Swollen-headed George Washington was in demand outside. The Colonials’ mascot posed for photos on street corners and slapped five with kids. A bar across the street from the Foggy Bottom Metro stop was filled with orange Virginia T-shirt-wearers. Red plastic cups, a college emblem if there ever was one, joined the bushes around Smith Center.
The rabid scene for the George Washington and Virginia game on Monday night would not have happened if Virginia kept a standard approach to scheduling, if the Cavaliers were like so many other power teams, the insulated heavies of college basketball unwilling to step into smaller gyms. Instead, Virginia committed to a home-and-home series with the Colonials, arrived in Washington and lost. The outcome should carry a benefit for both schools, now and later.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett acknowledged the necessity for non-conference challenges in the months prior. Coming off consecutive 30-win seasons and early removals from the NCAA tournament, Virginia changed its scheduling approach. Bennett thought the Cavaliers’ non-conference lineup was not difficult enough, and it cost the Cavaliers in March.
Last season, Virginia did not lose a non-conference game. It also swept aside the soft. The Cavaliers traveled to play No. 21 Maryland, but did not otherwise face a ranked team before ACC play.
Monday night, Virginia found itself in a boisterous Smith Center, facing all the reasons power programs often try to avoid these games. The arena was full, the Colonials were desperate for a stage, and the Cavaliers were a perfect target. That Virginia worked a home-and-home series with George Washington was news in itself. The other local strongholds, Georgetown and Maryland, will not.
“Give Tony Bennett a lot of credit,” George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said. “We really have troubling scheduling. We work really hard. For them, that loss shouldn’t hurt them if they do what they’re supposed to do this year.
“You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities. Don’t get them very often. Sure, I wish Maryland would play us, Georgetown would play us; I give all the credit. [Bennett] will play.”
This was the marquee game for George Washington during non-conference play. It will host Tennessee and Seton Hall in two weeks, but facing sixth-ranked Virginia was when it could throw an anchor into the ground this season. If the Colonials maintain, Monday night’s 73-68 win will be the first thing noted on Selection Sunday.
Watching the tape will show how versatile George Washington can be. A year after Virginia’s blitzing post trap caused big man Kevin Larsen to come undone, he managed the pressure, finishing with five of the Colonials’ nine assists. Larsen had a miserable game in Charlottesville last season. In 31 minutes, he turned the ball over four times, fouled three times and scored two points.
His heft and ability to handle the ball benefited him in the rematch when the Colonials inverted Bennett’s revered pack-line defense. Placing Larsen, elongated forward Yuta Watanabe and forward Tyler Cavanaugh away from the basket dragged Virginia’s bulk from the hoop. It was a clever, personnel-centric counter from Lonergan.
It also provided early tape of problems for Virginia, a benefit for it and opponents. Bennett called the Cavaliers’ post trap “rusty.” They have to adapt better to the new points of emphasis from referees. Virginia committed 24 fouls and was outscored by 10 at the free-throw line. Bennett also thought dragging his team into an uncooperative environment just two games into the season showed cracks, too.
“It was hot,” Bennett said. “My suit, I sweated through that thing like [former] coach [Pete] Gillen, right? I was really impressed with the atmosphere and we knew it would be that.”
The Cavaliers have a reprieve before the schedule designed to benefit them months from now regrows teeth. Home games against Bradley and Lehigh come in the next week. Then, a trip to Ohio State follows. A grind against West Virginia kicks off a rough-and-tumble two weeks. Following the Mountaineers are home games against No. 11 Villanova and No. 15 California.
“That’s why I said, we’ve got to learn well,” Bennett said. “We can’t just, ‘Oh, we were off, it just wasn’t our game.’ No. It wasn’t that. We got outplayed. Got out-executed and we’ve got to keep finding ourselves. That’s the challenge. Who are we? How do we need to play? How disciplined we need to be and understanding that. Sometimes, you forget how hard it is. And these settings, remind you awfully quick.”
After being asked where beating Virginia ranked among wins in his lifetime, Lonergan walked out of the press conference knowing he had bagged an early-season trophy. He had worked hard for the chance, begging a power into a risk, and his group had capitalized.
As it sits, George Washington’s schedule does not present another opportunity close to what was available Monday night. Virginia has plenty of time to recover, learn, improve. Bennett could have played it safe. He didn’t and lost to George Washington, which could well make the game a gain for both.