“I was like, man, that’s when I really knew there was pressure,” Lonergan said with a smile earlier this week.
A third of the way into this season, Lonergan has George Washington (9-1) positioned for one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college basketball. The Colonials, who host Maryland Baltimore County on Saturday afternoon, are off to their best start since 2005-06, when they won 26 of 27 and finished a school-record 27-3.
A preseason pick for 10th in the Atlantic 10, George Washington is four wins from matching its victory total for all of last season. The Colonials are receiving votes in the top 25 rankings and have signature victories over reigning ACC champion Miami, then-No. 20 Creighton and, most satisfying of all, Maryland.
GW topped its crosstown rival, 77-75, when guard Maurice Creek sank a jumper with less than one second to play in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center on Dec. 8.
“We took it as some type of disrespect,” Creek said of the preseason polls by conference coaches and media. “That’s just what commentators, spectators really think, and now they know they a made a big mistake. They put some fire in us.”
The Oxon Hill native and Indiana transfer leads George Washington in scoring (15.7) and three-point shots made (26 of 56). Creek, a graduate student, is one of two higher-profile transfers Lonergan persuaded to join the Colonials.
The first was senior Isaiah Armwood, who leads GW in rebounds (7.9) and blocks (2.6) and is third in scoring (13.0). Born in Baltimore, Armwood attended Montrose Christian before enrolling at Villanova, but getting limited minutes at the Big East school, the 6-foot-9 forward and third-team All-Met came back to the area.
“It’s definitely fun being here since this first started,” Armwood said. “Just watching the hard times, and now everything is starting to get better. It’s definitely been a process. It’s finally good to see it starting to pay off, all the hard work Coach did recruiting and everything else.”
Among Lonergan’s first priorities in taking over the program was to restock the roster with local representation. Having played high school basketball at Archbishop Carroll, he appreciated the level of talent in the nation’s capital. When Lonergan arrived in 2011-12, there was only one player with ties to the District. This season, the Colonials have six players either born in the immediate area or who attended high school locally.
The Colonials’ starting lineup comprises all local players, including point guard Joe McDonald (Landon), guard Kethan Savage (Episcopal) and forward Kevin Larsen (Montrose Christian). They also have freshman guard Nick Griffin (Magruder), a third-team All-Met, off the bench.
“Having those local ties and those local contacts I knew would be a big benefit to us,” GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero said. “I had known from Mike for years in my previous conversations with people before either one of us were at GW that this is ultimately where he wanted to be, was in the Washington, D.C., area. He felt he could me most effective here.”
Even before arriving in Foggy Bottom, Lonergan would keep an eye on the local Division I programs, and he recalled the Colonials receiving less attention compared to Maryland and Georgetown and more recently George Mason in light of the Patriots’ Final Four run in 2005-06.
That has been a selling point to local recruits who perhaps were overlooked by those programs. As a Division III college player, Lonergan long has thrived in an underdog role, and he’s been able to motivate his charges in much the same way as the Colonials try to elbow their way into the conversation with other more established area powers.
“It’s a funny story,” McDonald said. “Our sweatsuits and stuff are navy blue and grey, so we get confused as Georgetown all the time. Now I think people are starting to know who we are. They realize we’re GW. We’re one of the hotter teams in the area right now and definitely look to continue that.”