George Washington Colonials (1-0) at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (12-21 last season)
7 PM, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ
Media Coverage: gwradio.com, WFED 1500 AM, Big Ten Network
Announcers: Mike Martenak, Jeff Pawling
Click Here to Listen Live
The GW men are back at it a mere 48 hours after their opening night rout of Grambling State. The Colonials were never legitimately challenged in their 92-40 win over the Tigers. Patricio Garino led the way, with 21 points on 8-10 shooting to go along with three rebounds, two blocks, and four steals. Kevin Larsen chipped in a near double-double with 15 points and nine rebounds while Kethan Savage added 12 points on 5-9 shooting, five rebounds, and five assists.
But if one thing is certain, GW’s second game will not be nearly as easy as their romp two nights ago. This early season trip to Piscataway marks the third straight year that GW and Rutgers have met on the hardwood, with the the home team winning the last two matchups. Rutgers held off a late GW rally to win 68-65 at The RAC in December 2012 only to have GW take last year’s game at the Smith Center 93-87 in a game where the Colonials had five players score in double-figures. Rutgers and second year head coach Eddie Jordan return leading scorers Myles Mack (14.9 PPG) and Kadeem Jack (14.3 PPG) to a team that captured 10 of their 12 wins a season ago on their home floor. The onus will be on Joe McDonald and a combination of John Kopriva, Yuta Watanabe, and even Kevin Larsen to contain Mack and Jack respectively.
Rutgers leads the all-time series against GW 23-19. A win tonight for GW would be the Colonials’ mere fifth win in 20 trips to The RAC. WRGW will be on the air with the pregame show at 6:45 followed by the tipoff at 7 PM live from Piscataway on gwradio.com.
A year ago, the George Washington Colonials were the prototypical definition of a “dark horse” team. They struggled to gain recognition nationally despite wins over Doug McDermott’s Creighton squad and Shaka Smart’s tough VCU team. Yet, from about late February on, it became evident that, barring a major collapse, the Colonials would be rewarded with an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, which indeed came in the form of a nine-seed in the East Region because of their 24-9 overall record. In the Big Dance, a slow start against former Colonial David Pellom and eighth-seeded Memphis doomed GW as their comeback effort fell short in a 71-66 loss in Raleigh.
This year, GW can no longer rely on sneaking up on people and playing the “dark horse” role. GW was picked to finish second in the preseason Atlantic 10 poll, their highest prognostication since 2005-06. In addition, both USA Today and ESPN predict the Colonials to finish third in the conference and have them nationally ranked 35th and 36th respectively. Considering that Mike Lonergan’s team returns four key contributors from last year, the preseason accolades are certainly well-deserved. However, the question looming over this team regards how Lonergan and his staff replace arguably their two biggest contributors from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Here’s a look at what to watch for this season:
Biggest Strength: Experience and Familiarity
It seems strange that for a team that lost two of its biggest contributors from last season, their biggest strength would be experience and familiarity. Yet, that’s what happens when the team has four other key contributors returning as mainstays in the starting lineup. The Colonials return their “core four” of Joe McDonald, Kethan Savage, Patricio Garino, and Kevin Larsen for their junior years in Foggy Bottom. These four came to the program together in the same recruiting class and have grown together in Mike Lonergan’s system. Throw in the presence of the roster’s lone senior, John Kopriva, and this projected starting lineup, barring injury, is poised for a breakout season.
Whereas national writers did not catch on to GW being a formidable team until late last season, this year, the Colonials are being showered with accolades. Garino enters the year as an All-Atlantic 10 First Team and All-Defensive Team honoree. ESPN.com named him this year’s breakout player and three different publications named him to their All-Atlantic 10 teams. Kevin Larsen, the reigning Atlantic 10 Most Improved Player, was named to the Preseason All-Atlantic 10 Second Team while Kethan Savage was named to the All-Atlantic 10 Third Team. With all of these honors being awarded to GW, they are no longer a secret nationally, which can prove to be both a blessing and a curse. But make no mistake, these guys are really good and if they can all stay healthy and take the next step in their development, the sky is the limit for this group.
Biggest Question: Will the “core four” have enough to fill the voids left by Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood?
