Column: Hope for wins, expect answers

For five years now, it’s been the same old answer to the same old question. “Oh, George Washington? Yeah, they’ve got some good young guys. They’ll be really good … in a few years.” We heard it when Val Brown and Chris Monroe were freshmen. We heard it when T.J. Thompson and Tamal Forchion were freshmen. And we heard it last year when Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu raised some eyebrows in their rookie seasons.

Now, even though inexperience remains an issue, The School for the Young and Gifted looks like it could finally make some noise in the win column. The Colonials are a good bet to win more than last year’s 12 games; they will probably finish with a winning record and could make a run in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and beyond.

But don’t expect Karl Hobbs and T.J. Thompson to be the second coming of Mike Jarvis and Shawnta Rogers just yet. Instead, look at this season as an indication of things to come. Forget the last two seasons, because they really didn’t say much, other than that Hobbs can recruit, which we already knew. Now, with a starting lineup that won’t be largely reliant on freshmen and with a roster of players brought in by Hobbs to play Hobbs basketball, the 2003-04 season will be the truest indication of the state of the program.

The question marks start with the core of this GW team – T.J. Thompson, Tamal Forchion, Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. With more minutes under his belt after two years than some players ever see, Thompson seems primed to step into the leadership role he began to develop last season. But who will follow?

The answer, at least for the time being, won’t be Forchion, who is sidelined by injury for the second straight year for an undetermined amount of time.

If the Colonials are going to seriously contend for anything in the next few years other than a record for most alley-oops thrown in the A-10, Hobbs is going to need all-conference-caliber performances from his starters to complement Thompson. It could end up being Forchion, Hall, Mensah-Bonsu or one of half a dozen talents Hobbs has on his bench, but one or two guys will have to step up and separate themselves from the rest this year.

And I’m not just talking about scoring points. Not to understate the difficulty of replacing Chris Monroe’s 20 points per game, but GW had the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league last year, while its defense was the fourth worst. So the Colonials can dunk their way to 80 points all winter, but they’re not going anywhere in the A-10 if they don’t start making stops collectively.

You might not have noticed the Colonials’ defensive breakdowns as much by going to the Smith Center, where GW went 7-4. On the road was a different story, however, as the Colonials did not win a single conference road game (0-8) in the regular season. And that is why this year, GW’s most important games will be the ones you won’t see. If there is any hallmark of a program ready to contend for a conference title other than consistent defense, it is execution in front of a hostile crowd.

Karl Hobbs knows this all too well – it doesn’t take a St. Bonaventure-approved welding certificate to see where his team needs to improve. And based on what we’ve seen and been told about his recruits, he now has the firepower and depth at his disposal for GW to play the kind of basketball he wants. He may not have the experience on his roster yet, but for the first time in his GW career, Hobbs has enough of the pieces together that this season will be a fair indication of how his in-game coaching skills match up with his recruiting ability.

So do the Colonials win 20 games and surprise everybody, or do they win 12 games again and tell GW to keep waiting? The answer is probably somewhere in between, but exactly where makes a big difference. I respect Hobbs for “not letting anyone else determine what defines success for this team,” but the reality is that how his Colonials perform this year should tell us quite a bit about where the team is headed next year and beyond. We know they’ll be good. We’re about to find out just how good, and how soon.

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