Off 20-plus win seasons, men’s and women’s basketball return to the Smith Center.
By James Irwin
Eight months removed from a 24-win season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Mike Lonergan will lead his George Washington University men’s basketball team into its 2014-15 opener Friday against Grambling at the Charles E. Smith Center.
A season of lofty expectations—both for Mr. Lonergan and women’s basketball coach Jonathan Tsipis—begins this weekend. Both programs, which combined to go 47-20 last season, were picked to finish second in their respective Atlantic 10 preseason polls. Season ticket sales for the men’s team are up 39 percent from last year.
Still, Mr. Lonergan, with his feet firmly planted and a healthy roster at the ready, is preaching process, as he often has during the first years of his GW tenure.
“Not yet,” the fourth-year GW coach said when asked if he had an elite team. “I think the depth has been the hardest thing to build here, where you can get to the point where you suffer an injury and be OK. That’s where you see the really good teams that can do it year in and year out. I’m happy where we are, but we’re not there yet.”
GW is looking to build on last year’s breakout season, one in which the Colonials reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years but also were hampered by injuries that slowed them in February and March.
Health and depth will continue to be major factors this season, Mr. Lonergan said. The Colonials, who lost all-conference players Isaiah Armwood and Maurice Creek to graduation, return four veteran starters, including junior guard Kethan Savage, who missed eight weeks last season with a broken foot.
“Kethan being out last year definitely made a difference,” said junior point guard Joe McDonald, who battled through a hip injury last season and had surgery in April. “We were 15-3 with him and a little bit over .500 without him. He’s always in attack mode, and there really aren’t a lot of people who can guard him. Having a player like that come back is huge.”
The Colonials were one of six A-10 teams to reach the NCAA Tournament last season, losing in their first game to Memphis. Their sibling program, also picked to finish second in the A-10 preseason poll, reached the third round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“I think the women are going to be really good,” Mr. Lonergan said of Mr. Tsipis’ team, which won 23 games last season. “They’re athletic, they’re building depth. I think it’s good for us and good for them if the other team is playing well because it gets the students involved, and we support each other.”
The women’s team, which opens play Friday night at Florida Gulf Coast, returns a pair of front-court starters in junior Jonquel Jones and 2014 A-10 rookie of the year Caira Washington. The duo combined for 25 points and 20 rebounds a game last season.
Mr. Tsipis, entering his third season at GW, believes—like Mr. Lonergan—that he has a team that’s rounding into form in a tough conference. Perennial A-10 power Dayton is again favored to win the league.
“If you look at recent history, Dayton’s been to five straight NCAA tournaments, and so they’re at that level right now we’re trying to get to,” Mr. Tsipis said. “We expect to be in a lot more games with them that determine championships. I think our kids get excited about that. I think their consistency, that's what we’re striving for.”
The Colonials play the Flyers twice this season beginning with a Jan. 4 matchup in Ohio. The teams split a home-and-home series last season, which included GW’s 88-79 win on Senior Night at the Smith Center.
That home-court advantage—GW’s men’s and women’s teams combined to win 29 of 33 games last season in Foggy Bottom—is something both teams will look to continue this season, junior forward Patricio Garino said.
“This environment is something you don’t experience everywhere,” he said. “It’s an advantage we have, and we love it.”