A transfer has played like a star, a veteran has discovered a jump shot, and the bench - short in every way - has contributed. That combination has launched No. 21 George Washington to its best start in a decade.
The Colonials improved to 10-1 Saturday with an 87-74 defeat of Saint Peter’s. They’ve won four straight at their Smith Center home in Foggy Bottom, which sits between the Potomac River and the White House in Washington, D.C.
Earlier victories over top-50 squads Virginia and Seton Hall helped GW seize national attention and return to the AP top 25 for the first time since 2006. Other Atlantic 10 conference favorites such as Davidson, Rhode Island and VCU have sputtered early this season as the Colonials have emerged.
GW has been trending upward under coach Mike Lonergan, who is in his fifth year there following a successful six-year run at Vermont. The Colonials won 46 games the last two seasons and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in 2014. Still a late collapse soured last season. GW was 16-4 on Jan. 26th, but lost seven of nine over the next month and fell to the wrong side of the selection committee’s bubble.
Entering the season, Lonergan felt confident Tyler Cavanaugh could provide the physical, tough front court presence missing from recent GW teams. Lonergan has watched Cavanaugh develop for years. While at Vermont, he was the first coach to offer Cavanaugh a scholarship.
The 6-9, 236-pound forward chose Wake Forest instead. He played two seasons there and averaged 8.8 points per game as a sophomore, but transferred to GW in the spring of 2014 and practiced with the team last season.
Cavanaugh’s offensive rating of 117.7 is fifth in the A10 among players who use at least 24 percent of possessions. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
“He plays so hard, and his teammates love playing with him,” Lonergan said. “He’s an unselfish kid.”
Cavanaugh has been dialed in, hitting 54.8 percent of 2-pointers, 48.4 percent of 3-pointers and 87.5 percent of free throws.
The Colonials’ best returning player, Patricio Garino, benefited from a summer as a starter on the Argentine National Team where the elite defender attempted to stop Andrew Wiggins, among others. That experience boosted his confidence. Time in the gym improved his 3-point shot.
Garino, a 6-6 wing, is 14 of 25 (56 percent) on 3-pointers this season after making 29.6 percent last season. Open looks are frequent because opponents often double team GW post players Cavanaugh and Kevin Larsen.
“He’s not going to shoot 60 percent but his arc looks the same on every shot,” Lonergan said. “That hard work gave him confidence. He’s become a good standstill 3-point shooter. The kid wants to be a pro and he’s having a terrific season.”
He’s also trimmed his turnovers to 1.5 per game and has a positive assist-turnover ratio for the first time in his career.
“When we struggled last year, he was averaging three turnovers per game,” Lonergan said. “They were unforced. It was mental, it was brutal.”
The Colonials bench consists of three small guards - Alex Mitola (5-11), Matt Hart (6-1) and Paul Jorgensen (6-2). It has played only 27.7 percent of the minutes (301st in the nation, per KenPom.com) and scored 26.2 percent of the points. In general, when the Colonials substitute they go to four-guard lineup with Garino or 6-8, 197-pound sophomore Yuta Watanabe at the four, or power forward, position. The small ball approach has worked so far, although Lonergan is concerned the Colonials could be exposed in conference play.
“Jorgensen has been able to score for us, and the Division III transfer Matt Hart gives us a lot of energy. Even though he’s not shooting the ball well (Alex) Mitola makes free throws, does not turn the ball over, and the guys love playing with him. He’s extremely confident, which I love, and his percentages will come up.”
GW travels to DePaul on Tuesday and visits Central Florida on Dec. 29 before opening A10 play against another surprising team, Fordham, on Jan. 3rd. The Colonials’ schedule is backloaded. Their next six games are against opponents outside the top 100 of the Pomeroy Ratings, while nine of their final 14 games are against opponents currently inside the top 80.
Tough nights are sure to come, but Lonergan believes this team has the sturdy foundation necessary to avoid another late-season slide. The Colonials are playing good defense without fouling (35th nationally in defensive free throw rate), shutting down opponents at the 3-point line (29.6 percent) and taking care of the ball (15.7 percent turnover rate). The five starters and Jorgensen can score 15-20 points in any game.
“We have better leadership this season,” he said. “Cavanaugh and Garino are unselfish guys, excellent leaders and we should be able to bounce back quickly.”