The men’s basketball team is about to begin one of the toughest stretches of this season. The team faces Davidson at home, VCU on the road, Saint Joseph’s at home and St. Bonaventure on the road in a 10-day stretch beginning Wednesday night. The worst overall record in that bunch is Davidson’s 12‒7 and all of those teams are 0.500 or better in Atlantic 10 play.
Each will require a different game plan. But based on what head coach Mike Lonergan said he told the Colonials after they escaped with a win at 7‒14 George Mason Sunday, the challenge for the team has more to do with itself than its opponents.
“I said, ‘I just need you guys to really look in the mirror and seize this opportunity,’” Lonergan said. “We worked so hard: Seton Hall, Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia, Tennessee. We got a lot of quality wins and we’ve got the opportunity to get more. But our seniors, for them, I just told them, ‘You’ve got the rest of your life. You don’t want to have any regrets when you’re my age.’”
The Colonials have gone 2‒2 in their last four games and all four have been close. A home loss to Richmond went to double-overtime. GW beat Rhode Island by four after digging out of an 18-point hole.
The two losses, at Dayton and to Richmond, could have been swung had the Colonials not given up 3-point plays in the exact moments they needed to avoid them. Those lapses have led Lonergan to call out a lack of focus on the team.
“We’re good enough, our top five to seven. We should be playing at a higher level, and to me it’s concentration and focus,” Lonergan said. “You’ve got the rest of your life to worry about girlfriends and different things.”
“I’m tired of the cell phones and all this stuff. We’ve got to be focused, man. We’ve got to play team defense,” he added. “We’ve been playing with each other for four years, some guys, and we want to take this thing to the next level. I love our team, but I don’t think they realize that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and these next three, four weeks are very important.”
Lonergan said his frustration comes from a season in which the highs have been very high – euphoria in the Smith Center after beating Virginia, a 10‒1 start and the first national ranking in a decade – but the lows have been unexpected and, Lonergan said, too frequent.
He said he told the team that he was happy with the win at George Mason for the simple reason that a loss in that situation would have been incredibly costly. The Patriots are No. 174 in ESPN’s RPI rankings. As for the Richmond loss on the other hand, he said they could “survive.”
The issue has been how the team has lost. GW was missing its leading scorer, forward Tyler Cavanaugh, for much of a loss at DePaul, but even Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao said after that game that the Colonials never offered a “counterpunch” to his team’s initial strike.
The Colonials had a lead at Saint Louis, now 3‒6, but blew it after giving up another three when they couldn’t afford one.
“We’ve lost to some good teams, that’s for sure, but the way we’ve lost some games has been, to me, very disappointing,” Lonergan said.
He did acknowledge that college basketball by nature is “crazy” and that GW’s ability to make plays down the stretch at George Mason was encouraging and a product of the team’s experience.
Senior Patricio Garino, too, said that the Colonials aren’t often victims of the same mistakes they’ve made in the past.
“I think just knowing that we have that confidence where we’re not rushing anything, we’re not getting nervous, we have our confidence, we know that we’ve been in this situation before so many times that now we’re just calm,” Garino said.
GW has been in this situation before. It was about this time last year that the Colonials, with an upset of a ranked team on their resume, fell out of the NCAA Tournament conversation by going 2‒7 over a nine-game stretch in Atlantic 10 play.
The next several games present a chance not only to avoid a similar stumble, but to make a strong positive impression and build some momentum. Lonergan (and everyone else with the team) wants wins, but he’ll be looking just as closely at how the team plays.
“Hey, if we’re not good enough to make the NCAAs or NITs this year, that’s fine, but we’ve got to go down swinging,” he said. “I just don’t feel like we’re where we should be at with our experience and our talent level.”