Column: Great expectations, not hard times for mens basketball

If the upcoming 2004 GW men’s basketball season was a Dickens’ novel, it would be “Great Expectations,” not “Hard Times.”

Wait, what did I just say? I think I just blacked out like Will Ferrell’s debate scene in “Old School.”

But seriously, people are expecting big things from the Colonials this year. ESPN.com’s Andy Katz anointed GW as the team to beat in the Atlantic 10 and the No. 37 team in the nation.

After falling to Elite Eight-bound Xavier in the semifinals of the A-10 Tournament and losing to the University of Virginia in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament last March, coach Karl Hobbs’ squad is looking to move up in the world.

Two months before practice even starts, players already seem to grasp what’s on the line this year. An NCAA Tournament berth isn’t a far-reaching goal for this team, which is now entering the fourth year of the Hobbs era.

“Anything less than the tournament would be a disappointing season,” said forward Mike Hall, who along with several teammates gathered for an informal shoot-around at the Smith Center Monday.

“It has to happen, we have to make the NCAA Tournament,” added a noticeably beefier Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who said he put on 15 pounds of muscle with the help of a personal trainer this summer.

GW is young, talented and coming off a 19-12 campaign, but this regular season certainly won’t be an effortless strut into the tourney. If they want to live up to their own expectations, the Colonials must overcome a tough non-conference schedule in addition to the normal conference match-ups with the likes of St. Joseph’s, Xavier, Temple and Dayton.

Although the Colonials won’t host any flashy non-conference opponents, they’re set to face West Virginia on the road. And at the annual BB&T Classic at the MCI Center in early December, they will face Michigan State and either Maryland or George Mason.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of them all comes early, as GW will travel to Winston-Salem, N.C. to open its season against top-ranked Wake Forest University (ESPN.com) in the first round of the preseason NIT on Nov. 15.

It’s kind of like a professor passing out blue books on the first day of classes. But this test isn’t a midterm or a final – it’s way too early for that. There are no failing grades after the first game of the season.

That being said, a win would be nice, but you can’t realistically expect it on the road against a team as good as the Demon Deacons. Simply staying competitive at Wake would be a step in the right direction for the Colonials, a squad that won only six games away from the Smith Center last season.

It’s a daunting task, but regardless of the outcome, the players are interested in showing their stuff in front of a national audience, as their match-up with Wake will be televised on ESPN2.

“We’re going to show everybody what we can really do,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “You’re talking about Wake Forest, the number one team in the country. We’re probably the only people that know we can beat them.”

These guys are hungry. They want to show the world that the GW basketball program is again at the level of a decade ago, when trips to the Big Dance were almost as routine as a Red Sox collapse in October.

“If we can come out with a victory, that would put us on the map,” Hall said.

As sophomore guard J.R. Pinnock said, it’s a win-win situation. The chance to face top teams is what college basketball is all about, win or lose. Playing tough competition will prepare teams for tough games down the stretch.

“Everybody’s ready for it,” Pinnock said. “That’s why we came to this program.”

More and more talented young players seem to be on the same page as Pinnock. The latest example is Maureece Rice, a guard who picked GW over the University of Miami and will suit up as the Colonials’ only freshman this season.

At six-foot-one-inches and 215 pounds, Rice is a compact scoring machine. While attending Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School, he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s city scoring record. An added scoring punch could immensely help a team that was very balanced offensively but lacked a decisive scores down the stretch.

The soft-spoken Rice, who attended several prep schools in the past two years, is ready to contribute in any way he can.

“I’m just trying to come in and make the team better,” he said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. Hopefully everything goes right for me.”

All of this positive energy is wonderful, but try and remember, it’s Sept. 1. No practices have been held, no wind sprints have been run, and no leaders have emerged yet.

“We’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Mensah-Bonsu said. Well put. But just remember, March Madness is (only) six months away.

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