Basketball Preview: Men to serve up heaping helpings of Rice

In many ways, this year begins a new era for GW’s men basketball. In others, it will be business as usual.

Back in March, GW found itself facing Vanderbilt, who dealt the Colonials a 77-44 defeat in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The loss brought to earth a program that seemed to be punching above its weight once again, landing in the big dance after a surprising run to the Atlantic 10 title.

Seven months later, the Colonials are back with a new look, one of the best recruiting classes in their history and the prospect of a fresh season to prove themselves.

Head coach Karl Hobbs, who extended his contract through 2012 this summer, said he is excited.

“I think ‘excited’ is always the word,” Hobbs said of starting again. “New season, new challenges, new players to develop.”

Still, that excitement is tempered in the wake of considerable off-season losses, most notably Carl Elliott, Regis Koundjia and Dokun Akingbade.

In Elliott’s place will be senior Maureece (Reece) Rice, who tested the NBA waters but chose to return to Foggy Bottom for his final year. He shoulders most of the pressure to fill the void left by Elliott’s departure.

“All the weight will be on his shoulders,” Hobbs said. “I think his role is magnified. Everything sort of revolves around him. He’s going to have to take over games.”

Rice will also have to become a vocal leader, something that does not come easy to a guy who is quiet by nature. But Hobbs said that he has seen tremendous growth in Rice’s ability to lead off the court.

“He is the most improved player and person in terms of growth and maturity,” Hobbs said. “Naturally he’s a quiet person, not the loudest. For me, I’m demanding even more, that he steps out of character.”

Filling Elliott’s shoes at the point is sophomore Travis King. Nursing an off-season knee injury that will sideline him for at least the first game of the season, King must step up, find his feet fast and keep the offense clicking with two of the season’s biggest games, at UCLA Nov. 28 and against Auburn in the BB&T Classic Dec. 2., coming early

Also returning to the squad are junior Rob Diggs and sophomore Damian Hollis, two players who established themselves as forces last year and will be part of GW’s starting lineup this season. Junior transfer Wynton Witherspoon, sophomore Hermann Opoku, and freshmen Joseph Katuka, Jabari Edwards, Miles Beatty and Xavier Alexander round out the Colonials’ core.

Because of the squad’s heavy reliance on freshmen and sophomores and because of the A-10’s improved quality this season, the road back to the NCAA tournament will be more of a challenge than in years past. GW is picked to finish seventh in the conference, a spot that will require the Colonials to win four games in four days in order to receive the automatic bid.

“I think we have an identity,” Hobbs said. “When you mention GW, there’s a real sense of what the game’s going to be like (but) the league is so competitive that all it takes is three bad games in a row and you can be in last place.”

Hobbs’ teams have always been overachievers, he frequently says, so predicting where this team will actually go could be as tough as the Colonials actually getting there.

After already setting a precedent last season by qualifying for the program’s third straight NCAA tournament, Hobbs said he now has another goal, this one specifically for Rice: his fourth straight post-season appearance. And to get there, the senior and his teammates must find a way to defy the odds, overcome the obstacles and “overachieve” yet again.

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