The month of March rolls around every year, bringing with it mud, slush and, for college basketball fans, all the madness of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, the month teased, giving February one more frosty day on the calendar. For a few members of the men’s basketball team, 24 extra hours wasn’t too much to ask. They’ve been waiting a long time for March 2016.
For them, it’s a different kind of Leap Year: Players like Matt Hart and Alex Mitola are playing the first years of their college careers with the chance to go dancing. For Mitola, a graduate student, it’s his only chance to make it. Their path became steeper Saturday following an 87‒80 loss at Davidson, but the team still controls its own destiny in next week’s Atlantic 10 Tournament. Being in the mix is a constant pressure, but it sure beats being out of it.
“It’s fun to still be playing meaningful games in March,” Mitola said in an interview Wednesday. “So it’s definitely been new for me. The Ivy League doesn’t have a conference tournament, so I haven’t played a meaningful game in March in my career so far. So I’m really enjoying it.”
It was about this time of year for the last three years that Mitola would go into a little funk. His season over just at the moment when the college basketball world lights up, he’d try to shut it all out. Mitola said he never watched many NCAA Tournament games while he was at Dartmouth, where he started all three years before graduating early to become immediately eligible as a transfer.
He never filled out a bracket.
“They’re your peers, people you’re competing against, playing where you want to play, and it’s just kind of frustrating,” Mitola said. “Plus after a long season and whatnot, it’s kind of the last thing I’d really want to watch – people being where I would rather be.”
The downside of playing with something to lose is, well, losing. After allowing Davidson to score at will in a game that could have kept them in the at-large conversation, players walked off the court sulking and dejected. Hart and Mitola combined for GW’s only bench points in the game, but each only scored once and did little else to fill the stat sheet.
The rest of the month will define GW’s year. No matter how it ends, though, both Mitola and Hart have had career highlights this season.
For both of them, beating then-No. 6 Virginia. affirmed their decisions to transfer and play at a higher level. Cavaliers star Malcolm Brogdon is “100 percent,” Hart said, his favorite player in college basketball. Suddenly, the two were playing against each other on national television.
“I guarded him for two possessions,” Hart said. “And I don’t think he scored on me, yeah, so I can always say that. He’s definitely my favorite. He’s awesome.”
For Mitola, the size of the stage was a satisfying thrill.
“On national television with all my friends and family watching? That was like, ‘Yeah. I think that’s what I wanted to do,'” Mitola said.
But Virginia was back in November. Since then, both players have done more work to carve out their roles on the team. Mitola has spent more and more time playing on the ball, and his on-court chemistry with other players has improved. Hart said he had to adjust to playing against Division I players, then adjust all over again to the intensity of the conference season.
Through all of the challenges, they’re part of something they used to envy. Hart watches a ton of college basketball, but now gets to root for the teams that GW has beaten and raise the stakes for himself. He and Tyler Cavanaugh watched the Virginia‒North Carolina game on Feb. 27 and, as it came down to the wire, was in the moment just like any fan. But when Virginia won, the boost to GW’s RPI was a nice added bonus.
“It’s so much fun and this is exactly what I want to be doing at this point. At Hamilton, my season was done Feb. 15 or something,” Hart said. “I don’t know what it’s like being in real March basketball, so this is a lot of fun.”
Hart’s eyes light up over how “crazy” the Atlantic 10 Conference has been over the past few weeks, how any team could make a run at the Tournament Championship and how much he loves the mania of conference tournaments.
He admits that, with that kind of zeal, it’s impossible for him to stop the different scenarios and paths to the tournament that scroll through his mind.
“We don’t talk about it but we do talk about it,” Hart said. “Especially between the guys, we’re talking about it like, ‘Oh this is all we need to do, if we can just get a couple more.’ But yeah, I mean, it’s always there. I don’t think it’s like – people say you shouldn’t talk about it. But I think, if that’s what you want to do, it doesn’t matter – you’re going to go out and do it.”
The path to the big dance has narrowed for the Colonials, as it did last year when GW missed the tournament. It’s possible that a very strong showing in the A-10 Tournament, which GW begins on Thursday, could bump them up into the field of 68 teams. Their best chance, though, would be to win the A-10 Tournament outright and receive an automatic bid.
It’s not a good chance, but it is a chance. What once was a fantasy for players like Hart and Mitola could still come to life. If it doesn’t, the sting of losing will be that much sharper. But March Madness, of course, is known for it’s underdogs and Cinderella stories.
“You always see the buzzer-beaters and game-winners,” Mitola said. “I’d be surprised if anyone hadn’t imagined themselves hitting one of those shots to win a game in the NCAA Tournament because that’s what everyone talks about when they talk about March Madness.”