Sixteen days between games is nothing compared to the 53 years William & Mary went between wins at George Washington.
The Tribe’s 85-84 overtime win on Dec. 14 marked both the program’s first road defeat of the Colonials since 1967, and culminated a layoff since Nov. 28 due to COVID-19 protocols. William & Mary paused activities shortly after an 86-78 loss at Old Dominion on Nov. 28, leaving a lingering bad taste from Thanksgiving weekend.
“We showed some really good stuff at Old Dominion, and at the same time, made some mistakes that made it hard to win at the end of the day,” Tribe coach Dane Fischer said in his postgame conference call after the George Washington win, reflecting on the loss at Old Dominion.
Early-season non-conference games carry significant weight for any program. For a team like William & Mary, tasked with replacing a newly signed NBA talent in Nathan Knight, the gravity of such contests in finding lineups, tinkering with schemes, and establishing new leaders cannot be overstated.
In the Tribe’s case, the loss of non-conference dates included opportunities against ACC competition NC State, and still the reigning NCAA champion, Virginia. Such matchups can be revealing about a team’s identity — but so was William & Mary’s come-from-behind win after the layoff.
The Tribe trailed George Washington — which added William & Mary as a replacement for South Carolina, its own COVID-19-impacted game — by as many as 19 points.
Maybe it was rust, or perhaps indicative of another big gap for William & Mary in this unusual season; that is, the staggering 32 points between the Tribe and its next-closest Colonial Athletic Association counterpart, James Madison, for last place in the league’s preseason poll.
Without Knight, or Andy Van Vliet and Bryce Barnes, who graduated from a team that finished second in the 2019-20 CAA race, the lack of confidence shown in William & Mary before the campaign is understandable. But coming out of their historic win, the Tribe have proven capable of defying expectations.
“This is going to give them a lot of confidence. As we’ve talked about, we have a lot of guys on the floor [who] haven’t played a lot of minutes,” Fischer said. “Whether they’re the young guys who are playing, or even some of our older guys, they haven’t played a ton of minutes.
“To have success is going to help us with our confidence,” he added.
This William & Mary roster isn’t completely bereft of experienced talent. Luke Loewe, who is in his third year as a starter, came on strong down the stretch of CAA play a season ago to earn all-league defensive honors and the team’s Most Improved Player award.
His upward trajectory continues, with Loewe positioned to be the Tribe’s star in fast-approaching conference competition. Loewe sank the game-winner on Tuesday, capping a 24-point effort.
But among the less experienced Tribe, freshman Yuri Covington is a name to know once the CAA slate tips off the day after New Year’s. Covington scored 13 points in the opener against Old Dominion, then followed it up with 16 points at George Washington, complemented by five rebounds and four assists.
Covington’s all-around playmaking as a combo guard, coupled with Loewe stepping up as the go-to scorer, speaks to the shift in William & Mary’s style from a season ago. The 7-foot Knight’s dominant play in the key made the 2019-20 (and earlier) Tribe a team that played from inside-out; to wit, last year William & Mary ranked 26th nationally with a 54 percent 2-point field-goal percentage and scored 50.8 percent of its points inside the arc.
Following the George Washington win, Fischer described the 2020-21 Tribe as a team that will “rely on making a lot of [3-pointers].” That hasn’t been the case through two games, with William & Mary’s distribution of 3-point offense slightly dropping from a season ago. But building around the sharpshooting Loewe (43-of-95 from long range in 2019-20) suggests that will change in the coming weeks.
So, too, will perceptions of the 2020-21 Tribe.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.