Seeing Alexander Kireev towering over managers, coaches and teammates on the Smith Center court, fans will notice one thing. He’s tall.
At 6-foot-11, the Ukrainian native is one of six Colonial freshmen that stands 6-foot-8 or higher, providing the Colonials with a much-needed inside presence for the 2002-03 season.
GW ranked among the worst teams in the conference in defense and rebounding last year, and the team’s lone returning inside presence, sophomore Tamal Forchion, suffered a broken ankle in August, leaving the rookies an opportunity to contribute immediately.
Ranked the 22nd best incoming freshman class in the nation, Kireev and classmates Omar Williams (6-foot-9), Mike Hall (6-foot-8) and Pops Mensah-Bonsu (6-foot-9) can expect to receive big minutes to go along with high expectations from head coach Karl Hobbs.
“These freshmen really can’t be freshmen,” Hobbs said. “We expect them to play a lot and contribute a lot.”
The theme is similar to that of last season for GW, when the team returned only one starter, Chris Monroe. While the Colonials have not gotten much older in 2002, this year’s freshmen class does make them bigger, Hobbs said.
The most highly touted freshman is Philadelphia native Omar Williams, ranked the 88th best high school senior in the nation by ESPN.com after he averaged more than 22 points per game for Celestial Prep last season. Hobbs is even more enthusiastic about Williams than ESPN.com, calling him one of the top 20 freshmen nationwide.
“Omar is a terrifically gifted basketball player,” Hobbs said. “He’s as good a passer as I’ve been around in a long time.”
At 180 pounds, Williams is razor-thin but laser-fast and can play nearly every position on the court. While he said he has been working hard in the weight room to make up for what he lacks in strength, Williams said GW’s up-tempo style of offense should cater to his natural abilities while he bulks up.
“At my size and my versatility, I can really get out and run and handle the ball, so that’s where I’m at my best,” Williams said. “I’m a good passer and my teammates are pretty good players, so we can all get out and run and score.”
Mensah-Bonsu will add energy to the fast break along with strength in the paint. At 220 pounds, the London native will be one of the premier post players on a considerably taller but still scrappy Colonial squad. In just his first exhibition game last Sunday, Mensah-Bonsu drew loud ovations from the Smith Center crowd after displaying his athleticism with several high-flying dunks.
“Pops is as good an athlete as anyone his size,” Hobbs said, comparing him to recent GW graduate Jaason Smith. “And he is probably the most athletic out of the group.”
Mensah-Bonsu said he is fully aware of the Colonials’ struggles last season but has high expectations for both the team and himself.
“I am hoping to contribute a lot,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough year for us. (The team) had a pretty rough season last year, but I think we’re going to be much better than we were.”
Mike Hall is another lanky newcomer who can shoot and run the floor, but the Chicago native will be most useful to the Colonials as a defensive stopper. Hall is a guard in a forward’s body whose versatility and work ethic should earn him considerable playing time.
Hobbs called Hall “a great story” and “the most goal-oriented individual I have ever coached.” The rookie is a standout in the classroom as well as on the court. A pre-medical major, Hall was recruited by notable academic schools, including Princeton.
“I personally just want to play as hard as I can whenever I get in the game,” Hall said. “I just want to do whatever the coach wants me to do and give 100 percent.”
It is that kind of attitude that has earned Hall early praise from Hobbs.
“Hall is probably the toughest out of the group,” Hobbs said. “He’s very mentally tough and he is a guy whose spirit can’t be broke.”
Hall averaged nearly 15 points per game at Alan B. Shepard High School last season and will try to carry strong rebounding skills to the college level, as he also grabbed over 10 boards per game.
Rebounding, defense and much of the other dirty work the Colonials will need inside will also fall on the shoulders of Kireev, who has one of the toughest jobs on the team, starting at center as a freshman.
“Kireev has terrific skills for a guy his size,” Hobbs said. “He is very fundamentally sound; he shoots the ball, he passes the basketball and he plays with a great deal of intensity.”
Several officials within the athletic department have praised the team’s new big man, for his noticeable and relentless work ethic, which has made a positive first impression.
Kireev will need that work ethic, along with a little luck, when he battles some of the A-10’s more seasoned and talented veterans, such as Xavier power forward David West and Dayton center Keith Waleskowski.
“I expect to do what I do best,” Kireev said. “That is to get rebounds and play defense. That is what coach expects of me and that is what I will try to do.”
The four recruits will be joined by four walk-on freshmen, some of whom could see some playing time early in the season. Forwards Jaz Cowan, who scored 10 points in Sunday’s exhibition, and Dokun Akingbade both come from Maryland and will give GW some added depth in the front court at 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9, respectively. The team also added a pair of six-foot Ohio guards to the roster, Funsho Olulafe and Dior Toney.
Despite the widely recognized talent of the freshmen, many have still picked the Colonials to finish poorly because of their dependence on the newcomers. Hobbs acknowledged the unique challenge of coaching such a young group but was optimistic about their chances for speedy development.
“It is very rare to have a Division I basketball team at this level whose whole front line is freshmen,” he said. “But this is a real willing group. This is a highly self-motivated group and obviously they ‘re long and athletic, but most of all, they’re fun to coach.”
With all the talk surrounding their Colonial debut, the freshmen did not seem to care about low expectations for the team, nor did they seem to worry about the pressure for them to contribute early.
“We are freshman, but we are all very talented and we will all work hard,” Williams said. “We should definitely live up to expectations.”