Expectations can be a dangerous thing. So dangerous, in fact, that GW men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs wants no part of them.
“Throw the expectations out the window,” Hobbs said after a mid-October practice. “It’s very hard to convince me we’re half as good as people say we are. We’re a long ways away.”
For the first time in years, college basketball experts expect the Colonials to be at the top of the Atlantic 10. ESPN.com, CNNSI.com, and USA Today are each predicting that GW will earn its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1999.
Despite Hobbs’ reservations, GW is back in the national spotlight for the first time in years. After finishing last year with an 18-12 record and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament, a deep March run is not out of the question this season.
Like their coach, the Colonials are not getting ahead of themselves. At the same time, they are outwardly aware of the expectations hovering over their team. There is no easing into the regular season – they open up with a nationally televised game at Wake Forest University on Nov. 15.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” junior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu said. “But we set high expectations for ourselves, probably higher than everyone else has.”
His goals for the season are specific: 20 wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Both would be firsts in Hobbs’ four-year tenure at GW.
While the Colonials had the tools to succeed down the stretch last year, the Big Dance is still uncharted territory for this team. The question remains: What makes this year’s squad better equipped for postseason play?
Last season, Hobbs spoke at length about the team’s improved depth. This year, he has talked about his team’s maturity, both mentally and physically.
“When you look at the guys physically, they’ve put on weight,” he said. “And another year of experience will make a big difference.”
Mensah-Bonsu is one of the players who have bulked up considerably this off-season. He worked with a personal trainer in Oklahoma to gain muscle and improve his post game. Last season, he was listed at 218 pounds. Now, he is a cut 240.
On some occasions last year, the six-foot-nine-inch forward was dominant – simply leaping over less athletic players for dunks and rebounds. But he ran into trouble when he came up against wider big men, such as Gonzaga University’s Ronny Turiaf, who dropped 29 points on GW last year.
“When I first got here everyone always looked at us as a really skinny team,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I think I remember The Hatchet writing a story about us (on April Fool’s day) about how skinny we were. It’s funny, but it’s serious at the same time because you have to get bigger. I think everyone since freshman year has gained some significant poundage.”
Junior forward Mike Hall, who stands at six-foot-eight-inches and now weighs 230 pounds (up from 220 last year), is another player who could be a force down low. Last season, he was one of the team’s most consistent players, averaging nearly eight rebounds and just over 10 points per game.
This new physical presence does not necessarily mean the colonials’ style of play will change. The frenetic pace of their game is Hobbs’ trademark style. They get out on fast breaks, press teams with a steady rotation of fresh players and try to force turnovers.
“I would like to think we will be able to force our will and make teams play at our pace and at our speed (this year),” Hobbs said. “I think that’s where our depth comes into play.”
The deep roster that Hobbs introduced last year is still virtually intact (except three-point specialist Greg Collucci, who is now a graduate assistant coach). Joining the cause is freshman Maureece Rice, a quick guard who should fit in well in Hobbs’s system – which produced the second highest scoring offense in the league last year (75 points per game) behind St. Joseph’s.
Hobbs and his players agree that depth and bulk must be complemented with more fundamentally sound basketball. In small spurts last year (particularly at the beginning of the second half of games), the Colonials lapsed mentally, which caused flurries of turnovers and easy lay-ups for opponents.
On average last year, GW turned the ball over almost 16 times per game. It is a high number, but it must be noted that the Colonials’ defense neutralized many of their offensive errors. Opponents turned the ball over nearly 17 times per game while playing GW. (The Colonials’ turnover margin was close to plus one, which put them in the middle of the pack in the A-10).
Still, Hobbs said he would like to see his team cut down on unforced mistakes. To the players, correcting the problem is simple.
“We have to maintain our focus,” said senior guard T.J. Thompson, the Colonials’ lone senior. “That’s what it comes down to. We’re a more mature team now.”
More mature players, Hall added, will spend more time breaking down film to correct problems. Looking at last year’s mistakes will help.
“Sometimes you don’t fully understand the mistakes until you sit down and watch them and say, ‘Wow, I really did that,'” Hall said. “A lot of guys have a lot of film sessions and we learn from that. I hope we learn from that.”
Learning from mistakes is a sign that the team is maturing. For the first time in Hobbs’ tenure, a large group of freshmen will not be forced into the rotation right away. Other than Rice and walk-on Pat Joyce, there are no freshmen.
The eldest member of the team is Thompson, who led GW in scoring last season with 13.2 points per game. He was also named to the all-conference third team, but struggled down the stretch last season, coming in off the bench in the conference tourney.
“T.J. has been the leader since day one,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “He’s been through the tough times and the good times.”
In his senior season, Thompson does not sound concerned about his leadership role. He said he hopes to lead by example, and the most important thing right now is helping develop team chemistry.
Hall said the fact that many of the players are close off the court helps that chemistry. “Friendship definitely carries over to the court,” he said.
Despite their togetherness, the Colonials lacked a “go-to guy” last season. A reliable late-game scoring threat could be the key to elevating the Colonials’ game.
One certainty is that there will be a packed Smith Center to watch the Colonials. Percentage wise, GW was fourth in the A-10 in attendance last season. Hobbs’ squad also finished 11-1 at home in 2003-04.
“No matter how big the crowd was, we love playing at home,” Thompson said. “This is our place.”
The Colonials’ road record, on the other hand, was 5-9 (2-2 at neutral sites). Playing better away from the Smith Center is another sign of maturity.
“We’re more mature this year,” he said. “The mistakes we made last year can’t be made this year.”