Coach Karl Hobbs is a reserved leader, evidenced not by his courtside demeanor but his humble attitude regarding purported success.
Last year, when the buzz surrounding his squad was loud and ESPN’s Andy Katz named the Colonials the season’s “it” team, Hobbs let his humble nature show.
This year, there is no reason for Hobbs to be humble. The GW men’s basketball team is ranked 24th in the USA Today coaches poll. Hobbs said he feels a little bit differently about this season’s squad.
“Well actually I think I can honestly say we deserve it,” Hobbs said after a practice in late October. “Now we have to go out there and prove it on the court. I think it’s great for the University. I think it’s a heck of an accomplishment for the seniors. I think we overachieved to get ourselves to the point to be ranked so high.”
Coaches and media around the Atlantic 10 conference seem to concur with the team’s hype. The Colonials were chosen as favorites to win the conference, garnering 38 first-place votes in the A-10 preseason poll. Coach Travis Ford of Massachusetts, a newcomer to the A-10, said the Colonials are the team to look out for.
“There are two dominant teams the way I see it right now,” Ford said. “I think George Washington is the most dominant on paper. Even Charlotte, you can maybe mention in the same sentence but even they have some question marks. They lost some starters. I think after that, you throw everyone up in the air. It’s who stays healthy and who wins games at home.”
Swingman junior Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock said the expectations have been raised a level.
“Expectations that we’ve set are we want to get back to the tournament and make some noise in the tournament,” Pinnock said. “I think a lot of people are putting a lot of expectations on us but their expectations for us can’t be as high as our expectations for us.”
GW was chosen to win the A-10 last year and did so, but not in an overwhelming fashion. The Colonials compiled a 22-8 record and went 11-5 in the A-10. In-conference losses included three home losses (Massachusetts, Saint Joseph’s and Xavier) and two on the road (Xavier and Richmond). Despite dropping some games in the regular season, the Colonials walked through the A-10 tournament in March to earn their first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in school history.
GW’s out-of-conference schedule this year has been chided for being soft, but Hobbs contended that the schedule presents problems.
“I think when you look at our schedule it’s a very challenging schedule,” Hobbs said. “What we tried to do was get home games. You look at our league schedule and right out of the gate we start off with Temple. We didn’t catch a break there.”
Senior Mike Hall, a preseason all-conference first-team selection, said the league should present some newfound challenges with the additions of Charlotte and Saint Louis.
“I feel like it should just add some excitement to the league,” Hall said. “Now we have a lot of solid teams in the league and there will be good match-ups on a nightly basis. It should be fun and it’ll bring the best out of all of us.”
In order to build on a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament, the Colonials will take advantage of their depth. Hobbs style of play is meant to physically exhaust teams by making a lot of substitutions.
The senior class, Hobbs’ first recruiting class, will anchor the squad. Hall and classmate Pops Mensah-Bonsu, also a preseason all-conference pick, dropped out of the NBA draft to return GW for their senior year, and will be the muscle and heart behind the squad.
“I think the whole experience has matured him I think it meant a great deal to him,” Hobbs said of Mensah-Bonsu. “I think as a result from that experience, he’s ready to have a great season. I think he has big dreams about what he wants to do and where he wants to take this program.”
Seniors Omar Williams and Dokun Akingbade will provide much needed size and a physical presence in the paint. Akingbade, who walked on to the team his freshman year, has gradually seen more playing time.
“I think Richard Hamilton said it the best after coming to watch us play this summer,” Hobbs said. “I think his statement was ‘Out of all our players, he’s improved the most out of all the guys we have in the program.’ And I couldn’t agree with him more. I think he’s coming a long ways physically. Obviously a guy of his size and athleticism he could be a big factor for us.”
Leading the attack from the backcourt are junior Carl Elliott and sophomore Maureece Rice.
“Carl may be our most important player because I think how well we go will be predicated upon how well he runs our team and how well he takes care of the ball,” Hobbs said. “He could be the difference between us being really really good and good. I think he’s the key.”
Another key to the team’s success may also lie in the backcourt – sometimes. Pinnock (13.4 ppg) will provide his explosive nature and improved jump shot to lead from the guard and forward positions.
To ensure the stability a team fused with veterans, the three freshmen will be thrown into the games more regularly than normal. Montrell McDonald, Robert Diggs and Noel Wilmore will add youth to the depth on the Colonials’ bench.
With the talent GW will be able to employ this year, playing with expectations will again be the challenge. Once the recognition starts, teams step up their games.
“Last year we really fought the battle all year of how do we handle expectations,” Hobbs said.
GW’s goals are high and clear cut. If everything falls into place, Hobbs thinks magical things could happen.
“If we are playing well in March, we will be a dangerous team,” Hobbs mused. “A very dangerous team.”