Column: Pops’ unique emergence

Pops Mensah-Bonsu morphed into the Incredible Hulk Saturday at the BB&T Classic. Sunday, he shrunk down to semi-normal size, which was fine with him.

“I wasn’t really worrying about points too much,” he said after scoring six in the Colonials’ upset of Maryland. “My teammates picked up my slack today.”

He scored 23 points in the Colonials’ win over Michigan State Saturday, but in Sunday’s win, Terrapin forward Travis Garrison helped limit Mensah-Bonsu’s scoring in the paint.

Despite some flashy offensive numbers this season (19 points per game before Sunday), the six-foot-nine-inch, 240-pound forward is not a superstar, at least not in the traditional sense. In recent months, the media’s spinning hyperbolic chamber has transformed him into a massive, unstoppable force capable of destroying defenses that try to get in his way.

We must realize how unrealistic this expectation is. Pops is tall, strong and wildly athletic, but his offensive moves are still limited, and he often struggles against bigger, wider opponents.

Still, this weekend was a hulk-sized step in the right direction for the muscle-rippling Pops, who has bulked up significantly this season. Coming into the BB&T – a tournament GW had not won since 2000 – Pops himself had a lot to prove. In past games against marquee opponents, Pops was a non-factor. Last season, against Gonzaga, Texas and Xavier (in the Atlantic 10 Tournament), he scored eight, six, and six points, respectively.

And against Wake Forest in this year’s season-opener, 291-pound center Eric Williams made Pops look downright tiny. Pops scored only eight points in the 21-point loss.

However, this trend may have finally gone the way of dinosaurs and cynical Red Sox fans.

This weekend:

Pops proved he can play well against a good big man. He scored 23 on pre-season All American Paul Davis, making the six-foot-eleven inch, 267-pound center look rather pedestrian.

Pops proved he can consistently stay in position on defense, and wreak havoc down low. He grabbed six rebounds Saturday and swatted a career-high five shots Sunday.

Pops proved he can stay under control in high-pressure situations. He stayed out of foul trouble the entire weekend, finishing the MSU game with one foul and the Maryland game with three.

Most importantly, the Colonials’ consecutive wins over two Top 15 teams proved that Pops is an integral cog in coach Karl Hobbs’ high-energy system. This GW team is based on a 10-deep, interchangeable lineup that can get out on the break and press teams ragged. Pops certainly can run. He is not always going to play the traditional post player’s role.

But when he’s asked to establish position down low, he can, as he proved against Michigan State.

His energy often neutralizes a size advantage (see Paul Davis, who weighs 267 pounds). As MSU coach Tom Izzo said of Pops, “he wants the ball” and “posts very hard” down low.

I’d venture to say that Mensah-Bonsu plays harder, faster and with more conviction than any other big man in the Atlantic 10. His acrobatic moves can not be duplicated by many in college basketball – and just the prospect of one of his crowd-revving dunks has opposing coaches on edge. Defenses are beginning to key on Pops, which is helping the GW offense. Maryland limited Pops to six points Sunday, but the Colonials still scored 101 points.

Pops’ intensity does make him susceptible to unforced errors. On one particular play in the second half of the Maryland game, T.J. Thompson fed him down low for what appeared to be an easy basket. Pops stepped forward, leapt for the dunk and got stuffed by the rim.

Did he freeze up? Or was it a physical issue?

It’s a distinct possibility that his energy level can occasionally burn him out. It’s not always easy for a man his size to constantly play as hard as he does. Sometimes, he’s going to run out of gas.

Pops himself admitted it. Yesterday, he just did not appear to be as energetic as he was against the Spartans. The tank had to have been running a bit low.

“I exerted so much energy against Michigan State, I came out a little flat today,” he said. “It’s just tough to come out with that much intensity against great teams two days in a row.”

This is not to say that Mensah-Bonsu should temper his on-court energy. It simply is a possible explanation of his offensive drop-off after Saturday’s big game against Michigan State. Without all that energy, it is safe to say there is no way GW could have beaten the Spartans.

As he walked to the team bus Sunday, I didn’t notice much of his trademark intensity on his face. He was content, humble and credited his teammates for constantly “keeping him on point” throughout the weekend, especially on defense.

Those teammates know that as Pops continues to grow as a player and his conditioning improves, his game-to-game production will become more static. The spectacular games will start to vastly outnumber non-descript performances.

But for now, Pops is still a mere mortal, occasionally turning into the Hulk when his team needs to slay a villain ranked in the Top 10.

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