When women’s basketball entered the WNIT last year, head coach Jonathan Tsipis had 33 times the experience coaching in NCAA tournament games than the entire team had in any postseason contest combined.
GW finished the season 23-11, won its first playoff games since 2008 and made it to the round of 16 in that tournament. After the season, when he attended an NCAA selection committee simulation in early September, Tsipis learned that his team was in the first group of eight not to make it off the board and into the Big Dance.
This year, now picked to finish second in the league, Tsipis is looking to push the once-underdog team from “so close” to the right side of the tournament bubble.
But after finishing tied for second in the league last season with a 11-5 conference record, Tsipis knows success for the team won’t surprise people this year.
“I think the biggest part now is coming off of last year, we’re not sneaking up on anyone,” Tsipis said. “They’ve got to embrace that part of having a little bit of a target on their back now and people circling our game on their schedule.”
Though he is at the helm of a program that, in its glory days, made it to the NCAA tournament 16 times from 1989 to 2008 under head coach Joe McKeown, Tsipis will have to reinstall that kind of elite program confidence now as the team gets back on the map.
Getting back to the NCAA tournament, whether by winning the Atlantic 10 Championships or by receiving an at-large bid, is the top priority for the team, and Tsipis is using what he’s learned at the workshop and from a career of coaching top teams to get it there. It would be the first trip to the tournament for every player on the team, which includes three seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and five freshmen.
The selection committee had two major reasons for why GW was left out last year, Tsipis said. The 87-51 loss to then-No. 8 Maryland was too big of a blowout, and GW’s schedule just wasn’t strong enough.
“You got to see how people on the committee think,” Tsipis said. “It helped get an understanding of last year because they had their whole breakdown of how close we were.”
Tsipis pointed out that, while Saint Joseph’s lost its second game of the A-10 tournament to GW, the Hawks made the NCAA tournament by staying competitive through a meticulously planned and demanding schedule.
“I think if you’d asked [Saint Joseph’s head coach] Cindy Griffin, ‘If you lose in the quarterfinals of the A-10, can you get an at-large?’ she would have told you no,” Tsipis said. “But she did such a great job of kind of orchestrating their schedule I think. Seeing that, I can make sure in future years that I can make sure to put ourselves in that best position.”
This year, GW will have the chance to show what Tsipis learned in a rematch against Maryland, this time in the Smith Center on Nov. 22.
If they change the tune against the Terps and have similar success against other top teams like Dayton, the Colonials could find themselves in unfamiliar postseason positioning again. Luckily, their coach has enough tournament experience to guide them.
Tsipis went to the tournament each of the nine years he was top assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under head coach Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame, including back-to-back championship game appearances in 2011 and 2010.
Now in his third year at GW, he’s using his experience with an elite program to act as a steady hand guiding a team as it works its way back to tournament contention.
He pulled in the best recruiting class in the conference, a group of five freshmen who help make up what Tsipis called one of the deepest teams he’s ever had. He also has at his disposal what is likely the top post duo in the A-10 in last year’s Rookie of the Year Caira Washington and junior Jonquel Jones.
His other weapons include senior Chakecia Miller at point guard, backed up by sophomores Hannah Schaible and Shannon Cranshaw, and former America East Rookie of the Year Lauren Chase, a guard and UMBC transfer who will likely start after missing all of last season because of NCAA transfer rules and a personal medical condition.
If successful, Tsipis would lead GW into uncharted territory, but he plans to instill a championship mindset in his team from day one.
“At Notre Dame, we didn’t end up in the national championship game by accident,” Tsipis said. “It was doing the same things at a high level of expectations every single day, and I think that part has not changed.”