Coach Mike Lonergan starts four freshmen at George Washington, the only program in the country to do so. (Al Behrman/AP)

In late May of last year, following his first season as the George Washington men’s basketball coach, Mike Lonergan learned Butler would be the newest member of the Atlantic 10.

It wasn’t exactly comforting news, considering the Bulldogs appeared in the 2010 and 2011 NCAA championship games and suddenly would be a regular opponent for the Colonials, who are in the early stages of a rebuilding project.

“I was like, ‘Can I go back to Vermont?’ ” Lonergan joked at the start of practice Thursday afternoon, referring to his previous coaching stint from 2005 to 2011.

George Washington will find out just how far it has advanced in its pursuit to reclaim a spot in the national college basketball landscape when the Colonials play 14th-ranked Butler on Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs are the highest-ranked opponent to visit Smith Center since 2000, and the atmosphere is expected to be raucous given that tickets are sold out.

Good thing the Colonials have been playing their most inspired basketball since Lonergan arrived. The Colonials have won four of five, including an 82-54 rout of Charlotte (then tied for first in the conference) on Jan. 26 in what was the most convincing win of Lonergan’s tenure.

The victory pushed George Washington within striking distance of first place in the Atlantic 10; the Colonials remain one game behind Butler, first-year Atlantic 10 program Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis. George Washington was picked to finish 13th in the Atlantic 10 in the preseason.

“It’s definitely going to be one of the biggest games since Coach Lonergan’s been here,” said senior forward Isaiah Armwood, a transfer from Villanova and Montrose Christian product who leads the Colonials in scoring (12.2), rebounds (8.5), field goal percentage (53) and blocks (58). “It’s as long as I can remember at GW.”

The Colonials (11-10, 5-3) are chasing the top programs in the conference with a starting lineup that includes four non-redshirt freshmen. George Washington is one of two schools among the country’s 345 Division I basketball programs with that distinction (Army is the other).

Among the Colonials’ top five scorers, three are freshmen. Argentine guard-forward Patricio Garino is third in points (9.6) and second in assists (2.2) and three-pointers made (12), and point guard Joe McDonald is fourth in points (7.5) and first in assists (3.6).

Three of the four freshmen starters give the Colonials a decidedly local flair. McDonald played high school basketball at Landon and guard Kethan Savage at Interstate Athletic Conference rival Episcopal. Forward Kevin Larsen, meantime, played for nationally recognized power Montrose Christian.

“Those are tough kids, whether they’re freshmen or not,” Lonergan said. “We just didn’t have that last year. We didn’t play hard all the time. We tried a lot of different things. Looking back on it, I don’t know what else we could have done. This year it’s just a lot easier to go into games because you pretty much know we’re definitely going to show up every game.”

Part of that transformation has included former starters such as guard Lasan Kromah (Eleanor Roosevelt) coming off the bench. Kromah has thrived in that role, averaging 9.9 points (second on the team) and providing leadership as one of the Colonials’ five seniors.

Kromah had started 11 games before Lonergan went regularly to a freshman-heavy first team. Kromah is coming off team highs of 19 points and four steals in Wednesday’s 79-57 victory over Duquesne, George Washington’s third consecutive road win.

“It definitely would be a dream for any college player to play against a ranked team that’s been in the Final Four,” Kromah said of Saturday’s matchup. “So it’s going to be a real test, and we’ll try to get a signature win for the program.”