Back in the game, transfer Tyler Cavanaugh sparks GW’s hot start

SATURDAY ON ASN: Duquesne at George Washington, 8 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

When George Washington knocked off then-No. 6 Virginia in the second game this season, people took notice. By mid-December, the Colonials had won eight more games against only one loss, and found themselves ranked in the top 25 for the first time in 10 seasons.

It was just about a perfect start — the lone blemish coming in a loss to Cincinnati in Brooklyn during Thanksgiving weekend.

A key part of that hot start was Tyler Cavanaugh, a junior transfer from Wake Forest, whom coach Mike Lonergan had recruited as a high school star near Syracuse.

Back then, as the coach at Vermont, Lonergan offered Cavanaugh his first Division I scholarship — hoping no one else would find his hidden gem in Central New York. But the 6-9 forward with a feathery jumper didn’t stay a secret for long. He got too good, and when Lonergan moved to D.C. to take the GW job, the pull of Wake Forest, Syracuse, Davidson and Notre Dame was too strong.

Cavanaugh wound up going for the ACC instead of America East or Atlantic 10.

Fast-forward a couple seasons, and Lonergan was coming off a 24-win season in his third year at GW, while Cavanaugh was thinking about a new school after coach Jeff Bzdelik left for an assistant coaching job with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

Cavanaugh was back in play, and Lonergan made his move.

“I thought there was a chance we could get him on the rebound,” Lonergan said as the Colonials were wrapping up a practice before defeating Saint Peter’s on Dec. 19. “I knew his dad well, and he told me Tyler was considering leaving. [Tyler] wanted to win, and I told him we were definitely going to win, and could use a guy like him. It worked out really well for both of us so far. I couldn’t be happier with Tyler and he’s a huge part of our success.”

The Colonials dropped out of the top 25 after a late December loss to DePaul, but opened the Atlantic 10 schedule Sunday afternoon with a win over Fordham, improving their record to 12-2. Cavanaugh led the Colonials with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, adding 10 rebounds. He’s the team’s leading scorer, averaging almost 16 points per game.

As a transfer, Cavanaugh was able to practice with the Colonials in the 2014-15 season, developing chemistry with players like Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen. But he couldn’t play because NCAA rules prevent players who move from one team to another at the same competition level from playing for one season.

It was tough watching his teammates win 22 games without him.

“I’ve never not been able to play,” Cavanaugh said. “So I got to watch from a coach’s perspective, kind of an outsider’s perspective. Learn the game in different ways and see things that I think have helped me in different ways this year.”

Cavanaugh made sure to watch players with inside/outside games like himself. When did they use a ‘‘go-to’’ move? When did they pass out of a double team? But he also made sure to learn what he could from players who played other positions, like guard Garino.

Cavanaugh spent a whole season learning — on the court and off. He made sure to take a couple extra classes so he could finish his economics degree on time after some of his credits from Wake Forest didn’t transfer to GW.

He also got a kick out of living in a big city. Walking to restaurants, movies and shopping on M Street in Georgetown. “There’s so much to do here, it gives you other options to spend your time,” said Cavanaugh, who would go visit some of the national monuments if he needed to get away from school and basketball. “I really like it.”

While Cavanaugh had some free time — he got to go home for Thanksgiving for the first time as a college student — he really stayed focused on basketball, working out with fellow transfer Matt Hart when the team was on the road and getting extra reps in the weight room with strength coach Matt Johnson.

“It was a difficult year, but I was lucky to go through it with someone,” Cavanaugh said. “All the extra 1-on-1 workouts with the assistant coaches really helped me improve my game.”

A large class of freshmen meant there wasn’t just a pair of new guys. Almost half the team was new. And the even though he brought an ACC pedigree to an A-10 team, he wasn’t competing for playing time with anyone last year, which made it easy to be “one of the guys.”

Cavanaugh said he knew the grass wouldn’t necessarily be “greener” at his new school — explaining why his decision to leave Wake Forest was difficult. And even though there aren’t so many patches of grass at the urban school just a 10-minute walk from the White House, the grass that exists has been pretty green deep into this warm winter.

The big win over Virginia was the clincher.

“I knew we had something special [after that game],” Cavanaugh said. “We have to put everything in this year. All in. Because we can do special things. After that game, we realized how talented we are. We haven’t reached our best playing ability yet. But we’re climbing. And we just have to keep battling.”

The Colonials play Wednesday at Saint Louis. If they can make it through their next stretch — Duquesne, UMass, Dayton, Rhode Island and Dayton — without a loss, Cavanaugh may catch a glimpse of his team at its best. And another appearance in the rankings will surely follow. This time, the Colonials won’t have had to wait a decade.

Above: Tyler Cavanaugh scored a game-high 21 points and ha 10 rebounds as George Washington pened Atlantic 10 play with a 69-63 win over Fordham Sunday night. (Courtesy GW Athletics)

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.