The George Washington men's basketball team has found all sorts of ways to lose this season.
Against Old Dominion, the Colonials fell behind by 15 points in the second half, then made a furious comeback, only to fall short. Against North Carolina Charlotte, they took an early lead, but missed five free throws in the final 30 seconds of regulation and lost in overtime. Against St. Joseph's, they suffered numerous defensive lapses and surrendered 14 three-point goals. In two other losses--to Duquesne and Virginia Tech--they could not overcome the absences of two key juniors, guard Michael King and power forward Patrick Ngongba, who were hurt.
Add it all up, and since impressive victories over Maryland and Seton Hall on consecutive days in early December, the Colonials have lost eight of 11 games. Their 7-11 record (1-4 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) is their worst mark after 18 games in 11 years and puts their streak of seven consecutive postseason appearances in jeopardy.
Does this season portend George Washington's slide toward the mediocrity that preceded former coach Mike Jarvis's arrival in 1990, or is it an aberration? Colonials Coach Tom Penders, who was hired after Jarvis departed for St. John's following the 1997-98 season, and Athletic Director Jack Kvancz say it is just a small setback caused by a combination of the departures of key players, injuries, inexperience and the transition from Jarvis to Penders.
"We've had a lot of tough things happen," Penders said. "We've lost in overtime. We've had games won that we kicked away; and yet we've beaten teams like Seton Hall and Maryland. We're competitive, but we haven't been able to close out a lot of games."
Said Kvancz: "You're disappointed, frustrated to some extent. But hey, we're playing as well as we can play. And you lost a whole heck of a lot when you lost Michael and Patrick."
The Colonials, who recorded their first conference victory of the season Wednesday night against St. Bonaventure, 75-72, today will try for their first consecutive victories since those games against Maryland and Seton Hall when they play La Salle (7-10, 1-5) at Smith Center.
Last season, Penders inherited a team that included 1999 Atlantic 10 player of the year Shawnta Rogers and second-team all-conference pick Yegor Mescheriakov. Rogers, a savvy, veteran point guard, led the team in scoring at 20.7 points per game. Mescheriakov, the team's second-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game and its top rebounder at 6.8 rebounds per game, could play on the perimeter or inside. Those two led George Washington to a 20-9 record, the Atlantic 10 West Division title and an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
"Last year what I had to do was come in and not screw up Shawnta Rogers and Yegor Mescheriakov," Penders said. ". . . But they're not here anymore and we're left with a lot of support players."
George Washington's slide began with a 94-91 loss to Siena on Dec. 11 that ended a 14-game home winning streak. King, the Colonials' top returning scorer at 15.1 points per game, injured his shoulder and missed the next six games.
Not long after King got hurt, the 6-foot-8, 238-pound Ngongba suffered a broken and dislocated finger, ending his season.
"He not only gave them a physical presence, but he gave them some experience and a settling presence in there," said Dayton Coach Oliver Purnell, whose team beat George Washington, 83-76. "I really think . . . if they had won a couple games early, I think it would have been a different story."
Said Kvancz: "If Patrick and Michael aren't hurt, then I've got to believe . . . we'd win four or five more ballgames."
This season Penders brought in a trio of guards--freshmen SirValiant Brown and Chris Monroe and junior college transfer Bernard Barrow, who have become three of the Colonials' four leading scorers. Brown leads the nation in scoring at 25.2 points per game, but is shooting 31.9 percent (135 of 423), including 24.9 percent from three-point range. As a team George Washington is shooting 39.8 percent, including 28.1 percent from three-point range, and Barrow, the starting point guard, is shooting 47.5 percent from the free throw line. The trio's inexperience and inconsistency also hurt the Colonials defensively.
George Washington's conference opponents are making 49.6 percent of their shots, including 43.5 percent from three-point range.
"On the interior, [junior forward Antxon] Iturbe is a very good defensive player, but he's limited," Penders said. "He's not an athlete. He's not the kind of guy who's going to wear people down. . . . Our three-point defense is weaker than it ever has been because of the inexperience on the perimeter."
According to St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli, the latter problem is a big one for an Atlantic 10 team.
"The Atlantic 10 has always been guard-driven and the Atlantic 10, to me, has always been senior-driven," said Martelli, whose team beat George Washington, 102-91. George Washington is "just young right now. It's just going to be a period of time until they grow up. But again, because of the style that they're playing, they're going to bite somebody. They'll bite a couple people along the way here. I'm just glad that one's behind us."
When Penders came to George Washington, he brought his up-tempo brand of basketball. His challenge, even more this season than last, has been to blend his system with the players recruited by Jarvis, who built a slower-paced, set offense. This has led to a mix of players with varying talent levels on the same team.
"I don't think there's any question that's all part of it," Kvancz said. "One, it takes awhile to adjust to that type of play. Two, if you can adjust to that type of play; and I think it makes for a lot more difficult situation."
Even as their losses have mounted, the Colonials have not shown signs of giving up on the season.
"If we come out and give up or look very bad out there . . . that tells everybody that we have given up and that we are basically satisfied with what we're doing right now," senior forward Francisco de Miranda said. "I don't think anybody on the team has that attitude."
The Colonials recently have begun to improve, which is important since they just started an eight-game stretch in which they will play six home games. In their victory over St. Bonventure, which entered the game 12-3, they made their free throws, played better defense and shot the ball better than they had in earlier conference games.
"All our losses have come in different kind of ways," Monroe said. "That is a learning experience for us. Maybe later on this season, we can pick it up."
Said Penders: "It may be better in the long run for us that we've struggled a little bit this year. . . . Because it's not easy. We've had to make mistakes and we've had to learn a lot of things the hard way."