What is the state of GW basketball?

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I have been following George Washington basketball literally my entire life. Next season will be my 19th season as a season-ticket holder, though I’ll be just 18 years old. I was born in September, and attended my first game in November. To say I live and breathe GW basketball would probably be an understatement. I have seen some of the best seasons in program history, like the 27-3 team from 2006 that reached the NCAA Tournament 2nd Round (their only NCAA Tournament win since 1994). That said, I have also witness some of the worst seasons in program history, like the 9-17 team from 2008.

To say the program sits at a crossroads would be an understatement. Granted, that is a phrase that is, quite frankly, overused, but in this situation, I think it fits. Despite being just one-year removed from a NIT Tournament Championship, the future of this program is very unclear. I will be completely honest: I think Mike Lonergan was one of the best coaches ever to come through Foggy Bottom. I would personally rank him up with Mike Jarvis, and certainly above Karl Hobbs. I think Lonergan was really beginning to “find his stride” in the 2016 season, and the NIT Championship banner proves it. In his final three years, he brought GW back to the NCAA Tournament, helped GW win their first-ever NIT Tournament game, and the following season, help GW win the entire NIT Tournament.

Now obviously, I am aware of the allegations directed at Lonergan, that ultimately lead to his dismissal just 13 days before the official state of this past season. While he might not have been the greatest person in the world, Mike Lonergan was certainly one hell of a coach. In addition to his on-court accomplishments, he also recruited some of the best players that have ever come through the program, like Maurice Creek, Isaiah Armwood, Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino, Kethan Savage, Kevin Larsen, Tyler Cavanaugh and Yuta Watanabe. Plus, Mike was also excellent at scheduling opponents that would help the Colonials to succeed. He scheduled Virginia to a home-and-home contract, helped and managed to get Miami and Wichita State on the schedule, just to name a few.

In contrast to Karl Hobbs, who despite being a good recruiter as well, never was able to construct a challenging schedule. Not to take anything away from the 2006 team, but GW only faced two high-caliber opponents, in Maryland and NC State. The loss on the road at NC State was the only loss of the regular season, but also may have been partially responsible from the Colonials receiving an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Which, sorry Saint Bonaventure, but the #6 team in the nation receiving an EIGHT-SEED is in my opinion the biggest disrespect the Atlantic 10 has ever received. Yes, I’m still quite bitter, even 11 years later. The point is, if you schedule poorly, you are going to be looked down upon.

Maurice Joseph will be the fourth head coach at GW in my soon-to-be 19 seasons following the program. The Colonials have signed Mojo to a five-year contract moving forward, which was a tremendous display of confidence from Patrick Nero, and the GW Athletic Department. Despite helping secure the program’s fourth consecutive 20-win season, a lot of Colonials fans considered last season to be a disappointment. To be far, Mojo was given a house on fire, and was given only a few buckets of water to try to put out the fire.

It’ll be a hard situation made worse, thanks in part to the graduation of leading scorer Tyler Cavanaugh, along with Matt Hart, the departure of Jaren Sina and the transfer of Kevin Marfo. Yuta Watanabe will be the lone senior on the roster next season for the Colonials, save, any incoming transfers. It’s easy to look at the GW roster and say this is a young team, with a future ahead of it. Granted, I made comparisons to last season’s group of freshman, and the class Lonergan’s first year that included Garino, McDonald, Larsen and Savage.

But what can we learn from the past? Let’s take a quick look back at the past 18 years. From 1999 to 2017, George Washington has appeared in the following:

NCAAT Appearances: 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2014 (Wins: 1)

NIT Appearances: 2004, 2015 & 2016 (Wins: 6)

CBI Appearances: 2010 & 2017 (Wins: 1)

In addition, the Colonials have seen rather limited success in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, reaching the semifinal round only four times in the 18 years span (2004, 2005, 2007, 2014)-granted GW went on to win the A-10 Tournament two of those four years (2005 & 2007). But the fact remains, none of the members from the 2017 graduating class will have ever played in the NCAA Tournament. As the roster currently stands, there will not be a single person on the GW roster with experience playing in the NCAA Tournament (unless you count Director of Player Development, Joe McDonald).