Despite all the accolades being garnered by the “core four,” this question is still the elephant in the room. There is no overstating just how important the contributions of Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood were to GW’s return to relevance in the Atlantic 10 and nationally. Creek was a spark plug at shooting guard, averaging 14 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three point range. Armwood can really be credited with jump starting the Colonials’ return to relevance with his arrival from Villanova and his impact both offensively and defensively. His presence gave GW their first true inside-out presence in a long time and, in the process, undoubtedly made Kevin Larsen a better and more effective player in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Mike Lonergan should have an easier time replacing the production of Maurice Creek as Kethan Savage looks ready to accept the challenge of filling the role Creek had last year. At Media Day, Lonergan told reporters that with the game on the line, the ball would almost certainly go to Savage for the last shot and it’s a role he seems eager to accept. Furthermore, it looks like Savage’s game has improved tenfold during the offseason. His jump shot, especially from beyond the arc looks more consistent and fundamentally sound than ever before and he backed it up in the team’s lone exhibition against Bloomsburg last Saturday, going 5-6 from the field. As long as he stays healthy, Savage should carry the brunt of the load at shooting guard, with Nick Griffin and freshman Darian Bryant spelling him.
The situation is cloudier when it comes to filling the void left by Armwood. John Kopriva is a solid player who looks to have improved over the offseason in anticipation of this exact scenario. He is a player who probably will not win you many games, but certainly won’t lose any for you either and as long as he can stay true to that, he will be a serviceable replacement. The real intriguing element of this power forward rotation is newcomer Yuta Watanabe, who I will talk about below.
X-Factor: Yuta Watanabe
Anointing a newcomer as a player who could potentially make or break the Colonials’ season is a lot of pressure to put on a freshman who just happens to have a lot riding on him already as only the third Japanese-born player in college basketball history. Yet, that’s exactly the situation Yuta Watanabe finds himself in. John Kopriva, as I mentioned before, is a solid player at power forward and, in many ways, is the perfect stopgap at the position. But Watanabe is more dynamic and brings a lot of the same skill set Armwood brought to the floor night in and night out. He is a long, athletic player that can play an inside-out game and mix it up both offensively and defensively, as he showed in the exhibition against Bloomsburg. He scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and added three blocks in 20 minutes of action on Saturday, and seemed to make a late push to get into the opening night starting lineup. While that seems unlikely, if Watanabe consistently produces at that level once the games count for real, Mike Lonergan will have no choice but to insert him into the starting lineup, potentially adding another force to an already strong starting five. With Kopriva in the starting lineup, this team can take the next step forward. But with Watanabe in the lineup and playing at his full potential, this team can take a massive leap forward and even exceed their already high expectations. Watch closely to see how this rotation plays out.
Freshman to Watch: Darian Bryant
Darian Bryant certainly wasn’t the flashiest of commits Mike Lonergan landed in his latest recruiting class, being overshadowed by the likes of Watanabe, Paul Jorgensen, and even Matt Cimino. But at media day, Coach Lonergan may have raised some eyebrows when he said that he expected Bryant to be one of the first players off the bench for the Colonials this season. His high school accolades do not necessarily leap out at you at first glance. The Bowie-native averaged 10 points a game during his senior season at St. John’s College High School. But at 6’4” and 220 pounds, Bryant brings size, physicality, and an outside shooting presence to a bench that needs it, especially with Nick Griffin remaining a question mark in the guard rotation. Kethan Savage cannot play all 40 minutes at shooting guard, so it will be up to Bryant to provide solid minutes off the bench and keep GW in the game while Savage, Patricio Garino, and even Joe McDonald take breathers.
Much like the women’s team, Mike Lonergan’s men’s squad is a team that, despite having to find solutions to replace two huge contributors from a season ago, is built to win now. As long as McDonald, Savage, Garino, and Larsen can stay healthy and with added contributions from newcomers Watanabe and Bryant, this team has the ability to challenge for the Atlantic 10 title. But just like the women’s team, the Colonials have a formidable obstacle standing in their way. VCU is the unanimous preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10, led by returning seniors Treveon Graham, a First Team All-Conference selection, and Briante Weber, a two-time Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Despite GW’s win over VCU last season at the Smith Center, the Colonials’ other two matchups with the Rams last season inevitably resulted GW succumb to the pressure of Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” press. Furthermore, while GW boasts a veteran starting lineup, it’s a lineup supported by a young and inexperienced bench that has not faced that type of pressure before. Also of note is Dayton, an Elite Eight participant a year ago, and picked to finish third in the conference. The Flyers will likely go back-and-forth with the Colonials throughout the season, led by returners Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre.
