When George Washington men’s basketball Coach Mike Lonergan was in his first season in Foggy Bottom, supporters of the program would approach him to inquire about the pace of the rebuilding process. Lonergan’s response was virtually identical each time: Be patient.
Three years later, the waiting period officially ended when the Colonials earned an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, and many with long-standing allegiances to GW and Lonergan arrived on campus earlier this week for a rousing sendoff as players and coaches departed for their next destination.
GW is the No. 9 seed in the East Region and will play No. 8 Memphis on Friday night in the first round at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The winner faces either No. 1 seed Virginia or 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina for a spot in next week’s East Region semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Just like everywhere I’ve worked, there’s been a lot of people around here 30, 40 years, and they’ve seen the good and the bad,” Lonergan said Tuesday afternoon at Smith Center, less than 24 hours before the team boarded a bus for the first leg of its journey. “To see us getting back in the NCAA tournament, I really feel good for those people and especially our players. I mean, it’s all about the players. They bought in to what we were trying to accomplish here, and they worked very, very hard.”
The Colonials (24-8) are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006-07 after finishing third in the Atlantic 10, advancing to the conference tournament semifinals and winning more games than in the past two seasons combined. GW has been to 11 NCAA tournaments, with its best showing in 1992-93, when it advanced to the Sweet 16.
Many Colonials players weren’t even in their teens when GW last played an NCAA tournament game, and only two transfers, senior forward Isaiah Armwood and graduate-student guard Maurice Creek, have been part of teams that have qualified before this season. The majority of this season’s roster comprises underclassmen.
“Everything that we’ve been waiting for is here, and we can’t believe this,” said sophomore forward Patricio Garino, whose first memories of the NCAA tournament came when he was living in his native Argentina. “All these cameras, people around, people even on campus and off campus talking about us. It’s just an incredible sensation, and we’re enjoying it, but we’re still focused on our game.”
Lonergan constructed this team in part with a combination of players who began their careers at other schools and in other countries as well as a handful of locals overlooked by much larger institutions in power conferences.
Armwood, for instance, transferred from Villanova three years ago as the first impact player for Lonergan as he began to rebuild the program. This season, Lonergan added Creek, a transfer from Indiana who had encountered misfortune with injuries before leading the Colonials in scoring.
In between, Lonergan’s recruits included guards Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage, both of whom played high school basketball in the IAC, recognized more for its academic pursuits than those on the court. McDonald (Landon) is the starting point guard and has played in every game despite a lingering hip injury that has caused discomfort almost all season.
McDonald has not been practicing and instead receives treatment while his teammates take part in drills. Savage (Episcopal), meanwhile, has been recovering from a broken foot suffered Feb. 18 in a 79-71 win against St. Bonaventure.
The sophomore continues to wear a walking boot after missing the final 12 games of the regular season as well as GW’s 85-77 quarterfinal victory over Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Savage, who is the Colonials’ second-leading scorer, played one minute in a 74-55 loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday in the Atlantic 10 semifinals.
It’s unclear how much, if at all, Savage will play against the Tigers (23-9), who have lost three of five but swept Louisville, a No. 4 seed, in the regular season and beaten other ranked opponents such as Oklahoma State and Gonzaga. Lonergan said Thursday in Raleigh that he’s game-planning as if Savage won’t play. He didn’t take part in the team’s open practice, sitting on the bench in a walking boot.
“Play defense and just play together,” GW sophomore forward Kevin Larsen (Montrose Christian) said. “Unselfishness has been our motto the whole year, and if we just stick with that, we’ll win.”
Mark Giannotto contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.