WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – If there is one thing that should be pretty clear after Monday night, it is that despite how far the GW men’s basketball team has come, the program is still a long way away from the likes of Wake Forest. With their last two games, excluding the preseason, being losses here in Winston-Salem and at the University of Virginia in March, the Colonials obviously won’t be invited to join the Almighty Coast Conference anytime soon.
But they are no mid-major, either. In fact, to talk about them like you talk about Southern Illinois or Creighton is really an insult, especially to the people who put all that money into a fancy new scoreboard at the Smith Center so GW would seem like a Big Time Team. Where, then, does GW fall on the college basketball landscape right now?
The answer is somewhere in the gray area in between UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Chapel Hill.
When GW is an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, as they surely are right now, it is tempting for some to believe anything is possible. A colleague of mine at The Hatchet who is a knowledgeable and dedicated GW basketball fan honestly believes Karl Hobbs will have his squad making a run at the Final Four within the next three years.
On the cab ride here from the airport in Greensboro, however, another reporter and I got a different perspective from our driver, Howard. When told of the game we were going to, Howard responded that Georgia Tech was indeed a quality opponent for the Demon Deacons.
“Oh, George Washington?” he said. “Well, that’s a tough job for y’all then, covering a massacre. That’s like a major league guy playing a minor league guy right there. When did y’all start playing Division I basketball?”
The game, however, was no massacre. Nor was it the defining moment some fans were looking for, in which GW would finally prove it was a team worthy of national recognition, the way little Gonzaga has done by beating up top West Coast teams.
What the Colonials did do Monday night was something they should be happy enough with – give the No. 2 team in the country a run for its money. To put things in perspective, had GW won, it would have been the second biggest upset in the program’s history, behind only the 1996 team’s win over No. 1 Massachusetts.
Despite losing by 21, which really is not a fair indication of how competitive the game was, GW did nothing to disprove the expectations of those who picked them to win the Atlantic 10 this year. Their execution and focus was not what it will need to be as the season goes on, but they shot the ball well enough to keep a national television audience watching, at least for the first half. Even in a second half in which they got blown away, the Colonials were within five points of Wake Forest with under eight minutes left in the game.
But for every good sign GW showed in this game, there were just as many moments that illustrated how far the Colonials are from the world Wake Forest lives in. First, there was All-America candidate Chris Paul (25 points), who made GW’s defense look absolutely silly trying catch up with him, let alone contain him. Even Hobbs, the master recruiter himself, can’t attract that kind of talent to GW, or at least he hasn’t yet.
On the inside, 291-pound center Eric Williams (16 points) made GW’s post players look flat out small. Just like in the Virginia game, the difference between A-10 big men and ACC big men became apparent, as GW just could not penetrate – either on the fast break or in the half court – they way they are accustomed to doing. In a symbolic play, with just under 10 minutes left in the first half, Omar Williams caught the ball in the high post and looked to connect with Pops Mensah-Bonsu for one of his trademark alley-oops. But as Mensah-Bonsu jumped toward the stratosphere, Wake Forest’s Williams almost effortlessly snatched the ball out of the air and sent the Colonials running back on defense.
Finally, if what happened on the court here did not illustrate the separation between the Colonials and the teams they aspire to be like, the pre-game ceremonies did. In a scene that looked more like the NBA than college, Wake Forest players were introduced to fans with the lights turned off, the music turned loud and the team mascot driving a roaring Harley Davidson around the court. GW comes out to a pep band and an inflated Hippopotamus jumping around like an idiot.
Still, there is nothing wrong with being on a different level than teams like Wake Forest. The Colonials will do a lot this year on their own level, which is a heck of a lot better than “minor league,” as Howard, our cab driver, described it. But the size and nature of GW as an institution puts a glass ceiling on how far its basketball team can go. Just how high this year’s team pushes that ceiling will be determined over the next four months, not by Monday’s loss.