In one game last season, as in many others, point guard T.J. Thompson looked over at head coach Karl Hobbs late in the game. Visibly fatigued and in need of a breather for the final stretch of the second half, Thompson’s demeanor told Hobbs the sophomore needed a break, which is exactly why Hobbs pretended not to notice.
“I turned around like I didn’t see him,” Hobbs said. “Because I couldn’t take him out of the game, and I didn’t want him to see me, because he’s telling me to take him out of the game. This year I won’t see T.J. panting out there. (Freshman) J.R. Pinnock will be in for him.
Hobbs’ ability to give Thompson, now a junior, more rest this year
illustrates the biggest improvement to last year’s 12-17 Colonials squad: depth.
With four freshmen and two transfers adding to last year’s talented rookie foursome, Hobbs said Thompson, junior forward Tamal Forchion and the rest of his starters will now be better-rested for crunch time.
For a fast-break and, GW hopes, defensive-minded team, that flexibility and stamina in the Hobbs’ lineup will be critical. The Colonials had trouble clamping down on teams late in games last season, losing 10 games by less than 10 points. The team also had trouble making defensive stops in key situations.
“If you look at the amount of minutes T.J. played, at times that hurt us down the stretch,” Hobbs said of Thompson, who led the team with 37 minutes per game. “Because he was physically exhausted, he couldn’t make decisions sometimes on the defensive end when we needed stops.”
But while the Colonials now have a stockpile of talented players to draw from, they still need at least one of them to lead the group. Thompson, Forchion and senior guard Greg Collucci are the only returning players with two or more years of college experience.
“We’re looking for a guy to grab this team by the throat and lead it,” Hobbs said. “T.J. has to be the guy at the end of the day. He’s the most experienced player we have. He’s been through all the wars, so I think he has to emerge.”
Guard Chris Monroe graduated in May as the program’s all-time leading scorer, but Monroe’s leadership will likely be easier to replace than his 20.3 points per game.
“I had to step up in that sense last year a little bit,” Thompson said. “It’s not a big difference. Chris wasn’t much of a talker; he led by example.”
As for the scoring Monroe provided, Thompson said he and several of his teammates rather than any one player will fill in the void.
“We’re going to have a well-balanced team with a lot of people stepping up,” he said. “On different nights we’ll have different leading scorers. Most of us are sophomores and juniors now, so we know what it takes.”
At 6-foot-6-inches and 254 pounds, Forchion has been a solid presence under the basket for the Colonials over the past two seasons. While a broken ankle held him back through much of last season, Forchion could have a breakout year in 2003-04 if he stays healthy.
“I feel a lot better and I’m progressing physically,” said Forchion, who seems to have gained about 10 to 15 pounds of muscle since last year. “T.J. and I have been here two years and haven’t had a winning season yet, so we’re hungry. It’s only right that we both step up.”
A year behind Forchion and Thompson is a talented pair of sophomores who should contribute greatly to this year’s team. Forwards Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu look to repeat the success of their freshman campaigns, which saw both players average about 10 points per game. Hall also finished second in the Atlantic 10 in rebounding at 8.2 per game, while Mensah-Bonsu became a crowd favorite with his high-flying style of play.
Mensah-Bonsu had knee surgery during the offseason but said he is not concerned about his health. More important to his game, he said, will be curbing his temper, which drew him curbing his temper, which drew him into a few skirmishes last year, while maintaining his natural aggressiveness.
“My knee feels great. I’m ready to go,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I think my game is more mature now. I’ve tried to calm it down a little bit. Coach is also depending on me to show the younger guys the ropes.”
The incoming freshmen should also factor into the mix as their games improve. Ricky Lucas, a 6-foot-4-inch shooting guard who FoxSports.com ranked 44th in the nation among high school seniors last year, is a potent three-point shooter. He will be joined by classmates Pinnock, Jaaron Greene and Carl Elliott.
With this strong recruiting class and a more experienced core of sophomores and juniors, GW should improve on last year’s 12-win season and will look for its first winning campaign in five years.
How much better the team is remains to be seen, but Hobbs said it should help to have a team mostly composed of players he recruited for the up-tempo style of play he prefers.
“This is the first year we can truly play the GW style of basketball – 94 feet,” Hobbs said. “We couldn’t be a true fast-break team with T.J. playing 37 minutes. Now, with our athleticism and size, I think we have the components to do it.”