Before departing for the West Coast last week to participate in a Thanksgiving tournament, the George Washington men’s basketball team was off to its most promising start since 2006, albeit against four opponents with losing records last season.
Following three games at the Wooden Legacy, however, the Colonials (6-1) had confirmed their standing as one of the Atlantic 10 programs on the rise with victories over reigning ACC regular season champion Miami and then-No. 20 Creighton.
“Hopefully it will give us some credibility,” GW Coach Mike Lonergan, in his third season in Foggy Bottom, said Tuesday. “Hopefully this will put GW back on the map a little bit, and now it’s our job to kind of keep us there.”
The most conspicuous upgrade over GW’s three days of competition in California was ball security. The Colonials had only 23 turnovers combined, including a season-low six in a 71-63 overtime win over the Hurricanes on Thanksgiving day, after averaging nearly 14.3 entering the tournament.
GW’s emphasis in limiting turnovers begins with sophomore point guard Joe McDonald. Starting all 30 games as a freshman, the first-team All-Met from Landon had nearly as many turnovers as assists, but this season, McDonald’s assist-to-turnover ratio is three to one. Throw in steals, and that ratio increases to 4.2 to one.
“For us to have a chance, Coach always stresses shots, not turnovers,” McDonald said. “That’s always going to be a focus from here on out. Last year that was probably one of our biggest struggles. We lost a lot of close games last year, and truthfully, you can probably say it’s because of the turnovers.”
During the Wooden Legacy, McDonald averaged four assists with just one turnover and reached double-figure scoring in each game. McDonald’s layup with 4.9 seconds left forced overtime against Miami, and in the extra session, his three-pointer gave GW the lead for good. Moments later, McDonald fed Isaiah Armwood for a dunk that deflated the Hurricanes.
The Colonials limited Miami to 1-of-8 shooting in overtime, underscoring a commitment to field goal percentage defense that has them ranked 28th out of 345 Division I schools in that category. GW is allowing opponents to shoot 38.2 percent, and only the Golden Eagles shot higher than 34 percent against the Colonials during the Wooden Legacy.
The Colonials also are ranked 50th in scoring defense, surrendering 64.4 points per game, and 24th in blocks. Armwood is averaging 2.9 blocks per game, good for 35th nationally, and his four blocks against Creighton were a season high for the Villanova transfer.
Armwood has some familiarity with the Scarlet Knights, having faced them when they were members of the Big East. This season the Scarlet Knights, who have lost three of four and have not played since Nov. 26, are part of the inaugural American Athletic Conference that includes other former Big East schools such as Connecticut and Louisville.
An additional subplot involves a homecoming for first-year Rutgers Coach Eddie Jordan, who held the same position with the Washington Wizards from 2003 to ’09. Jordan was born in the District and attended Archbishop Carroll High School, which also is Lonergan’s alma mater.
After Jordan’s dismissal as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2010, the Scarlet Knights’ career leader in assists and steals coached freshman basketball at Carroll High until becoming an assistant last season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I just look at it as a game we want to play well in against a very good opponent,” Jordan said when asked about coming back to the nation’s capital. “The head coach is an alumnus from my high school, so there’s going to be some big rivalry there. But no, it’s going to be fun. They’re very good. They’ve had some major wins. They’re playing very well.”