Basketball Around the Beltway: Building and rebuilding in the A-10

WASHINGTON — Life is tough at the mid-major level, even when you’re good. Just look down I-95 at VCU.

Over the years, the Rams have made the NCAA Tournament on multiple occasions, even reaching the Final Four in 2011. But with every 20-win season, there’s always the thought that a school like Texas comes calling for Shaka Smart. Or Alabama nabs Anthony Grant.  Or Oklahoma hires away Jeff Capel. Or East Carolina swipes Mack McCarthy to lead the Pirates to greatness…really, Mack? ECU? You couldn’t dream any higher?

That’s what makes the current situation at George Washington all the more difficult to stomach. It’s tough to sustain success when a Mike Jarvis bolts for the Big East, or when you name Tom Penders your coach a hire too late in his career. Mike Lonergan took over a struggling program five years ago and delivered 97 victories, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and this past March’s NIT Championship. When Pitt and Rutgers came inquiring this past offseason, the D.C. area native instead focused on taking his program to the next level. The only way Lonergan was going to leave GW would be if Bill Self departed Kansas, prompting Mark Turgeon to leave Maryland for his alma mater and creating a dream vacancy for the ex-Terps assistant.

But instead of basking in a 28-10 mark and the NIT title, Lonergan’s program came undone in the aftermath of a Washington Post report about verbal abuse towards his players and improper conduct towards school administrators. The firing came well after the usual job-hopping season in Division I…so for now GW is in the phantom zone with interim coach Maurice Joseph. Can the 31-year old impress the powers-that-be enough to be the long term solution?

“There’s really no time to dwell on what’s happened,” Joseph said. “Teams picked ahead or below us in the league don’t care about a coaching change. All we can focus on is moving forward.”

It would be a tough task for any team…even more so minus departing seniors Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald (three of the four leading scorers last winter). But six-foot-nine forward Tyler Cavanaugh returns for his senior season; the transfer from Wake Forest averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds in his first year with the Colonials. After a whirlwind summer, he’s just ready to play.

“It’s been great just to get on the court and play and move forward,” Cavanaugh said. “Everyone’s going to have to play a pivotal role for us. We’re going to be playing a good amount of guys.”

Junior guard Yuta Watanabe is the only other returnee who averaged even 10 minutes a game last season. With everything that’s happened, GW has been picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic 10. Before you freak out, there ARE 14 schools in the league.

George Mason went 11-21 during Dave Paulsen’s first season in Fairfax, and he might just feel like he’s starting all over again this fall.

“It took longer than I would have liked, but we really established some practice habits, work ethic, and attention to detail — I think that was the biggest thing,” Paulsen said. “We’re trying to re-establish it because we got five freshmen and 11 of our 13 players are freshmen and sophomores.”

Leading the youth movement is sophomore Otis Livingston II, after the 5-foot-11 guard from Linden, NJ, paced the Patriots in scoring and assists as a freshman.

“I think the thing he brings is unbelievable passion and focus every single day,” Paulsen said. “He’s not going to be outworked. I think that kind of rubs off on the rest of the team.”

Livingston isn’t alone; seniors Marquise Moore and Jalen Jenkins plus sophomore Deandre Abram logged major minutes for a team that posted four of its five A-10 wins after February 1 (including an upset of VCU).

Paulsen’s first true recruiting class brings a pair of three-star prospects to campus, but Lanham, MD power forward AJ Wilson and shooting guard Ian Boyd aren’t expected to make immediate contributions.

“Learning what to do and then learning how to do it at full speed against a guy who’s every bit as big and strong, if not bigger and stronger than you, is a challenge,” said Paulsen of his new talent.

After a non-conference slate that includes a trip to Penn State as well as home games with former CAA foes Towson and James Madison, Atlantic 10 play tips off with a December 30 duel against VCU. The Rams are picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10, and Will Wade’s team is one of four in the league to at least receive votes in the national preseason rankings.

“The top of our league is outstanding…but the bottom of our league is outstanding too,” Paulsen said. “There’s no nights off. Such diverse styles.”

Mason was picked to finish 12th — the exact spot they finished last year.

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