Of all the top seeds that made the Class AAA state tournament, George Washington had the furthest to go.
The Patriots (19-5) earned the No. 3 seed for the state tournament, an event that grows less and less likely as the coronavirus takes hold in West Virginia and the rest of the country.
The remaining high seeds — No. 1 University (22-3), No. 2 Martinsburg (21-3) and No. 4 Cabell Midland (21-4) — all won 21 or more games and all three made the state tournament semifinals last year, with University beating Martinsburg for the state title. All three have been ranked among the top five in the state for much of this season.
But GW? The Patriots started out behind many of their statewide competitors and endured a somewhat rocky start.
George Washington lost its all-time leading scorer, senior guard Bunky Brown, who averaged 26.4 points and finished as runner-up in the state player of the year voting. No other returnee who played 10 or more games averaged better than 8.1 points for a team that lost in the state tournament quarterfinals last season.
Then, the Patriots found themselves at 3-3 this season following their Christmas break and 7-5 after they dropped back-to-back Mountain State Athletic Conference games in mid- to late-January. But since then, they have ripped off 12 straight wins to put themselves back in the conversation of AAA title contenders.
GW coach Rick Greene was asked if his team’s resurgence surprised him, or if he thought his players were capable of going from 7-5 to 19-5.
“That’s the team I thought we had,’’ Greene said of the midseason turnaround. “After that point [at 7-5], I didn’t know what we were going to do and I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to run off 12 in a row,’ but they started playing the way we thought they would early on.
“We were just fragmented. I wasn’t coaching them very well. And we were everywhere with things. I really made the cardinal sin as a coach. We had a nice nucleus of kids who were back with us, so I thought we were going to pick up [where we left off] from last year — and you just can’t do that. Every team has its own life. Every team has its own personality.
“So they learned a lot,’’ Greene said. “Some of that — a lot of that — was on me, I think, and we just sat down and evaluated what we were going to do from that point on.’’
Defense definitely figured into George Washington’s development. In its first 12 games, GW allowed an average of 60.5 points and limited just five teams under 60. Over their next 12, the Patriots permitted an average of only 48.6 points and held 11 teams under 60.
“It was mainly our defense, mainly our talking on defense,’’ said senior forward Evan Hughes, the team’s top rebounder and defender. “That’s what really improved for us, and that’s what really helped us out. Our zone, obviously, is good and our zone has been really important to us.
“Our offense, and moving without the ball, has been important to us, too. Our sets get everybody on the same page. Everybody was learning to jell with each other. Everything was clicking with each other.’’
Princeton coach Robb Williams, whose team fell to GW in the Region 3 co-finals, was asked how the Patriots could present such dominance when they don’t have much height (the 6-foot-3 Hughes is their tallest starter) or much jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism.
“They shoot the ball. They shoot the ball exceptionally,’’ said Williams, who watched GW go 10 of 16 on 3-pointers against his Tigers. “There was about a minute left in the game and the boys came over during a timeout and said, ‘Wow, coach, they’re just not missing anything.’ If you give just about any guy on the floor any time for them — an open look — they’re going to make it.
“They just shoot the ball so well, and they’re unselfish. Because they all can shoot, they all pass the ball, and that makes a difference. That’s why they’re such a good team.’’
If the state tournament was held, GW would enter its quarterfinal game against Wheeling Park with six players having 32 or more assists and seven players with 11 or more 3-pointers. GW normally employed a 10-player rotation in each half.
Greene acknowledged that his players refrained from playing “hero ball;’’ that is, no one would try to take over on offense and dominate ball possession.
“That’s one thing that really showed on the tape,’’ Greene said. “When we made an extra pass, when we go side to side, then we get wide-open looks against basically anybody. That’s why I kept saying [early in the season], ‘Look, you’re shooting with somebody in your face. You’re a good shooter taking bad shots.’ And so they bought into that — let’s make an extra pass.
“We have some good one-on-one players and it’s really hard for some of them not to take off. But when everybody shares the ball, you can’t be that one guy that doesn’t. Because it’s just unacceptable in the locker room, or at practice or anywhere else. So again, the kids took leadership of their team.’’