It’s 5 p.m., practice has been over for 30 minutes and Chris Monroe is taking jump shots from behind the three-point line. Five, six, seven, eight, nine in a row. The senior shoots from the same spot as freshman Mike Hall feeds him the ball and watches in admiration. Neither of the two players needs to be there, but each is driven by a purpose.
Monroe has led the men’s basketball team in just about every capacity through an era of many changes and few victories. With only one year left to add a winning season to his legacy, he will have his work cut out for him. Hall, like the rest of this year’s freshman class, begins his collegiate career with high expectations, hoping at best to emulate Monroe’s career over the next four years.
The scene is indicative of the disparity between Monroe, the team’s lone senior, and his teammates, eight of whom are freshmen. The situation is similar to that of a year ago, when Monroe was one of only a few players who had any significant NCAA playing experience. But there is one important difference about GW’s youth this season – talent.
Ranked the 22nd best recruiting class in the nation by Rivals.com, the Colonials’ freshmen will bring much-needed height and ability to a team that stumbled to a 12-16 finish after a 10-game losing streak last season. Freshman forwards Hall, Omar Williams, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and center Alexander Kireev will complement a backcourt of Monroe and sophomore T.J. Thompson.
Williams was GW’s highest- rated recruit out of high school and said he expects himself and his classmates to make an immediate impact.
“We’re young but if we watch players like T.J and Monroe and we learn, we should be pretty good,” he said.
However long the rookies take to adjust to college play, they will provide immediate help in two areas in which coaches and players said the Colonials need it most, defense and rebounding. GW was one of the worst defensive teams in the Atlantic 10 last season, giving up nearly 76 points per game, and ranked among the poorer rebounding teams in the conference. With all but two of the rookies standing 6-foot-8 or taller, head coach Karl Hobbs said his team should be much more effective in the paint.
“Because of our size and athleticism, we will be able to guard more people and we should be a much improved rebounding team,” he said. “It’s also going to be a little easier for T.J. and even Chris Monroe. Now we don’t have to rely on him to get every rebound and do all those things, he just has to play that terrific defense.”
Thompson will start at point guard for the second straight year after his 10 points and four assists per game earned him a spot on the 2001-02 A-10 All-Rookie Team. Though only a sophomore, Thompson is one of the more experienced players on a young GW team, and Hobbs said he expects him to develop into more of a leader this year.
Monroe is widely respected as one of the top players in the conference and should improve on his 21-plus points per game last season, which ranked him 22nd in the nation. A starter since his freshman year, Monroe is on pace to break the school’s all-time scoring record of 2,226 points held by Joe Holup (’56).
In contrast to his play on the court, Monroe has never been a vocal leader in the locker room and said that will not change this year, regardless of his senior status.
“I’m more of the type where after the coach gets in someone’s ear, I’ll come up to the other ear and just whisper something, and they’ll know by the tone in my voice what I’m talking about,” Monroe said. “I’m more of a silent, do-by-example type. I just go out and play.”
While Monroe and Thompson make for a formidable back court, GW’s starting front line will be comprised of all freshmen until sophomore Tamal Forchion returns from an injury. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound power forward suffered a broken left ankle in a pickup game in August and said he hopes to return for the start of conference play in January. This puts even more pressure on freshmen such as Kireev, the team’s 6-foot-11 starting center, to provide interior toughness early in the season.
“It’s pretty new to me, coming in and being the tallest guy on the team,” Kireev said. “I do feel some pressure to perform well, but I just have to not think about being a freshman and just think about being a player on the team.”
What the Colonials lack in experience and strength in the paint, they will try to make up for with the athleticism and versatility of their young forwards. Williams, Mensah-Bonsu, Hall and classmate Jaz Cowan can all leap over stronger opponents and run the floor well, on which Hobbs said he wants to capitalize by playing more of a fast-break offense this year.
“We really would like to play games in the 80s if we can,” he said. “We’re going to look to fast break, play the whole 90 feet and really try to press the issue.”
With the new offensive style, transition defense and controlling the pace of the game will also become critical factors to GW’s success, Hobbs said.
“We’re really going to have to control the ball at the point of attack – try to speed teams up and make them play a little quicker than they would like to,” he said.
The freshmen may give the Colonials the depth and speed to push the ball but, like all freshmen, they will likely take time to develop over the course of the season under the guidance of GW’s few veteran leaders. Swingman Marquin Chandler would have been one of those leaders as a junior this year, but he transferred over the summer, along with sophomore forward Darrio Scott. This leaves junior guards Darnell Miller and Greg Collucci as the only upperclassmen besides Monroe, and the two said they will look to help bring the younger players along as quickly as possible.
“Our veterans – me, Darnell and Chris – we just have to try to pass on our experiences to these guys,” Collucci said. “But they’re great players, so they should be good on their own.”
Despite the potential and talent of the young Colonials, many have predicted a losing season for GW. An A-10 coaches and media poll ranked GW fifth in the A-10 West, the same place they were predicted to finish a year ago. But being underestimated can be an advantage, Hobbs said.
“Going into most games this year, we’re going to be the underdogs, and I think the pressure to some degree is going to be on those teams to beat us,” he said. “That’s not a bad position for us to be in.”
Monroe said he is uncertain about how GW will do this season but remained optimistic about the team’s potential.
“I know we’re going to play hard every day, and I expect the team and these young guys to be excited because they have nothing to lose and everything to prove,” he said. “I feel like we can beat a lot of teams, and once we gel together, we’re just going to create headaches for a lot of those teams out there.”