Almost exactly two years ago, to the day, George Washington basketball seemed to be at its’ peak. Sure, this is a program that had in the past seen national rankings as high as 6th in 2006, NCAA Tournament appearances including a run to the Sweet 16 in 1993. But on the night of November 16, 2015, GW defeated #6 Virginia 73-68. Twitter was electric, the fan-base was abuzz. THIS was GW basketball, and we were here to make a statement that we can play with the big boys, and take them down.
— Daniel Frank (@n1a2v3y4) November 17, 2015
Just a year before, again, almost to the day, on November 20, 2014, NBC Sports wrote an article that mentioned GW as a possible Final Four contender.
I’m not sure if we’re “due” another surprise Final Four team, but given the format of the tournament I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. And I’m going to go off the radar for this one: George Washington. They’ve got an experienced backcourt led by Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage, and forwards Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen are very good at their respective roles. And I’d keep an eye on freshman Yuta Watanabe, as I think he’s only going to get better as he becomes more comfortable with the way Mike Lonergan and his staff want things done. We’ll learn more about the Colonials Friday night when they take on No. 9 Virginia, but I like the group they have.
Now, that team may not have gone on to a Final Four that season (obviously), nor did they even make the NCAA Tournament. But they did secure the program’s first-ever NIT victory, defeating Pitt 60-54 on the road. That team also defeat #11 Wichita State in Honolulu to claim the Diamond Head Classic championship.
The following season saw the Colonials’ aforementioned victory over #6 Virginia, along with victories over Seton Hall, Rutgers and Penn State. They even earned a ranking of #21 in the AP Poll prior to their road loss at DePaul. While that team did stumble down the stretch of the season, including a heart-wrenching defeat to Saint Joseph’s in the A-10 Quarterfinals, they did go on to win the 2016 NIT Championship, the first-ever postseason tournament title in program history. From the outside, everything looked fantastic.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2016
But everything was not as it seemed.
As a life-long GW fan, I have experienced some incredible highs, and some incredible lows. This team has delivered some unforgettable moments over the years. I still remember #6 GW defeating Charlotte in overtime in 2006 to secure a perfect 16-0 A-10 record, and locking up the nation’s best regular season record at 27-1. I remember Joe MacDonald’s buzzer-beater to defeat Dayton in 2015 and Tyler Cavanaugh’s three to put away Florida in the NIT Quarterfinals in 2016. But I will never forget where I was when the story initially broke about Patrick Nero and Mike Lonergan published by The Washington Post. I was sitting on the campus of Christopher Newport University, just moments away from my first college-interview, trying to look composed, when the news came out.
The idea that this program I grew up loving and believing in, literally my entire life from the age of two months old when I attended my first game, all the way until now, was in turmoil was unbelievable. At first, no quite knew what to believe. In that Post article, there are some pretty strong allegations made against both Longeran and Nero. There quickly became a divide in the fan base: you were either team-Lonergan or you were team-Nero. And that was a sad thing to watch. Thanks in part to my high-level of involvement in the basketball program, I became privy to additional information regarding the conflict in intimate detail which never became public. Until now.
As a fan of the basketball program, and GW athletics as a whole, I do not relish this day. I am relieved for the sake of Mike Lonergan that his story is finally being told. I ran into him briefly at the A-10 Tournament this past March at Capital One Arena, and he looked well. This is a man that gave everything he had to this university and this program, and got slapped in the face.
The very first article I ever wrote for this blog way back in January of 2016 I stated “Lonergan is a family man who has his wife and five kids in the first row behind the bench at every game. The family dynamic with which Lonergan has infused the program can be felt at every level.” Furthermore, I recalled the night in the 2015 season, “before George Washington was set for a showdown at #9 Virginia, he made the effort to show his appreciation for the fans and alumni who had made the trip down to Charlottesville. He left the arena to give a brief talk at an off-site alumni reception, thanking everyone for their support.” That just doesn’t happen in D-I college basketball, folks. This is a man that turned down million-dollar contracts from Boston College and Rutgers to stay in Foggy Bottom.
Now, I am not here to call out George Washington as a university, the athletic department, or any specific individual. The complexity of the conflict between Nero and Lonergan cannot be unraveled in two articles by the Post and Deadspin (though Deadspin did a hell of a job summarizing some major points). It is safe to say that the basketball program is still feeling the after shocks of this eruption, even two years later. GW is not Louisville: they aren’t a big-name program that can attract a coach like Chris Mack (alright, yes it’s ironic Mack came from a former A-10 school, I digress) to right the ship, bring in a top-5 recruiting class, and carry on like nothing happened. Instead, the Colonials are forced to rebuild from ground-zero, with a young coach, who has limited pieces. Again, nothing against any of the guys currently on the team, but this is not a team with three-NBA players like Lonergan had during his tenure.
Sure, I have been critical of Maurice Joseph in the past. I have questioned some of his coaching decisions. I’ve taken that step back and looked at the bigger picture (it would be hard not to, the way this season has started). Sure, the simple fact is, GW kinda sucks this year. And that’s a bummer. As a fan of the program, I want to see this team back in the national spotlight. I want their name in the press, making headlines, and being the topic of discussion. But for that to happen, we need to get out of the headlines for negative reasons, and really start fresh.
In some ways, this is like the final chapter in a HBO-drama series: the epic finale. The final words in the story have been written, two men whose lives have been forever changed in just a few short years despite unprecedented on-court success. There was a time when seeing teams like Virginia and Michigan on the schedule would’ve had me licking my chops, and talking smack on twitter. I understand that is not where this program is right now. As a program, and as a family, we are still a bit broken. It’s crazy to think about, but it’s only been two and a half years since GW won the NIT in Madison Square Garden. Now we’re talking about this program as a perennial doormat of the conference for the foreseeable future. Mike Lonergan himself put it best: “Sad to see.”
I have in the past walked the line between reporter and fan, and it’s not always a clear one. We, as fans and media, put a lot of stock into the athletic success or failure, of 18-22 year olds going through some of the biggest changes of their lives. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact. For the sake of Lonergan and his family, it is vindicating to see Mike’s name cleared as it has been with this Deadspin article.
At the risk of sounding conceited, you would be hard pressed to find someone who is as passionate about GW basketball as me. I have followed this program for two decades now, and as mentioned before, I have been going to games since I was literally two months old. GW basketball has been the one constant in my life.
To this day, every time I go to the Smith Center, I have people come up to me who have known me since I was “this tall” remark about how old I’ve gotten. Just this week, I had a man come up to me who was astounded I was old enough to drive myself to games. I have often joked over the years I probably spent more time at the Smith Center than I did at my home or school. I have grown up around this team, this program, and this conference. I would be lying if I said George Mason’s membership in the Atlantic 10 didn’t play a factor in my decision to attend college there presently.
For everyone’s sake, I’m glad that we finally (hopefully) get to move on. This program has been through a lot. For Mike’s sake, I hope he finds a new coaching job this off-season: if anyone deserves a second chance, it’s this man. And for Nero’s sake as well, I hope he find success in his future endeavors. For better or for worse, both men had an intricate role in the success of GW basketball from 2011-2016. The Colonials will be back, you can count on that.