Dayton proved last season that an Atlantic 10 team could compete with the big boys on college basketball’s biggest stage. If the breaks fall their way, this GW team has the potential to be that type of Cinderella team. But they have to stay healthy and avoid the inconsistency that plagued this team at times last year. If they do, this has all the makings of a really fun season in Foggy Bottom.
Regular Season Prediction: 22 wins, 3rd place in the Atlantic 10
Last season was hailed as a revival of George Washington men’s basketball. New head coach Mike Lonergan came with a lot of momentum. He assembled a new coaching staff and hoped to lead last year’s 17-win to a bigger and better finish. There were even aspirations of a fringe NCAA tournament bid.
By season’s end though, both fans and the team found themselves staring at a 10-21 record, another first round exit at the hands of the Dayton Flyers, and the graduation of their leading scorer and current Tulsa 66ers rookie Tony Taylor.
Consider this season “The Foggy Bottom Revival: Take Two.”
Returning to the fold are seniors Lasan Kromah and David Pellom, the team’s top returning scorers from last year. Kromah, who scored 11.1 points per game, showed some rust a year removed from his foot injury but still showed some game-changing potential. From his double-double performance – with a career-high 14 rebounds – against Xavier and two strong scoring totals against Richmond, there’s still more to come from the local guard. Pellom averaged career highs in points (10.4), rebounds (6.1), and shot an A-10 leading and program-record 68.5% from the field. With his energy and as the GW’s principal low-post scoring threat, Pellom served as a crucial staple in the rotation even though he only started four games. The Colonials are going to miss him early in the season though as he’s still recovering from left wrist surgery in the off-season.
Senior guard Bryan Bynes was the lone backup at point-guard last year and will likely keep that role. He comes into this season as the team’s best perimeter defender and will look to expand his offensive versatility. Swingman Dwayne Smith is coming into his senior season healthy for the first time in his Colonials career and will likely start right out of the gate. Concussion symptoms plagued him all last year, but he showed a glimpse of his strong sophomore season in a late six-game stretch where he averaged 11 points and four rebounds. Coupled with his already tough inside play, if he regains his ability to stretch the floor with his jump shot, he will be GW’s biggest x-factor on both ends of the floor.
Though the concise and straightforward new men’s basketball coach has said little before his team took the floor, Mike Lonergan emphatically started his George Washington coaching career with a 92-65 win over the Bowie State Bulldogs in the lone exhibition game this season. Junior guard Lasan Kromah led all scorers with 23 points and chipped in six assists, while his senior backcourt mate Tony Taylor finished with 12 points, nine assists and five steals.
The Colonials reaped the benefits of a turbulent offseason, as the preseason hype for basketball finally revealed itself in an electric Smith Center. In turn, the team fed off of the energy and turned the game into a laugher in which they never trailed after sophomore Nemanja Mikic’s mid-range jumpshot 23 seconds into the game.
“I was happy overall with our performance,” Lonergan said, “but at half time I was worried that we let down, with the way we started the second half.”
Although there was a bit of an offensive drop-off, the coach indeed had plenty of reasons to be happy with the way his playbook cut through Bowie State. GW shot 55.9% from the floor and defensively forced an astounding 31 turnovers.
Senior Aaron Ware scored 12 points and junior forward David Pellom scored nine, both coming in off the bench. Freshman forward John Kopriva was in the starting lineup and also scored nine points in 23 minutes of play. Many predicted the new playbook to be a bit cumbersome at first, but Taylor and the Colonials were pretty comfortable and played at a brisk pace.
“The offense felt good,” he said. “We got to run, and that’s going to be our strength this year.”
The Colonials officially open the season on Friday as they take on the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks with tip-off at 7pm. Although the Hawks only won nine games last season, coach Lonergan is not overlooking the season opener.
“I’m looking forward to playing Friday,” he said. “I’m glad we’re at home, and we are going to be practicing to get better. We have to get a win somehow. Every time I look around, the teams we’re playing are either ranked or underrated, so we got some tough opponents coming up.”
WRGW District Radio Sports will have a special pregame show for the season opener. After Box Out! from 4-6pm, the station will be broadcasting live from the tailgate at 6pm. Then News at 6 will go on for their show at 6:20 before we resume the pregame show at 6:45.