On Super Bowl Sunday, the men’s basketball team was still riding high off its win at VCU when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, fresh off his MVP win, failed to dive for a ball swatted out of his hand on third down in the fourth quarter by Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
Newton protected himself instead of jumping into the scrum. Whether or not that was a good decision is up for debate, but the result was that Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware recovered the ball at the 4-yard line and Denver scored to put the game away. For men’s basketball head coach Mike Lonergan, the message was simple.
“You can have the MVP or whatever you want,” Lonergan said Tuesday. “Playing defense wins and diving for loose balls, whether it’s a basketball or that football, laying there, you’re not going to win if you’re not willing to dive.”
There’s another GW parable in the Panthers’ rise and fall: the peril of success. The Colonials followed up their win at VCU with losses to Saint Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure.
Saint Joseph’s shot 56.7 percent in the Smith Center, including 64.3 percent in the second half. The Colonials held St. Bonaventure to 41.1 percent overall but allowed the Bonnies to shoot 56 percent in the second half. Whether the losses were a VCU hangover or not, GW’s porous performance put the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes in question.
“We’re not the mentally toughest team in the world and we struggle sometimes with success,” Lonergan said.
The loss at St. Bonaventure put GW at 2‒2 in its last four games, arguably the Colonials’ toughest stretch of the A-10 season. No one expected GW to win all four of those games, but 3‒1 would have inspired confidence.
Especially considering that this time last year was when the Colonials fell out of the NCAA Tournament picture, losing six out of seven games in a stretch from Jan. 27 to Feb. 21, the varied results have fans nervous.
“Last year was probably the first time I could ever say my team didn’t get better in February and that was really disappointing to me,” Lonergan said.
Avoiding a repeat performance is especially important to the seniors on the team, who have one more chance to make an NCAA Tournament.
“We are really aware that this is the last that we have, our little last stretch,” senior forward Patricio Garino said. “Especially thinking of last year in February, we almost screwed that up for ourselves and now knowing that we’re not going to have a second chance next year, I think that’s even more important now.”
Outside looking in
The Colonials are still in a better position than they were this time last year, but have work to do to reach their goal of making the NCAA Tournament. The Colonials moved from the good side of the bubble to the first four out of the tournament or worse in several brackets following the two-loss week.
Lonergan said that he tells the team not to pay attention to bracketology and to focus simply on the next game. Still, he said before the Saint Joe’s game that taking care of business would involve avoiding another home loss.
Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh said that it’s impossible not to know when you’re “in the mix” a little bit, especially as someone who is competing for a tournament berth for the first time, but that he tries not to get caught up in looking at brackets.
“It’s hard to avoid. Sometimes I’ll be looking at stuff online but you want to try to distance yourself from that,” Cavanaugh said.
GW has road games at Richmond and Davidson and a home game against VCU to claw back into the tournament picture, but the team has run out of room for error.
GW’s goal right now is to get on a winning streak, fast. Lonergan and Garino, however, said that one thing that could help them is an improved team chemistry over last year’s squad.
Garino said that he and fellow seniors Joe McDonald and Kevin Larsen have become more vocal with their teammates. That’s something each of those players said they wanted to do at the start of the season, but Garino said that their teammates have made it easy on them by not taking criticisms, even ones barked loudly on the court, personally if they’re made for the good of the team. Lonergan said that players have gotten better at holding each other accountable for their own performances.
“I think last year maybe we were afraid or scared of calling each other out because of our emotions or how we would deal with it or something,” Garino said. “But this year our chemistry is much different. I think we are all very certain that we want to make it very, very far this year and we’re all about the team.”
Lonergan said that, regardless of record, he’s happier with the team’s “mindset” now than he was a month ago. Still, that was before two straight losses, the first of which he said was a big setback.
The team has the added benefit of graduate student Alex Mitola, who was the first player referenced by Lonergan, Cavanaugh and Garino when they spoke Tuesday following up on the win at VCU. Lonergan said that Mitola is one of the most vocal leaders on the team, not afraid to call out a teammate or even go back at Lonergan during a game.
That, according to tweets from former player Mike Hall, a four-year starter and a captain on GW’s 27‒3 team in 2006, is the kind of attitude the team is lacking.
“As a former player, I want to see FIRE. I want to see the Big 3 diving into the stands, beating their chest, and cursing each other out,” Hall tweeted after the St. Bonaventure loss.
Whether it’s diving into the stands or diving for loose balls, Lonergan, for the most part, agreed.
“We’ve gotta get that swagger,” Lonergan said. “We want to act like, we’ve got to act like we’re one of the best teams in the league.”