Stroll into Smith Center for any George Washington men’s basketball game, and what catches the eye isn’t necessarily the arena, the fans or even the players.
It’s the flags.
An entire row of flags are draped over the railing in front of the student section, affectionately called the “Colonial Army” in and around Foggy Bottom. The countries represented by flags include Serbia, Greece, Argentina, Denmark and Puerto Rico, the birth places of players on a roster third-year Coach Mike Lonergan calls “the United Nations of college basketball.”
The group in part has been responsible for George Washington’s resurgence not only in the Atlantic 10, but also nationally. The Colonials (19-4, 7-2) have nonconference wins over Creighton, Miami and Maryland, among others, and are tied for second place in the Atlantic 10 with Virginia Commonwealth, their opponent Wednesday night at Siegel Center in Richmond.
A victory would give GW a sweep of the season series and keep it within arm’s length of first-place Saint Louis, which has not lost in the Atlantic 10 and is ranked 12th in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll (in which GW also received votes this week). VCU (19-5, 7-2) has won 17 in a row at home, including a 12-0 record there this season.
“We’ve got really good chemistry, and chemistry means a lot,” Lonergan said. “I think it makes it easier for the international kids that we have six countries [including the United States] represented. I mean, D.C. is diverse. The country’s diverse, and our campus is diverse.”
Normally the Colonials start one international player, forward Kevin Larsen (Denmark), but against Dayton on Feb. 1, Lonergan used four in the starting lineup because of injuries.
Senior Nemanja Mikic (Serbia), the elder statesman of the international group, played 36 minutes in his third start of the season; sophomore guard Patricio Garino (Argentina) logged 35 minutes; and freshman point guard Miguel Cartagena (Puerto Rico) played a season-high 33 minutes filling in for injured starter Joe McDonald. Garino, once a top reserve, has been in the starting lineup since sophomore guard Kethan Savage broke his foot in late January.
“The variety and diversity that we have is very special,” said Garino, whose course load includes a class in Chinese civilization. “We get to know different cultures, different people. I think it’s incredible.”
Said Mikic: “Coach Lonergan did a great job of bringing in people from different cultures, different backgrounds. Just having an opportunity to get to know different people and their backgrounds has helped us adapt to the new culture and the new environment. It brings us all closer together.”
Garino has become a fan favorite at Smith Center because of acrobatic plays at both ends of the court. Considered perhaps the most athletic player on the team, the 6-foot-6 Garino averages 11.3 points and is at the top of GW’s unconventional 1-3-1 defense because of his ability to move efficiently from one side of the floor to the other.
Garino receives the most rousing applause for his blocks, frequently chasing down opponents from behind and swatting away balls from unsuspecting shooters. GW’s leader in field goal percentage (57.9) also is able to contort his body in order to convert layups from awkward angles, a skill he said he developed while playing for the Argentine under-19 national team.
Larsen, meantime, is the only GW player with both an international and local background. The sophomore was born in Copenhagen, played two years at Montrose Christian and was a member of Denmark’s under-18 national team. Larsen had not heard of GW until Lonergan reached out to him and his coach at Montrose Christian.
“It’s been fun and exciting to learn about, like, Greece,” said Larsen, referring to the home country of teammate Paris Maragkos. “I didn’t know a lot about Greece until now. Now I know the alphabet. It’s just been wonderful to learn about different cultures and help me become a better man and a better player.”
Over the last month, Larsen has been among the Colonials’ most productive contributors, averaging nearly 16 points and eight rebounds. He’s also shooting 69 percent over that span and even has brought the ball up the court when McDonald was out with a sore hip.
The last time Larsen failed to score in double digits was Jan. 9 in a 76-72 loss to La Salle in Philadelphia. After Larsen missed seven of his 10 shots in that game, Lonergan challenged the 6-10, 247-pound sophomore with a soft touch around the basket to elevate both his energy and focus.
GW since has gone 7-1, including a 76-66 win over VCU on Jan. 14 at Smith Center.
“We’re trying to prepare these guys for the real world outside of basketball, and the real world is not all white or black,” Lonergan said. “It’s very diverse, and I think that will help them because they can relate to kids from different countries and hopefully educate them.
“My hope is when they’re older and they get married, that these guys will go to [each other’s] weddings and get to go to different countries. Truthfully, one of the goals I have is I’d like to see a couple of these guys play in the Olympics. I’ve never been to the Olympics. It’s kind of on my bucket list. I’d like to go watch Patricio maybe play Denmark.”