Mike Lonergan's coaching résumé doesn't lack for notable achievements. There's the Division III national championship with Catholic. There's the 14 20-win seasons as head coach. He directed Vermont and George Washington, his employer since 2011, to the NCAA Tournament. On Monday, Lonergan experienced a first: Being head coach of a nationally ranked DI program.
New Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches polls were released and for the first time since the 2005-06 season, they included George Washington. After wins last week over Big Ten programs Penn State and Rutgers, voters put the Colonials (9-1) No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 22 in the coaches poll.
"I briefly thought about that today," a happy Lonergan said of entering the national rankings as a head coach during an interview with CSNmidatlantic.com. "At Vermont we received votes, which is a huge thing there. Here we've gotten votes three years in a row. I wouldn't say it was a goal [this season], but I thought we had a good chance [at being ranked]. I know it's early, but I think it's great for our players to be recognized for their hard work," Lonergan said.
GW closed the 2005-06 season ranked 14th in the AP poll and 19th by the coaches.
The Atlantic 10 Conference program reached the postseason in each of the past two seasons under Lonergan, including the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Headlined by the 73-68 win over No. 6 Virginia in November, they're certainly trending for another March Madness appearance.
"It's more of a fun thing to be nationally ranked right now, but for selfish reasons it should help our recruiting and gives us credibility. What we're trying to do is play the toughest schedule possible and win as many games as we can to be in position to get back to the NCAA Tournament," said Lonergan, who served as Gary Williams' assistant when Maryland opened the 2004-05 season ranked No. 12.
Including the victories this season over the defending ACC regular season champion plus two Big Ten schools, the Colonials also own wins over teams from the Big East (Seton Hall), SEC (Tennessee) and AAC (South Florida). The lone loss was against another AAC school, No. 24 Cincinnati in Brooklyn.
Seniors Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald, all part of Lonergan's 2013 recruiting class that helped turn the program around, are playing at high levels. Another four-year player, Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cavanaugh, leads in scoring (16.1) and rebounding (7.8) in his first season playing with the Colonials. The overall depth is greater than recent seasons.
Now comes the tricky part: Playing with expectations.
"I addressed it today," Lonergan said of his players handling their new status. "I just said, be humble, but be proud that you're recognized for what you achieved so far this season. I know we smiled more today. Our hard work paid off, but we still have a lot of goals to reach."
GW is off until Saturday when it hosts St. Peter's. Two road games follow before Fordham visits Smith Center Jan. 3 in its conference opener.
"I'm not worried about you guys getting big headed, but I told them told today what's going to happen now. You're going to take everyone's best shot. For some programs, it would be a season making win, but you should enjoy that challenge."
Certainly, their coach will. Lonergan, who turns 50 next month, will also keep his eyes on the big picture.
Last season GW defeated No. 11 Wichita State for the Diamond Head Classic championship in Hawaii on Christmas Day. Instead of building momentum for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the win served as a high point. The Colonials lost six of seven during a January stretch. They rallied for an NIT berth and finished 22-13.
"One of the best days of my life," Lonergan said of the Christmas in Hawaii title win, "but we didn't build off of it."
With a 9-1 start, the nationally ranked Colonials have momentum once again.
"We're not Kentucky, were not Duke, so I don't think there is anything wrong with our guys being happy now," Lonergan said. "It won't affect our commitment to being the best we can."
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