- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2015

The ever-animated coach of the George Washington men’s basketball team stood completely still Saturday afternoon. His once-flailing arms were now crossed in front of him, his legs anchored to the ground.

In a span of six minutes, Mike Lonergan had watched a three-point deficit turn into 13 with a little more than five minutes remaining. He had watched No. 20 Virginia Commonwealth set up and knock down several open 3-pointers and slice through the Colonials’ interior defense with ease. He saw the game, and maybe his team’s NCAA tournament hopes, begin to slip away.

George Washington’s eventual 79-66 loss to VCU wasn’t its most embarrassing defeat of the week — that ignominious title goes to Wednesday’s 78-62 loss to Duquesne — but it might prove to be the most detrimental. The Colonials have now lost four of their past five games, including two against the Rams, who boast the highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the conference.

Earlier this season, Lonergan said the benefit of playing in the Atlantic 10 is that there are plenty of opportunities to pick up resume-boosting wins. Now he admits that those opportunities are running out.

“Definitely,” Lonergan said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ll always have the [conference] tournament, but I don’t think our guys can handle that pressure, thinking about the NCAAs and everything else. … We’ve just got to get better.”

The Colonials have six regular-season games remaining, but only one against a team with a top-50 RPI: at home against Massachusetts on March 7. Their other four remaining opponents — Davidson (twice), Richmond, St. Bonaventure and George Mason — have a combined conference record of 23-25.

In a telephone interview Sunday evening, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi said George Washington had long since cashed in on the value of its win over then-No. 11 Wichita State in December.

“I can tell you I took them off my board last night, which is not normally a good thing,” Lunardi said. “Their numbers are bad. They’re just bad.

“This time last year, their computer numbers were so good that they could kind of putter along and play .500 down the stretch. They were able to withstand the injury to [Kethan] Savage. They just had a lot of cushion, and they don’t have any [this year]. Their nonconference schedule strength is really kind of poor, and like I said, the Wichita State game isn’t enough, with all the other peripherals being negative.”

Lunardi now has George Washington placed fifth among Atlantic-10 teams. He said winning the conference tournament might now be the team’s best chance of reaching the NCAA tournament, though that’s easier said than done. Nine of the conference’s 14 teams are clumped together, each within three games of first place.

“The reality is in the Atlantic 10 right now, you’ve got a bunch of people that are about the same,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “GW’s one of them, and we’re one of them. There’s not a whole lot of separation.”

Lonergan said George Washington’s problems start with a lack of energy on the defensive end. At the Diamond Head Classic in December, the Colonials used a 1-3-1 zone defense, which has long been a staple of Lonergan’s teams, to hold on and beat the Shockers.

On Saturday, that same defense was woefully ineffective because players failed to rotate as the scheme demands, leading to a number of open 3-pointers for VCU.

“I think some guys are too hung up on offense,” Lonergan explained. “There’ll be guys that leave that [locker] room thinking that their 3-point shot is why we lost, because they were 0-for-3 from three or something like that. We’re trying to convince them you’ve got to look at assist/turnover [ratios], and things like that. You’ve got to watch the film and look at your defense. You’ve got to bring energy in the 1-3-1.”

Junior forward Patricio Garino, who led the Colonials with 22 points against VCU, said the team simply needs to embrace its old mentality.

“I think it’s focus,” he said. “I think we were one of the top teams defensively before Hawaii, and I think we need to get back at it. Maybe [it’s] psychological, that we’re thinking too much about offense or missing shots or mental breakdowns that we have. I think we need to get back to basics and realize that defense is the key for the games.”

The same five players have started each of George Washington’s 25 games so far this season. Following Saturday’s loss, however, Lonergan said he would strongly consider changing that lineup. He wants to create offensive balance by moving a productive scorer to the bench.

“Maybe we should start the best defensive team or something like that,” he said.

Lonergan didn’t divulge exactly how he plans to switch things up, or who will be relegated to the bench. It may not matter. With George Washington’s record and the remaining schedule, a lineup change may not be enough.

“I don’t want to say that it’s A-10 tournament only,” Lunardi said. “But teams that lose four out of five at this point, historically, rarely turn around and win four out of five.”

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