Even though the Colonials managed to outscore their opponents 22 times last season, a high-powered offense was never the team’s defining characteristic.
Compared to an electrifying NCAA tournament squad led by lights-out shooter and Indiana transfer Maurice Creek, which averaged 73.2 points per game in 2013‒2014, GW’s 67.3 points per game last year, eighth-best in the Atlantic 10, was a discouraging step backward.
The team shot a combined 43.8 percent from the field and a 35.2 percent clip from three-point range, a 2.5 and 1.2 percent dip, respectively, from its campaign two years ago.
But with a pair of skilled, experienced guards off the bench in graduate student Alex Mitola and redshirt junior Matt Hart, plus improvements from veteran starters, the Colonials could quietly become one of the best outside shooting teams in the league this year.
“Coach has mentioned a few times that this is the best shooting team he’s had here so far,” Mitola said. “Joe, Paul, Pato, they’ve improved their shooting as well. So from that standpoint it’ll be exciting. We’ll be shooting a lot of threes, hopefully.”
Creek put up a team-leading 80 three pointers compared to a team-high 41 by then-junior point guard Joe McDonald last year. And like Creek, Mitola enters the lineup as a graduate student transfer.
Taking advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rules, Mitola graduated Dartmouth in three years, transferred to GW and became immediately eligible to play this season.
“That was probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make up to this point in my life,” Mitola said. “Part of the reason it was so difficult was because I felt like there wasn’t a wrong decision. I enjoyed my time at Dartmouth, improving the team, but I also had sort of bigger goals and an opportunity that I felt like I didn’t want to pass up.”
The Florham Park, N.J. native averaged 11.8 points per game, shot 39.3 percent from the field, and posted a combined 202 three balls during his career with the Big Green. In his most recent season, Mitola’s average of 2.4 three-point field goals per game was the second highest in the Ivy League.
Head coach Mike Lonergan said he had recruited the 5-foot-11-inch guard a little when Mitola was in high school and Lonergan was at Vermont, and heard from junior Seton Hall transfer Jaren Sina, who joined the team this offseason but must sit out one year per NCAA rules, that Mitola was looking to make a move.
Lonergan’s hope is that Mitola will give the team a shooter off the bench, and that it will take opposing scouts one or two months to figure out his skill set, as they did with Yuta Watanabe’s three-point shot early last season.
“I think Alex will get a lot of shots early, and if he hits them, teams will have to change and maybe that will create single coverage against Kevin Larsen and it will help free up some other guys,” Lonergan said.
Hart also brings a similar shooting prowess as a transfer from Division III Hamilton College, where he led the New England Small College Athletic Conference in scoring his sophomore year, averaging 20.6 points per game.
Across his two seasons there, Hart shot a combined 45.6 percent field goal percentage and 39 percent from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-1-inch guard hailing from Orchard Park, N.Y. hopes he and Mitola’s shooting ability can put up points as well as create space for others.
“I think [Alex and I] can agree, we’re not shy about shooting the ball,” Hart said. “That’s a weapon we can use. And also with the guys we have around us, we’re not going to be the main focal points. I think we can have open looks a lot and then spread the defense even more.”
One of the biggest concerns with both players, however, is whether their play will transfer to a much tougher and talented conference like the A-10.
With Mitola, Lonergan thinks having so much other talent around him will help keep the best defenders off of him, but that his size, and how it affects his ability to defend, could be an issue.
“My biggest concern is if he’s good enough to guard people. With that size you really got to work hard defensively because he doesn’t have a lot of height and size, but he can shoot as well as anyone. We’ve just got to find ways to get him open,” Lonergan said.
Hart, although a few inches taller and 12 pounds heavier, faces similar challenges. Lonergan described him as a “terrific shooter in amazing shape and probably the hardest worker” he’s ever coached, and that after being sidelined last year, the redshirt junior is hungry to get back on the court.
“I think if you can shoot, you can shoot, no matter how tall you are or how big you are,” Hart said. “I think I can bring that to the table and I’m pretty intense when I play and I don’t think many people can stop me. That’s my mindset.”
Mitola also isn’t worried about the step up in competition. He said he’s used to playing against the best, like in high school when his Gill St. Bernard’s team competed in the same division as No. 1 2011 NBA Draft pick Kyrie Irving.
Additionally, both guards are stellar free throw shooters, a much needed addition to a roster that shot a combined 67.4 percent clip from the line last year. Through their collegiate careers, Hart shot an impressive 84.3 percent from the charity stripe, while Mitola hit 85.7 percent of his attempts and was the best free shooter in the Ivies last year.
While Hart has two years left to prove what he’s made of, the upcoming season will be Mitola’s last. Bypassing a year of ineligibility, he said being a veteran but brand new to the program at the same time has been a unique and sometimes difficult situation, but thinks he is ready to make his mark.
“I had to learn the plays right away and I took the play packets and I studied them and spent some extra time on that because that’s important because I can’t say, ‘Let’s fix it next year,’” Mitola said. “I’m very team focused. Especially this year, this is my last year of college basketball and I want it to be something special.”