The most highly anticipated freshman class in recent GW history officially hit the court Saturday morning just hours after Midnight Madness for the men’s basketball team’s first week of practice. With their regular season opener at Connecticut Nov. 25 just over a month away, the Colonials spent the week working the rookies into head coach Karl Hobbs’ system and improving on last year’s weak spots, namely defense and rebounding.
Last year’s young and undersized Colonial squad ranked among the worst teams in the Atlantic 10 in both of those categories, and while this year’s team hasn’t gotten much older, it has gotten bigger. Freshmen such as 6-foot-11 center Alexander Kireev and 6-foot-8 forward Mike Hall should give the team the inside presence it lacked last season, and Hobbs said he has already seen improvement around the glass in this week’s practices.
“We know that last year, particularly the second half of the year, we were not a good defensive team and we were not a good rebounding team,” Hobbs said. “So we have to improve in those two areas, and I think we’re going to put a little bit more emphasis on our transition game. With our team, I really think we can get out and run.”
Hobbs said that though the team’s philosophy has not changed much from last year, this year’s team is better equipped to turn that philosophy into wins. In addition to Kireev and Hall, swingman Omar Williams and forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu will give the team a much-needed influx of talent. The four will also be joined by non-scholarship freshmen Dokun Akingbade and Jaz Cowan.
With sophomore forward Tamal Forchion sidelined with a broken ankle for at least the first month of the season, the new big men will be asked to contribute in the paint early. So far the newcomers said practices have been tough but have gone smoothly.
“I think I fit in well,” Hall said. “It’s just an adjustment getting acclimated to the system and having the coach on your back.”
He added, “I just have to come in and do what coach tells me. I may have to guard a big man or I may have to guard a point guard, whatever he tells me to do, I just have to come in and play hard.”
Williams, a 6-foot-9, 180-pound swingman, was GW’s most highly touted recruit last year and can play nearly every position on the court. But the rookie said he knows he will have to bulk up to be successful at the college level.
“Everyone is just as good as in high school, but mostly they’re a lot stronger than I am, so that’s my biggest concern,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m actually going to the weight room right now.”
Hobbs said he expects to split Williams’ playing time between the power forward and small forward positions, as the majority of the team’s veteran leadership is at guard.
Williams and his classmates are led by the team’s returning high-scorer, senior Chris Monroe, along with returning guards sophomore T.J. Thompson and juniors Darnell Miller and Greg Collucci.
“Once (the freshmen) settle down, they’re going to do really well,” Thompson said. “We just try to teach them to play with confidence and play hard all the time.”
Former NBA head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, a friend of Hobbs’, was in attendance at Wednesday’s practice along with former NBA player Scott Burell, who played with GW assistant coach Steve Pikiell at Connecticut. Burell has been working out regularly with the Colonials at the Smith Center.
Burell is not the first NBA player to work out with the Colonials. NBA star Richard Hamilton, who played under Hobbs at Connecticut, was also close to the team and a regular at the Smith Center before being traded from the Washington Wizards to the Detroit Pistons last month.
See next Thursday’s Hatchet for coverage of women’s basketball practice.