It was mid-July, in the middle of Smith Center, in the middle of another humid summer in the District, and Maurice Creek still hadn’t decided how his star-crossed college career was going to end.
Until a lanky transfer from Villanova he knew walked into the gym.
“I just saw him one day working out before he made a decision where he was going,” Isaiah Armwood, George Washington’s 6-foot-8 forward, said this week on the very same court, one day before the team left for its first NCAA tournament game. “We talked. I told him we needed a shooter. There was a sense, you know.”
What kind of sense?
“A sense we could do this.”
For all the endless nights Mike Lonergan spent watching film and trying so hard to make GW basketball matter again, the serendipity of two former area prep prodigies meeting up that day should not be forgotten as a basketball program rises again at the school.
“He’s a big reason why I came because we knew each other from a long time ago,” Creek said. “When he saw me working out with [former Colonials assistant Pete] Strickland, he told me, like, ‘We need you to come here.’ That was basically it. It gave me a moment to think about it and realize maybe I do need to be here.”
This is a story about two kids — one from Oxon Hill, the other from Montrose Christian via Baltimore — who signed with power-conference schools to achieve their big-college dreams. And, more important, how they became disenchanted for different reasons at those schools and eventually returned home to realize their dreams.
It’s about Creek, a 6-foot-5 marksman with a bachelor’s degree from Indiana, where he once shot down No. 1 Kentucky on the night the hallowed program in Bloomington came back to life. How he overcame three major injuries and two surgeries in 22 months before Hoosiers Coach Tom Crean had no choice but to recruit over his head and hope he got healthy enough to contribute whatever minutes he could.
Taking advantage of the NCAA’s graduate-transfer rule, Creek used his fifth year of eligibility to enroll in a graduate program at GW and spot up alongside Armwood, a few other local kids and the half-dozen foreigners who make up GW’s perfectly constructed, 24-7 melting pot that will play eighth-seeded Memphis on Friday in an East Region first-round game in Raleigh, N.C.
It’s also about Armwood, who never received the quality minutes he always wanted at Villanova. With no hard feelings and with Wildcats Coach Jay Wright’s blessing, he decided to sit out a year as a redshirt and play his final two seasons at George Washington.
“It’s funny how things work out, right?” Armwood said before practice began Tuesday afternoon. “You go away and try to make things work where you are. Then one day you wake up and find out what you really wanted was right here all along.”
Lonergan thought his rebuilding project would take five years when he took over in 2011, and that notion was confirmed for him when his first two seasons at GW resulted in a total of 23 wins. But then the four freshmen who started a year ago suddenly grew physically and emotionally, including Patricio Garino, the sophomore swingman from Argentina who plays as well or better at both ends of the floor as any of his teammates.
But Armwood and Creek give him something GW hadn’t had: an inside guy and outside guy with actual NCAA tournament experience, confident former blue-chip recruits who have seen it all before.
Lonergan’s goal for this season — finishing .500 in Atlantic 10 play and winning at least one conference tournament game — kept expanding with each victory. What he didn’t know was his two old vets knew they had this NCAA tournament appearance in the bank all along, from the day they decided to play together.
“The moment Maurice came and our young guys played as hard as they did early on, I knew we were going to the tournament,” Armwood said. “You could feel it. I know everybody is saying we didn’t see this coming. But I knew this was coming once we started playing together.”
Creek moseyed up and down the court during drills at practice Tuesday, slightly bowlegged, with two prosthetic sleeves covering the legs and his surgeries.
“He’s got that look like he’s playing in an old-man’s league, doesn’t he?” Lonergan said. “If I was 26 and coaching, I’d be thinking: ‘This guy isn’t giving it everything right now. What’s going on with him?’ Now I understand: He knows his body better than I do. So it takes a while for him to warm up. A lot of people thought he was done because of his injuries. It says a lot about him that he came back and had this kind of year. It says a lot about both of them.”
Lonergan sold Armwood on GW because he simply didn’t have a stable of quality big men. He would get instant minutes. Any old pick-and-pop guy would do but especially one with elongated arms who put back misses as if he were John Salley playing for the Pistons, circa 1989.
As it turned out, Armwood was also not a bad talent evaluator. After the day they met last summer — “I remember me and Coach are over there talking, like: ‘We could use someone like him, a great shooter. Perfect fit,’ ” Armwood said.
Creek has led the Colonials in scoring.
He shoots 40 percent from behind the three-point line, killed a Maryland comeback with a buzzer-beating 18-foot shot from the left wing in December at the BB&T Classic and basically has taken and made many of GW’s most important shots this season.
Armwood averages 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds and has attracted a few scouts. He has an NBADraft.net profile up, which says he could actually play small forward at the next level if he developed an outside game.
A two-weekend run or more in the tournament would catapult their decisions to finish their careers at GW over the top. But whatever happens against Memphis or the next round, Armwood says he has no regrets. “We were meant to come back here and play together.”
Creek nodded when told of his teammate’s words.
“You hear it all the time, but things really do happen for a reason,” he said. “I just knew Isaiah and the brotherhood we had. I knew we went two different ways, but I’m glad we got to come back here and showcase our talents.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.