Now history has shown a trend of teams in the CBI one year, and being able to make the jump to the NCAA Tournament: see Nevada and VCU in recent years. But next year’s team may struggle to find an identity early on: Only Yuta Watanabe and Jair Bolden are obviously locks in the starting lineup. Granted it’s still early in the offseason, but should Kevin Marfo end up being the only player to transfer out of the program, it would be a huge win for Maurice Joseph. One of the main criticisms of Mike Lonergan, and something that was cited in the Washington Post exposé article of Lonergan’s tenure at GW, was the high rate of outgoing transfers.

See this excerpt from the article from last July:

The three most recent departures this offseason leave only one player remaining from the five-member class recruited just two years ago. The transfer rate across college basketball has skyrocketed in recent seasons, more than doubling in the past five years to more than 700 players, according to research by ESPN. But players said the rash of departures at GW stems from a factor other than desire for more playing time or a better chance at success: Lonergan.

“A lot of kids transfer because they have delusions of grandeur,” said one former member of the GW men’s basketball staff. “Nobody transferred from GW with delusions of grandeur. They just transferred because they hated him. They couldn’t stand another second of him.”

If George Washington is going to build a program to compete with the likes of Dayton and VCU year-in and year-out, they’re going to have to build a strong foundation. Coaches, other players, and even fans will need to be able to trust that players aren’t going to up-and leave the program.

I think that Dayton and VCU, despite being fellow A-10 schools, are the perfect model for consistent success at a mid-major level. Both have streaks of at least four years of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and both have at least made the Elite 8 once during that span. Since 1999, VCU and Davidson have appeared in the NCAA Tournament 10 times, Dayton has appeared eight times, Saint Joseph’s has appeared six times, George Mason has five times, Saint Louis, Richmond and George Washington has appeared just four times. Only URI, St. Bonaventure, La Salle and UMass have appeared in fewer NCAA Tournament during that span (not counting schools like Duquesne that have not made a single appearance.

So what is the state of GW basketball? To be blunt, I’m not sure. It’s hard to believe that just one year ago today, I was writing the preview of GW and Valparaiso in the NIT Finals. The excitement of being part of March Madness is incomparable, and as amazing as last year’s NIT run was, the goal for any program, especially a mid-major is to make the NCAA Tournament. As a fan of the program, I’m eager to make it back to the Big Dance, and it feels like forever since the Colonials last appeared in it. I’m sure fans of Duquesne will give no sympathy to a GW fan who’s team reached the NCAAT only three years ago.

But unlike Duquesne, George Washington has been consistently right there every year since 2014, but has just been simply unable to put it together. This program has consistently shown flashes of brilliance, only to ultimately fall short. It might be unrealistic to say this team could make the NCAA Tournament next year, but it’s possible. GW is likely still a year away from getting back to where they should be, and are more than capable of being. This is not a reflection of Mojo’s coaching abilities or anything of the sort. They’re close to breaking through, but they may not be there yet.

As far as next season goes, I’m curious how well Maurice Joseph will be able to schedule. The Colonials will have home games against Miami and Temple next year as returns of home-and-home series, and will likely return a game at Florida State as well. In addition, GW will participate in the Las Vegas Invitational (along with  Arizona State, Kansas State, Xavier, Hampton, Northern Arizona, Rider and UC-Irvine). The potential is there for the Colonials to have some success, it’s simply a matter of if they will be able to put it together. But long-term, I think the state of GW basketball is just fine.

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Daniel Frank is a member of the George Mason Class of 2022. He graduated high school from the Academy For Individual Excellence in Louisville, KY. He has written for several blogs, and has been published in The Washington Post. Daniel has been following GW basketball since he was 2 months old, but has started following his Mason since being accepted in 2016.

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