. It’s a matter of time before work in the weight room pays off, but the question for this year is how much time will be necessary as the depth chart is thin up front for GW.
The pair of three-star recruits in the frontcourt are joined by fellow newcomers Darian Bryant, Paul Jorgensen and Anthony Swan. Jorgensen will see playing time as backup point guard to McDonald, and Bryant and Watanabe are the two rookies Lonergan believes are most game-ready.
Though there are new faces, the heart and soul of the team is the “core four” juniors of Garino, Savage, McDonald and Larsen. Though the group has been together for three years, this season will be a test of their ability to anchor a team that lost two stars.
If they all stay healthy, they will get a chance to play a full season together, unlike last year.
Lonergan said he is looking for the group, a goofy bunch of close friends, to take on more responsibility in the huddle and the locker room and with younger players.
“I’m hoping that [leadership is] kind of by committee,” Lonergan said. “Joe leads by example, he’s got the utmost respect of his teammates. but I’m trying to get one of those juniors to be more of a vocal leader. Patricio, he’s good with the young guys, but they have to take ownership of the team. I told them ‘Hey, you are going to be judged this season.’ We lost our two leading scorers.”
Lonergan has also set a high bar for the production of the group – he wants each to average double figure scoring over the course of the season.
As they prepare to try to reach the high expectations of the GW community, city and themselves, Larsen said the team is ready to prove that their success is not temporary.
“I’ll talk for the whole team when I say we’re ready to show this was not just one year that we were good,” Larsen said. “We are here to stay and we’re all just looking to get the party started.”