It’s been a long and winding journey for Tyler Cavanaugh to playing basketball at GW.
Recruited by head coach Mike Lonergan, then coaching at Vermont, as early as the 10th grade, Cavanaugh ultimately chose to go to Wake Forest, where he played for two years. He then chose to transfer, going back to Lonergan at GW, but had to sit out a year.
But now he can play. It has taken five years, but Cavanaugh finally has a spot on a team that can compete for an NCAA tournament berth.
“An NCAA tournament bid is crucial,” Cavanaugh said. “I think that’s one of our biggest goals. I played two years in college and haven’t been yet and they went – Kevin, Joe and Pato went as sophomores, so they know what it takes.”
After a year off, Cavanaugh has changed his body, getting stronger. Lonergan joked at A-10 Media Day that he’d told Cavanaugh he was worried about the forward’s arms getting stiff, and Cavanaugh posted the single highest rep on the team in a single leg squat of 305 pounds.
The physicality in the ACC was a challenge, especially as Cavanaugh was often asked to guard opposing centers. Alongside Kevin Larsen, he should get more space and, therefore, better looks at the basket.
Cavanaugh also said that practicing against Larsen for a year helped him improve at guarding physical posts, though he admitted that Larsen has gotten the better of him down low at times.
“He’s physically a beast,” Cavanaugh said. “There are days where I want to punch him, but it’s been great. It’s been great to go up against someone, and to know he’s on my team in the end is going to make us both better.”
Larsen, too, said that having Cavanaugh to practice against has helped him improve. The two will be asked to play a lot of minutes but should combine as one of the more powerful front-court duos in the A-10, especially with both players’ versatile games.
“Him coming in, it was very intense and it has been intense as he has been here because he’s a prideful guy and I’m a prideful guy,” Larsen said. “So if he goes to the gym once, I feel like I’ve got to go to the gym, too. And I feel like he’s helped me become a better player.”
Though Wake was not competitive, Cavanaugh held his own as an underclassman in a league full of superstars. He averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore, playing in all 33 of the team’s games and making 22 starts.
In the 14 games in which Cavanaugh scored in double figures, the Deacons went 10‒4, including an upset of No. 4-ranked Duke in March of 2014 where Cavanaugh scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds. He made 5 of 9 from the field and 10 of 12 from the free-throw line in that game.
“I think he’s going to have a huge impact. I really do,” Lonergan said. “I don’t want to put numbers behind it but he played for Wake Forest. They weren’t a power in the ACC, but it’s still in the ACC, and right now they’re the best league in the country and it’s not close.”
After two losing seasons and a coaching change, though, Cavanaugh started to doubt that he would be able to ever get to an NCAA tournament if he stayed at Wake Forest.
Cavanaugh said that choosing to leave was one of the hardest decisions he has ever made. But once he did, it helped that he already had connections to GW. GW had just hired assistant coach Carmen Maciariello, who was formerly a coach at the AAU program for which Cavanaugh played. And he knew Lonergan from the first time he had been recruited.
“I just remember him and [associate head coach] Hajj [Turner] following me around at tournaments when I was in 10th grade or so. So there was a relationship and a trust there,” Cavanaugh said.
For Lonergan, that trust landed him an experienced player in a position where the team needed an addition. There was considerable excitement when Cavanaugh chose GW over schools like Butler and Dayton.
“I appreciate everything about him because he had a lot of opportunities to go elsewhere,” Lonergan said. “He came here because he wanted to win. He loved Wake Forest. He just felt he had two years left and he didn’t think they were going to win in his two years and I recruited him hard.”
Once he landed at GW, Cavanaugh said the year sitting out was frustrating, but having fellow transfer Matt Hart go through it with him helped immensely.
The two would work out their extra energy together, putting up thousands of shots and effectively moving into the gym. Cavanaugh said that the year off gave him a chance to think about basketball as an outsider, improving his eye for the court and basketball IQ.
But now, it’s over. It has taken five years and spanned 621 miles from upstate New York to Winston Salem, N.C., with D.C. in the middle. Cavanaugh’s has not been the typical path, but when the season begins, he will be in the position he’s wanted to be in all along, starting for a team with realistic NCAA tournament hopes.
“There were times when I felt like, ‘Ah, I want to be out there and helping them out, and I think I could do this and that,’” Cavanaugh said. “But it was one of the best learning experiences of my life because I never had sat out a season of basketball before in my life and to have that taken away, it really makes you realize how important it really is to you.”