Friday, February 7, 2014

Fordham/George Washington Preview

Already off to 18-4 start that places George Washington squarely in NCAA Tournament mix, Mike Lonergan and Colonials welcome Fordham into nation's capital tomorrow. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

One week removed from a six-point win over Rhode Island that served as Fordham's second Atlantic 10 victory, the Rams again hit the road to take on one of the premier talents in the conference, this time being George Washington, a unit picked toward the bottom of the league standings before making a bold statement with a start that has pushed the Colonials into a contender in the A-10, with another eight regular season games to be played.

In his third year at the helm in our nation's capital, head coach Mike Lonergan has done the same rebuilding job with George Washington that he had done in Vermont after inheriting the Catamounts from Tom Brennan, using transfers such as Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood to turn the Colonials into the successful outfit they had been in the past under Mike Jarvis and Karl Hobbs in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those two, along with Argentine swingman Patricio Garino and point guard Joe McDonald, are significant reasons behind Lonergan starting 18-4 this season, winning six of eight in A-10 play going into tomorrow's matchup with Fordham.

Assuming the momentum stays in President Obama's backyard, most fans will get to know George Washington a little more in March, but in the meantime, we welcome Patrick Stevens into the pregame Q&A to give a preview. Patrick, among his many talents, is a former Washington Times staff member who does exceptional work on as well as his interest in the whereabouts of referee Karl Hess, (search #whereintheworldisKarlHess on Twitter) and was gracious enough to lend a hand for this preview:

Jaden Daly: In your opinion, what has been the biggest difference in George Washington collectively between last season and their 18-4 start?

Patrick Stevens: Two things: The addition of Maurice Creek and the matter of a skilled sophomore class growing up.

Creek, who played four injury-riddled seasons at Indiana, gives the Colonials a second credible high-major player along with Isaiah Armwood to work with. Both of those guys played at their previous stops --- and Creek was an extremely productive player at Indiana. Creek also improves the spacing of the George Washington offense. Because he's a three-point threat, teams have to mind him no matter what, and that has opened opportunities on the perimeter for others.

Ultimately, though, George Washington would have been better simply because Joe McDonald, Kethan Savage, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen absorbed enough hard lessons a year ago to become better players. Savage made a massive step entering his sophomore season before getting hurt. McDonald is the sort of tough combo guard Lonergan likes to build around. Larsen turned out to be better than a lot of people expected, and Garino is both smart and multifaceted, the sort of player who could star for a school with a far larger profile.

JD: For those who have yet to see Maurice Creek yet, what will be the most lethal weapon in his arsenal, and how will Fordham best be able to defend him?

PS: Creek isn't dangerous because he does one thing really well; it's because he can do a little of everything and has to be accounted for in several different ways. The grad student is shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range, can drive to the basket if necessary, can make pull-up jumpers and is effective when he does get to the foul line, though that hasn't been something he's done at too frequent a clip for the Colonials. It's also not worth discounting how much he values this final chance to play a large role on a college team, something his frequent injuries denied him the opportunity to do the last few years at Indiana.

JD: Against a four-guard lineup, how much more can be expected from Isaiah Armwood and Kevin Larsen in the paint versus a smaller Fordham front line?

PS: I'd expect to see George Washington make it a point to work it inside early on. The Colonials have a habit of getting away from that at times, such as the first half of their victory over Duquesne on Wednesday What I think will be more curious is how that matchup impacts how George Washington defends Fordham. The Colonials love tossing out a 1-3-1 (with Armwood up top), often in the second half though they went straight to it against Duquesne. 

JD: Patricio Garino had been much more efficient offensively as a sixth man after returning from his finger injury after starting every game last season. Just what kind of an X-factor is Garino on both sides of the ball, and how often should Fordham expect to see him matched up with Jon Severe and/or Branden Frazier, especially now with him back in the starting lineup while Kethan Savage is injured?

PS: Garino was nicked up a good chunk of conference play last year, and that affected his offense. He's a beneficiary of the addition of Creek and the improvement of McDonald and especially (when he was healthy) Savage. With more viable options around him, Garino's ability to do just a bit of everything is amplified considerably. Garino is a capable defender, and he'll get some time on Fordham's top perimeter options when the Colonials don't float into a zone.

JD: Speaking of Savage, how vital had he been to the Colonials before his injury, and what is the biggest change in play that fans may see?

PS: A year ago, Savage was the sort of guy George Washington tossed out on the floor for 10-15 minutes and hoped for the best. If he turned in a dozen minutes when he didn't make an impact offensively and didn't hurt defensively, it was essentially a win.

But give him a ton of credit for putting in the work to get better over the summer. When I first saw the Colonials in November, my first reaction was "Wait, Kethan Savage can do that?" Then he kept making a difference over and over with few mistakes sprinkled in.
Without Savage, senior Nemanja Mikic plays a larger role off the bench, and there's a bit more of an onus on reserve forward John Kopriva to take on some extra minutes as well. With Savage, the Colonials had a really solid eight. Without him, the Colonials have to go a bit deeper and hope for the best with about 10 minutes each game.

JD: Finally, if the season ended today, is George Washington an NCAA Tournament team, and if so, what seed? Also, how strong is Mike Lonergan's case for Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honors given the job Derek Kellogg is doing with UMass?

PS: The Colonials probably land in the 8-10 range right now, seeding-wise. It's a team that's pretty safely in the NCAA field right now, but one awful week could make things dicier. Nonetheless, that victory over Creighton on Thanksgiving weekend looks better by the day.

I'm a big believer that the coach of the best team is overlooked more than he should be in coach of the year voting; there's a pretty good case to be made for Saint Louis' Jim Crews for this particular honor. But there's no doubt Lonergan has done a fine job in coaxing George Washington back to relevance and building a smart team with an emphasis on adding players with ties to the D.C. area.

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