Both of GW’s basketball teams feature young rosters led by third-year head coaches, but the men’s and women’s programs are on two different trajectories.
The men’s team enters the 2018-19 season coming off its worst record in five seasons and is trying to develop new personnel to rebuild the team. On the other hand, the women’s squad will utilize new faces to patch holes in their championship-or-bust program.
The young rosters are a new look for GW programs – which have relied on the contributions of veteran returners for years.
The men have boasted leaders on the court like the senior trio of Patricio Garino, Joe McDonald and Kevin Larsen in 2016, forward Tyler Cavanaugh in 2017 and guard Yuta Watanabe in 2018. In the last three seasons, the women’s program has had a lineage of top players like forward Jonquel Jones in 2016, followed by forward Caira Washington and guard Brianna Cummings contributing double-digit scoring and minutes in each game of their final seasons at GW.
Women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said she won’t compromise her high standards for the young team as they enter a program that is no stranger to defying expectations. The team pocketed its seventh Atlantic 10 Championship last season despite entering the tournament as the No. 5 seed. Ahead of this season, they’ve turned their focus to finding roles for new players and defining how their offense will operate in the absence of last season’s leading scorers.
On the other side, in his third year as one of the youngest Division I head coaches in the country, Maurice Joseph leads a men’s team without a clear person to turn to when the team needs quick points. In addition to the offensive hole, the team carries three freshmen and two transfers that they will be forced to rely on up and down the court who have yet to be tested in A-10 territory.
While both teams share a similar makeup in roster and leadership, the two programs have near-opposite expectations, fueling different attitudes.
Under Joseph, the Colonials are slotted to finish 13th in the conference this season – marking a nine-year low. Joseph said the second-to-last pick was a “fair assessment” given the players lost in the offseason, but the men have an opportunity to spend the year building a foundation for future success.
“We’ll have five seniors next year and four talented juniors and guys who have been four-year starters, three-year starters,” Joseph said. “Our program is in a really good space right now for the future.”
On the women’s side, the Colonials are expected to finish third, which Rizzotti said was a “compliment” that puts a target on their back in conference play – a sentiment opposing coaches in the A-10 echoed.
The team returns just five members from last season’s active roster and will be forced to rely on green players – like freshman guard Maddie Loder or redshirt sophomore forwards Sarah Overcash and Olivia Gumbs – down low and occasionally in the point guard position. With a majority of her team untested in college play, Rizzotti said the team’s youth will not excuse mistakes or losses.
“It tests my patience a little bit more, but I won’t lower the standard, and they know that,” Rizzotti said. “They’re either going to figure out how to live up to that standard as young players or they’re going to fail and figure it out next year. That’s where we’re at.”
Although both programs run parallel to each other in inexperience and coaches who have finally settled into their programs, the expectations for each team could not be more different.
Rising to the occasion
Four freshmen and six sophomores comprise the bulk of the women’s basketball team and represent the youngest squad Rizzotti has coached thus far.
Rizzotti will see a challenging year ahead but is determined to live up to last season’s success, she said.
“Last year was really critical for me, and I feel like our staff worked really hard to buy them in,” Rizzotti said. “And winning at the end adds that credibility.”
The team’s returning core – senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista, senior forward Kelsi Mahoney and sophomore forward Neila Luma – will again be relied upon heavily to contribute minutes on the court. The trio will also be called up to increase their point production to fill the void left by Cummings, who averaged 14.3 points per game.
The Colonials’ incoming crop of freshmen – especially center Kayla Mokwuah and forward Mayowa Taiwo – expand GW’s ability to play high-low and inside ball.
While new additions help boost the overall height of the roster, the team’s backcourt behind Bautista is thin without an experienced backup ball handler. Loder and sophomore guard Lexus Levy will need to step up and run the floor to give Bautista a break after she averaged 32.9 minutes per game last season.
“There’s a target on our back because we beat out a lot of teams that think that we stole the championship away from them,” Mahoney said. “Obviously we don’t see that because we worked our butts off and came into it with a mindset of winning and bringing home another trophy.”
Despite the lack of experience, the women had extra time to get their feet wet this summer when they embarked on a 10-day foreign tour playing four games in Spain.
Rizzotti said she will never lower the standard of discipline and skill in her program and the incoming team’s relative inexperience is no reason to start that now.
“I need to make sure that my expectations are about growth and patience,” Rizzotti said. “I’m still going to be demanding the best out of them and a level of consistency that is really hard to meet as freshmen and sophomores.”
Arming themselves for the future
A championship might not be in the immediate future for the men’s team, but Joseph said he sees a lot of parallels between the 2016 NIT Championship squad and the men on his hands now.
Larsen, Garino and McDonald spent all four years in the men’s basketball program together and after going 14–17 their rookie season, they went on to record three consecutive 20-plus win seasons – including a 29–10 record in their final season at GW in 2015-16.
“Those guys stuck with it and stuck together and ended up having the most successful year in program history because they got old together,” Joseph said.
Every player on this year’s lineup has at least two years of eligibility left, giving them the chance to develop together like the senior trio from the 2015-16 season. Joseph said his current personnel also have the chance to mature together and produce a championship down the line.
“We’re a program right now that’s on the rise,” Joseph said. “We have a young group of talent with no seniors that’s going to grow old together.”
The team’s most experienced player is junior forward Arnaldo Toro, who has been in and out of the team’s starting five since his freshman year. Toro had a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game and started 27 matches as a sophomore.
Toro said the team’s preseason placement has motivated them to exceed expectations this season and the young roster will find success as they mature.
“We know what we can do and we know for sure we’re going to prove a lot of people wrong,” Toro said. “I think it’s wide open for us, we have a great opportunity to have a good team in this league.”
In an effort to lessen the learning curve, the Colonials spent the entire summer in Foggy Bottom, working out for the season while fostering a connection among players.
For the Colonials, the season looks like an uphill battle getting experience under the belts of young players while building a foundation for the team, Joseph said.
“Having a team with no seniors can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing,” Joseph said. “But I’m looking forward to the future of our program.”
The men’s team kicks off its official season hosting Stony Brook 7 p.m. Tuesday. The women’s team travels to James Madison 7 p.m. Thursday to start the 2018-19 season.