Big game alert: surging GW hosts Butler

Big game alert: surging GW hosts Butler
February 8, 2013, 9:45 am
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Coaching in a powerhouse conference is exactly the challenge Mike Lonergan desired.

The former Vermont coach simply did not realize he immediately signed up for such a test when taking over George Washington's program.

Not only did the always respectable but not always deep Atlantic 10 send four teams each to the NCAA Tournament and NIT in his first Foggy Bottom campaign, the deep league added two recent Final Four participants this offseason. The Colonials (11-10, 5-3) host one of those programs -- Butler -- on Saturday (2 p.m., Comcast SportsNet Plus).

The No. 14 Bulldogs (19-4, 6-2) will become the highest ranked team to visit what will be a sold-out Smith Center since 2000. Brad Stevens' first-place team represents a daunting challenge for the contending, but freshman-laden Colonials.

When asked before Thursday's practice about his initial reaction to learning that the two-time National runners-up were joining the Atlantic 10, Lonergan quipped, "I was like 'can I go back to Vermont?'"

Also not in the Atlantic 10 when Lonergan took the job, VCU. Shaka Smart's Rams are in now - and next on the Colonials' schedule after Butler.

Meanwhile longtime members like LaSalle, Massachusetts and Saint Bonaventure were not major threats.

"All of a sudden I get the job and last year they all have great years," Lonergan said. "Then two more great teams join the league this year."

Having boldly decided to start four-freshman midway through this season, the Bowie native has directed George Washington to a 4-1 record over its last five games including Wednesday's dominant 79-57 victory at Duquesne. The Colonials are one of eight Atlantic 10 teams within one game of first place.

"That's what my goal in coaching has been. I want to get to the highest level, see if our system could work at this level. Now the Atlantic 10 is one of the top six or seven conferences in the country."

Now Lonergan and his defensively sound squad have a chance for a major victory, the kind hoopsters from coast-to-coast would notice. Last season the Colonials won 10 games. This season they already have 11 and could conceivably be among those sitting atop the standings by week's end.

That potential feat combined with facing a heralded team like Butler makes this game nothing special, right? At least that is the message Lonergan is imparting to his players.

"We're trying to be loose, telling them it's just one game," Lonergan said. "We win, it does not guarantee [anything] for the end of the year. If we lose, we have to move on. We play VCU next. It doesn't get any easier. But we're going to try and enjoy it. Sold out crowd, will be a great atmosphere."

The Bulldogs have won three of four games after LaSalle snapped their 13-game winning streak last month. NCAA Tournament finalists in 2010 and 2011, Butler currently sports five double-figure scorers led by senior guard and outside shooting dynamo Rotnei Clarke.

"Last year [the Bulldogs] had a down year because they couldn't shoot 3's. This kid has completely changed their team for the better," Lonergan said of Clarke, who will see plenty of the Colonials' top perimeter defender, 6-foot-6 freshman Patricio Garino.

Springy center Isaiah Armwood, George Washington's leading scorer (12.2), rebounder (8.5), and shot blocker (2.8), offers interior help should any Bulldogs penetrate the lane.

The 6-foot-9 former Villanova transfer knows about sizable matchups from his days in the Big East. Saturday's tilt makes the cut.

"Every game is a big game to us no matter who we're playing," Armwood said, "but Butler is nationally ranked and beat Indiana earlier in the season. That just makes it even more exciting."

Lonergan wanted more exciting when he left Vermont for the Foggy Bottom campus in the first place. Yes, this is exactly what he signed up for, exactly.