Mike Lonergan had never lost five games in a row until last week.
The George Washington coach had never lost six games in a row until Thursday’s 62-57 setback to James Madison.
Chances are, Lonergan isn’t thinking about the ramifications of a seventh consecutive setback. In the realm of assessing postseason chances through the grind of each game, it’s not especially important.
The greater issue is the increasingly blunt reality of the task Lonergan inherited in Foggy Bottom.
“I’ve never lost five, six games in a row in my life,” Lonergan said. “Ping-pong, anything. I’m a bad loser. But it’s a process and I’m not going to lose my mind over it. I’m going to keep working hard and stay positive. The guys have been practicing hard and practicing well. For whatever reason, I’ve never had a team that’s come out at home and not played with energy at the beginning of the game.”
He might discuss not losing his mind after the Colonials (4-7) spotted James Madison a 20-point lead at the half. It doesn’t mean that will come easy for the former Catholic University guard and head coach.
As autumn has morphed into winter (albeit a balmy one in the District), the losses have piled up at George Washington. Some – Kansas State, Virginia Commonwealth, Syracuse – were to be expected.
Others were more wrenching. Last week’s one-point defeat against Bradley was rough. In some ways, this was worse.
The Colonials offered little defensive resistance in the first half. The problems shifted to offense in the end game. George Washington nearly wiped out a 22-point deficit, uncorking an 18-3 spurt to close within 58-51 with 6:25 to go.
Its defense held up. Its offense added only three more points before the Dukes (6-3) finally managed a free throw with 1:11 remaining.
Is it pure talent level? Or disinterest? Or inability? Or an adjustment from the free-wheeling style of former coach Karl Hobbs to the less frantic approach Lonergan prefers?
All are logical questions. And there frankly isn’t a good answer. The middle of a losing streak is probably the worst time to try to find one, anyway. If GW had it, it would no doubt happily put it to use.
“I think we’ve adapted well,” guard Aaron Ware said. “It’s a matter of putting a whole 40-minute game together. We let them off the hook. They made a lot of uncontested 3-point shots and the scouting report said they shot a lot of threes and they convert a lot of threes. We tried to take that away in the second half. We did a good job of that, but I guess it was just too little too late.”
Across the area, new coaches have encountered their share of problems. Paul Hewitt figured he would have two starting guards back from George Mason’s NCAA tournament round of 32 team. He just got one back. Ed DeChellis has a surplus of youth at Navy. Maryland’s Mark Turgeon is inching closer to finally having a full roster.
Lonergan’s job isn’t any easier, even if he didn’t face quite the same personnel issues. Guys have floated in and out – David Pellom returned from a suspension to score 22 points Thursday, but the Colonials played without reserve guard Bryan Bynes (shoulder) – but finding the right combination hasn’t been smooth.
Tony Taylor, urged to become more proactive, led the Colonials in shots attempted for the first time in precisely a month. John Kopriva and Ware, who both thrived a week ago against Bradley, combined for just four points. Nemanja Mikic, whose value lies almost entirely in his outside shooting, came off the bench for the first time this season and is 4-for-22 from 3-point range in the last four games.
Different pieces thrive on different nights. Identifying what works in each game might be Lonergan’s greatest challenge.
“I’m not going to give up on this team. Ever since we lost to Syracuse, I’ve gone recruiting every single night,” Lonergan said. “Things we’re trying to establish in our program, everything’s going well except these games. That’s why I started the seniors tonight. I said ‘At some point, you guys have to come out and play well as a group and kind of set the tone for this team.’”
On the other bench, Matt Brady could relate. Four years into his tenure at James Madison, he remembers well the work facing a new coach. Identifying strengths and weaknesses. Picking out an optimal lineup. Figuring out how to get players the shots they’re most comfortable with. Simply steering players toward a new way of doing things.
And then there’s the biggest thing of all: Holding it together through rough times.
“Quite frankly, they’ve lost a hard game to Bradley,” Brady said. “This is another hard game tonight. They lost one previously. They’ve lost some close games. That happens. What you hope is your fortunes will change and your guys will stick together. That’s really the big issue. We went through that my first year at JMU. You just have to stick together.”
Lonergan knows this. He didn’t win consistently for 18 seasons – just three losing seasons were sprinkled into his tenures at Catholic and Vermont – thanks to random chance.
Still, this is different. Maybe even more daunting than first anticipated. The answers don’t seem to be coming, at least not as quickly as Lonergan would like.
He’s in a foreign situation, ensconced in a long losing streak. But he knows Brady’s advice ultimately is the path out of an agonizing month to date.
“This is as frustrated as I’ve been,” Lonergan said. “I think it has nothing to do with our system, our plays. I think it has to do with guys have to understand the fundamentals of basketball and we have to do a better job of teaching the game. …
“It’s not about yelling or screaming or motivating them. They know what they can accomplish this year that they haven’t accomplished in the last three or four years here. They have to stick together.”