FOGGY BOTTOM -- At first glance, there wasn't much wrong with George Washington University's plan for the 2011-12 men's basketball season. After letting go of Karl Hobbs following a 17-14 season in 2010-11, athletic director Patrick Nero turned to Mike Lonergan, a Bowie native fresh off three straight 20-win seasons at the University of Vermont. The thinking was that Lonergan would use his local connections, strengthened by his 12 years as head coach at Catholic University and one year as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland, to help propel GW back to the kind of local and national prominence it hadn't enjoyed for half a decade.
Ten games isn't nearly enough time to panic about the direction of the program under Lonergan, but it is more than enough time to realize that the transition hasn't been completely smooth. Thursday night's 67-66 loss to Bradley at the Smith Center was the Colonials' fifth straight overall, dropping them to 4-6 on the season. The Colonials lost despite leading for most of the second half (at one point by as many as eight points) and outscoring Bradley 42-26 in the paint, 23-16 off turnovers, and 23-8 on second chance points. The game's final sequence was an unpleasant reminder of the last years of the Hobbs era, when George Washington developed a reputation for unable to close out games.
As Lonergan explained it after the game, the final play was supposed to be a high screen for preseason All-Atlantic 10 guard Tony Taylor, who finished the game with just 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting. However, the high screen never materialized, and Taylor fiddled around the three-point line for most of the remaining 20 seconds before throwing up an off-balance shot that didn't have much of a chance.
The inconsistent offensive play has left the Colonials second-from-bottom in the Atlantic 10 in scoring offense (61.8 points per game prior to Thursday night). George Washington's struggles at the line, another holdover from the Hobbs era, continued to manifest themselves as well as the home team made just six of their 13 foul shots (their 62.6 free throw percentage is also second-worst of the 14 Atlantic 10 teams).
"We're struggling to make easy shots. Missing free throws, missing wide-open three pointers," Lonergan acknowledged.
"We've got some guys forcing shots," the coach continued. "And I don't think it's selfishness, I just think that guys lose their composure out there. We've just got to get more consistent. We've got to get five guys playing at the same time. I feel bad for Tony, because you want to put the ball in your best player's hands, you know, I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, but it wasn't his fault. We didn't execute the play."
Taylor, who Lonergan referred to as "[our] one great player" who needed to "demand the ball and hold teammates accountable" was mostly silent in the postgame press conference, except for when he muttered a few words about his team's inconsistent play and the need to be better. The extemporaneous speaking was left to his head coach, who went on to tick off a "lack of depth" and "disciplinary issues" as reasons for his team's ongoing slide.
Then there was the case of David Pellom. About half an hour before the tip-off, a terse, two-paragraph statement had been handed around, saying that the junior from Wilmington, North Carolina would be suspended for that night's game due to a violation of Athletic Department policy. Lonergan left no doubt that the suspension was intended as a warning to other, less committed players on the team.
"There's too many distractions around this program," Lonergan said. "We have to get these guys focused on academics and basketball and trying to win games."
Pellom's suspension forced freshman John Kopriva into the starting lineup. Kopriva made all six of his shots from the floor, but found himself stuck on Bradley's outside shooters in the final moments. In particular, Walt Lemon, Junior and Taylor Brown scored 22 and 15 points respectively, and it was Lemon's three-pointer with 45 seconds left that broke at 64-64 tie and gave the Braves the lead for good.
"It'll help him down the road," Lonergan said of Kopriva's experience, "but he shouldn't be starting at the A-10 level right now. David Pellom was supposed to start tonight."
Some of George Washington's losses can be explained away by their travels to California, Kansas State and, most recently, No. 1 Syracuse, where they were beaten by 27, 13, and 35 points, respectively. However, losses like the Bradley game and the 65-55 defeat to Loyola December 7 must call into question how far the Colonials can come this season, and whether the road back to prominence will be longer and harder than most people think.