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
Men’s Basketball Writer
WASHINGTON – Finally, a last second game went their way.
Isaiah Armwood’s put-back dunk off a missed Lasan Kromah layup with two seconds left gave GW a thrilling 81-80 win in overtime over Dayton on Senior Day, punching the Colonials’ ticket to the Atlantic 10 Tournament in the process with St. Bonaventure’s unexpected loss to Fordham.
The Colonials had five players in double-figures, led by freshman Joe McDonald, who posted 16 points on 7-11 shooting, including 2-2 from beyond the arc. Seniors Dwayne Smith and Bryan Bynes both started in their final game on Tex Silverman Court and combined for 28 points, with Smith scoring 15 and Bynes 13. Bynes was a surprise starter today after missing the past four games with a fractured right tibial plateau, but his added presence was felt from the start, as he produced both offensively and defensively, drawing constant matchups with Dayton’s high-powered guards Kevin Dillard and Vee Sanford.
Lasan Kromah added 12 points and five rebounds in 31 minutes off the bench for the Colonials while the aforementioned Isaiah Armwood contributed 12 points and eight rebounds.
The game itself was a roller coaster ride for GW, who led by as much as six and trailed by as much as 11 just in the first 10:51 of the first half. A fast start for the Colonials, spurred on by the unexpected return and energy of Bryan Bynes, gave way to a 19-2 Dayton run that put the Flyers ahead 21-10 with 9:09 left in the half. Dayton was able to hold that 11 point lead for the next four minutes before GW ended the half on a 17-6 run to tie the game at 33 heading into the locker room.
The Colonials managed to do an extremely good job of keeping themselves within striking distance in the second half, never trailing by more than six points, despite numerous attempts from the Flyers to pull away. Dayton had a chance to put the Colonials away with 7:05 to go and up five, but could not get the defensive stop they needed. This, combined with GW’s persistence driving to the rim and drawing fouls, allowed the Colonials to claw back into the game and eventually tie it with 4:33 left on a Kevin Larsen layup.
The game would go back and forth down the stretch, with Lasan Kromah knotting it up at 71 on an uncontested layup with 39 seconds left. After a crucial defensive stop, GW had a chance to win it with four seconds left. However, Bryan Bynes’ runner off the glass went in-and-out, sending a GW game into overtime for the first time since March 8, 2011.
Overtime only continued the tenseness of the affair, with Dayton seeming to have taken control of the game up four with 1:03 left and controlling possession of the ball. Yet, Dyshawn Pierre dribbled the ball off his foot and right into the hands of Joe McDonald, who laid it in to make a two-point game with 40 seconds left. On the ensuing inbound, Khari Price threw the ball away, right to Dwayne Smith who proceeded to get the floater to go, tying the game at 79.
Matt Derenbecker was able to draw a blocking foul on Smith and make one of his two free throws, giving Dayton an 80-79 lead with seven seconds left and providing a situation that, until today, had proven to be kryptonite for the team.
But that was not the case today, as Isaiah Armwood streaked through a wide open lane that Dayton’s bigs failed to box out and provided the put-back jam to give GW an 81-80 lead, sending the surprisingly large crowd into a frenzy.
Dayton still had one more chance to win the game, with Dyshawn Pierre getting the ball in the corner and draining a three-pointer at the buzzer. However, it was determined that Armwood, who had jumped to block the shot, caused Pierre to hesitate on the shot just long enough that he did not get the shot off before the buzzer, preserving the win for GW.
Dayton (17-13, 7-9 Atlantic 10), who had entered the game Saturday on a three-game winning streak and a stretch of five games in which they averaged over 80 points and shot better than 50 percent, did nothing to end that stretch today, as four players scored in double figures, including Pierre, who led the Flyers with 21 points on 8-9 shooting. Dayton’s leading scorer, Kevin Dillard, scored 20 points of his own but fouled out with 4:31 remaining in overtime, depriving Dayton of their best free throw shooter and closer down the stretch. Fellow guard Vee Sanford scored 18 points and Josh Benson scored 10 on a perfect 5-5 shooting.
Yet, the Flyers will undoubtedly leave Foggy Bottom with a bitter taste in their mouths as their Atlantic 10 Tournament hopes now hang in the balance while the Colonials (13-16, 7-9 Atlantic 10) ticket to Brooklyn is punched with St. Bonaventure’s unexpected home loss to Fordham this afternoon.
Furthermore, today’s effort from GW was a sign of that potential that everyone saw from this team at the start of the season. It was not always pretty, with a stat of 20-42 from the charity stripe likely to leave many Colonials fans shaking their heads. Yet, when the going got tough, it seemed as though GW had an answer, a far cry from their last nine games, seven of which ended in GW defeats.
The win gives them a ton of momentum that they will hope to build on entering the tournament. It is clear that the return of Bryan Bynes gives them a newfound confidence defensively, which will only help GW. Assuming that Patricio Garino will be able to go in the tournament opener, a questionable proposition according to head coach Mike Lonergan postgame, the Colonials will be in great shape defensively. If they can manage to get enough offense, it could make for an extremely interesting week in Brooklyn.
The Colonials will now await the rest of the results from the Atlantic 10 schedule to determine their seeding entering next week’s Atlantic 10 Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. WRGW will have full coverage from Brooklyn starting with GW’s first game on Thursday, March 14th. The time of the game will be announced once the seeding for the tournament has been finalized.