WASHINGTON — Who will be this year’s Cinderella?
Ask any college-basketball coach and you’ll get the same answer, lathered in political correctness and rinsed with coach-speak: "It’s too early to even guess."
Because they’re all just looking toward the next game, right? That’s what coaches will always tell you. That’s fair, and the type of thinking that creates winners.
That’s where my job comes in.
Because — with the Super Bowl over, conference play halfway done and just a month from conference tournaments — it’s not too early to start guessing what March Madness will look like.
We have a pretty good grasp of which teams have it and which teams don’t. At this point last year, every team that was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll made the NCAA tournament, and all but three of the 17 other teams receiving votes did, too, including last season’s Final Four Cinderella, Wichita State.
So who will be this year’s Wichita State, the mid-major No. 9 seed that made the Final Four? Or this year’s Florida Gulf Coast, the 15 seed that made the Sweet 16 last year? Or this year’s La Salle, the 13 seed that won the play-in game, then made the Sweet 16?
Are these things possible to predict, or is that the beautiful thing about March — that teams truly can come from nowhere?
I would like to propose that one of this year’s Cinderellas may come from the Atlantic 10 Conference, the nation’s best mid-major conference (if that phrase really applies anymore) — specifically from Washington, D.C., the home of George Washington University.
There are plenty of other teams whose advanced metrics and whose season so far shows a team that might be ripe for a March surprise. Teams such as Wisconsin-Green Bay, which is tearing up the Horizon League with a fun, fast-paced style and one of the nation’s top interior defenses (the Phoenix ranked third in the nation in block percentage).
Or teams such as Canisius, which is 10-2 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by shooting — and making — a ton of 3s. Or Harvard, which had a first-weekend upset over New Mexico last season and this season is ranked a remarkable 34th in the KenPom.com rankings, with one of the nation’s more efficient defenses.
Or Stephen F. Austin, undefeated in the Southland Conference and one of the nation’s best at turning teams over.
All these teams could surprise you in March. But I feel pretty secure in predicting one of the March surprises will come from the Atlantic 10.
Would you be all that surprised if Saint Louis made it to the Sweet 16 or further? You would, because the program hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 1957, but you shouldn’t be, since Jim Crews has furthered the legacy of the late Rick Majerus by winning the A-10 tournament last season and rising to 13th in the AP Poll this season with one of the nation’s best defenses and most cohesive teams.
Would you be all that surprised if Virginia Commonwealth makes a run in March? You would, because Shaka Smart & Co. haven’t had a signature victory all season, but you shouldn’t, given Shaka’s past success in March and his signature "Havoc" defense’s ability to turn teams upside-down.
But what about George Washington?
That would be a Cinderella from completely out of nowhere, especially considering that, coming into the season, the Colonials were picked to finish toward the bottom of the Atlantic 10.
At 18-4 — with nonconference wins over teams from the ACC (Miami and Maryland), the Big East (Creighton), the American (Rutgers) and the SEC (Georgia) — George Washington matched its win total from last season on Jan. 11. The Colonials lost last week at Dayton, but the’re sitting at 6-2 in an A-10 that’s ranked sixth in conference RPI.
Remember that the tournament selection committee will take injuries into account, and the Dayton loss came without leading scorer Maurice Creek and two guards, Kethan Savage and Joe McDonald. Creek and McDonald are listed as day-to-day, while Savage broke his foot in late January and won’t be available until tourney time. (Patricio Garino, a sophomore Argentinian swingman who head coach Mike Lonergan told me is the team’s most talented player, has made it back to full strength over the past month after missing seven games earlier in the season because of injury.)
There’s not much that particularly stands out about this George Washington team, other than balance. Five players average more than 10.4 points, but the Colonials’ leading scorer, Creek, averages only 14.4 points.
I recently popped by Lonergan’s office, which is in an old historic row house across the street from the arena. I wanted to find out what made this team special. I expected him to tell me it was all about the two transfers — Creek, who came from Indiana, and Isaiah Armwood, a tenacious, athletic senior who transferred from Villanova a couple of years ago and who in December held Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott to only seven points in the Colonials’ upset of Creighton.
Actually, Lonergan, who is in his third year at GW, told me this team is more about the four-sophomore nucleus that could give this program sustainable success instead of a one-season aberration.
"Last year we were 13-17, but it was rewarding because we had seven games that we really could have won," Lonergan told me. "We just couldn’t get it done. We just had to get these guys better and get them to mix."
The difference between last year’s George Washington team and a squad that this year has broken into the top 30 in RPI? Creek has given Lonergan a scorer, but just as important is the development of McDonald as a point guard. After being thrown into the mix as a freshman last season, he has become an efficient sophomore point guard, making better decisions and netting a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Lonergan had success at a lower level, with more than 400 wins as a college coach, most of them in Division III. But if he elevates George Washington into a place where the school can bolster the Atlantic 10 — a conference that lost Xavier and Butler to the new Big East but still has nine teams ranked in the top 100 RPI, including an impressive four in the top 30 — that’ll be the type of rebuilding job to build a career on.
"We want guys to think of us as a top-50 program, and we want them to think that for a while," he told me.
People don’t think that now. But do what a Wichita State did last season, or a VCU did in 2011, and that’ll change. Really quick. Because the great thing about college basketball is this year you’re a Cinderella, and next year it’s expected.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.