When all the games have long been played and the Class of 2016 walks along the National Mall in May, a few figures will stand tall in their robes.
Over the last four years, basketball at GW has been rejuvenated, and this year’s senior class is most responsible for having led both programs back to the postseason. The trio of Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen will graduate as four-year starters. Jonquel Jones will likely leave as a top-five WNBA draft pick and one of the most-decorated athletes in GW history, and she, Lauren Chase, Aaliyah Brown, DaLacy Anderson and Alexis Chandler will have helped create the winningest season in GW women’s basketball history.
When they leave, both programs will have some rebuilding to do. The core identities of both teams will change. But before that time comes in May, the Class of 2016 has one more season to cement its legacy, and they all want the last chapter to be written in March.
“Since coming here freshman year, I think both programs have gotten better every year,” McDonald said. “What the women’s team did last year was amazing. Basketball is definitely buzzing around in this area and the season’s finally here.”
Just three years ago, McDonald was starting as a freshman along with teammates Garino and Larsen, losing several tight games and ending the season 13‒17. Women’s basketball head coach Jonathan Tsipis was preparing for his first season at GW with seniors Anderson, Brown and Chandler, during which the team went 14‒16.
Since then, they’ve all tasted success. Both teams have gone to the NCAA tournament, the men in 2014 and the women in 2015, but both have also fallen short of goals. The men did not make it back to the tournament in 2015 and the women were bounced in the first round.
This year, it’s all in. Getting back to the Big Dance is the name of the game for men’s basketball, and the women’s team has Elite Eight aspirations.
“Nothing that happened last year is going to give us a win or a loss,” Tsipis said. “I think we’ll learn from experiences, but I think an understanding of playing championship-level basketball and getting an opportunity to be one of the last teams in the country playing again are our two things that are common themes in the program.”
With goals left on the table, a final shot
On the men’s side, the team was picked to finish fourth in the A-10 this season, which comes on the heels of a 22-win campaign that was full of big moments, but fell short of expectations as a whole.
The Colonials’ most high-profile victories of the year came at the Diamond Head Classic in late December. GW routed Ohio, narrowly edged PAC-12 member Colorado and, on Christmas Day, took down No. 11 Wichita State in a stunning upset, 60‒54.
The victories in Honolulu were the beginning of a six-game win streak, GW’s longest of the season. It ended on Jan. 10 with an unexpected loss at La Salle, where a disorganized Colonials offense was held to just 50 points.
From there, things never seemed the same. GW did get a few more big wins, like in two overtime nail-biters in which they came out on top against Richmond and Dayton, the latter on a dramatic buzzer beater by McDonald that blew the lid off the Smith Center, but the second half of the season is remembered more by the team’s string of losses.
VCU, Rhode Island and Davidson were all able to best GW both home and away, and the Colonials also took bad road defeats at the hands of Richmond and Duquesne, as the team’s once-mighty 1-3-1 defense shuddered in the face of tough league competition.
Scoring also dropped across that span, and missed free throws and increased turnovers didn’t help either. Despite finishing 22‒13, a 10‒8 conference and 5‒10 road record, as well as a second-round A-10 Championship loss to Rhode Island, left GW without a title or an NCAA bid.
The team headed to the NIT instead, where they were able to get the program’s first-ever victory in the second-tier postseason tournament at Pittsburgh, but got knocked out by Temple in the second round.
“We didn’t reach our ultimate goal, so none of them are satisfied with what they’ve done in the last two years – winning 46 games, making NCAAs and then winning our first NIT game in program history, beating Pittsburgh from the ACC,” men’s head coach Mike Lonergan said. “So our seniors ‒ how we go will be our seniors.”
Following up history, rewriting an early exit
On the women’s side, the team will look to expand on a 29-win season last year with superstar Jones and standout junior forward Caira Washington returning. The Colonials retained 14 of the 15 members from last year’s roster, with only point guard Chakecia Miller graduating.
“I just want a legacy that we defended our championship ‒ our A-10 Championship ‒ and that we went to the tournament and did what was expected of us in terms of our own goals, not the goals of anyone else outside the team,” Jones said.
ESPN had the Colonials ranked No. 18 in the nation in its early, unofficial rankings, and the USA Today Coaches Poll saw the Colonials land at the No. 21 spot. The team was forecasted to repeat as conference and tournament champions. Additionally, Jones was picked to retain her status as A-10 Player of the Year, while Tsipis was chosen to defend his Coach of the Year distinction in the conference.
“I think the team has gotten a taste now of what it’s like to be a champion,” Tsipis said. “I think part-way through the year with the winning streak we were able to have and the national notoriety, they started to see what it was like to have a target on their back.”
Although the road will be different this year with all the attention the Colonials will draw, Jones and Washington will remain the focal points for the Colonials. Their dominance in the paint allowed the team to lead the nation in rebounding last year, and they were both named preseason All-Americans.
Change, on and off the court
The women’s team may experiment at times with a three-post lineup. Tsipis said that sophomore Kelli Prange was often the best player on the floor during off-season practices and that, after going against Washington and Jones in practice for a year and changing her nutritional habits, her game has expanded significantly. The team may go big to get their best players on the floor.
The men’s team is not so deep, but will benefit from a group of strong shooters off the bench in sophomore Paul Jorgensen and Dartmouth transfer Alex Mitola, a graduate student. Hamilton (Division III) transfer Matt Hart and freshman Jordan Roland are also scorers who will compete for minutes, and their additions should free up opportunities for McDonald to play more off the ball.
“Just in case, if they do miss, which probably won’t happen often, I’ll have a chance to try to get in there and rebound a little bit,” McDonald said.
The Colonials aren’t as deep up front, however. Wake Forest transfer forward Tyler Cavanaugh is eligible and should be a powerful addition to Larsen, but Lonergan will have to do some lineup tinkering when either big man needs rest, unless freshman Collin Goss or sophomore Matt Cimino take big leaps developmentally.
Both teams will be playing with new rules, the men with a 30-second shot clock among other changes and the women with their game divided into 10-minute quarters, six media timeouts instead of eight and more freedom to defend post players, which should also help flow by creating fewer fouls.
It’s a remarkable past, but the players are thinking more about the games they are about to play. The men’s team opens against Lafayette on Nov. 13 after an exhibition game against Gannon on Nov. 7 and the women’s team hosts Grambling State on Nov. 14 in its season opener after a showcase against Christopher Newport on Nov. 8. As soon as the first ball is tipped, the Class of 2016 will begin writing its last chapter.
“These four years have been going very, very fast and I just feel like this year we’re going to take it all in and appreciate every moment we’ve got and just work hard,” Larsen said. “I think we’re going to have a season that not many people are going to forget soon.”