GW's rebuilding project gives hope to state schools in need of major repair

March 20, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Three George Washington players and their coach, Karl Hobbs, all sat before the cameras Friday night and expressed virtually the same emotions about falling to Georgia Tech in the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament in six years.

"I'm feeling a little overjoyed, and yet disappointed," said senior point guard T.J. Thompson.

Conflicting as those feelings are, it's safe to say Thompson and the rest of the Colonials wouldn't trade them for what a bunch of teams between D.C. and the northern border of Maryland are feeling. That is, lots of disappointment, very little joy. GW was the only team in this vast area to make the tournament, and it's hard to envision the appeal of that traveling all the way up the parkway to here.

In-state fans, though, can find inspiration in the path George Washington took. After all, it's the same one most of the Division I schools around here are just setting foot on. The exception, of course, is Maryland, whose letdown of a season looks like the John Wooden UCLA dynasty compared to most of their brethren.

Thompson, the GW guard, described his team's rise well. As a freshman - which was also Hobbs' first year at the school and as a college head coach - "We were just struggling to stay in games with people."

Coming off a letdown of its own, the three-year Tom Penders era, George Washington was 12-16 in 2001-02. This season, the Colonials went 22-8, won their division in the Atlantic 10, won the conference tournament, and might have been separated from an upset of Georgia Tech only by some horrid free-throw shooting.

Hobbs, coming in from his assistant position at Connecticut, rebuilt from the ground up, brought in solid if not nationally renowned recruits, and saw it pay off this year. It should pay off next year, too, since Thompson is the only player of the top nine the Colonials lose.

It's not unlike the path on which Gary Williams led Maryland out of the dark post-probation ages. As hopeless as things looked for the Terps in the early 1990s and for GW four years ago, it was proven that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn't an oncoming train.

Any light will be welcome after a statewide blackout that goes even deeper than colleague John Eisenberg described a week ago. It's not just that Maryland schools were shut out from the NCAAs for the first time in 13 years; it's how far most of them were even from respectability.

Again, you Terps fans think you're in hell with your 17-12 record and your NIT bid? At least you're not Coppin or Morgan, who came tantalizingly close to .500, but didn't get there.

Coppin and Morgan had it good compared to UMBC, which stumbled in at 11-18. And the Retrievers can be thankful they weren't Towson, Loyola, Navy or Mount St. Mary's; none of them reached double-digit wins.

Many of those schools had to then watch teams in their own one-bid conferences have their day in the tournament. The biggest first-round upset was 14th-seeded Bucknell beating Kansas. Bucknell won the Patriot League, which includes Navy. Next biggest: 13th-seeded Vermont over Syracuse. Vermont won the America East, which includes UMBC.

Meanwhile, Delaware State represented the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference well against Duke (eight years, already, after Coppin put it on the national radar with its own shocker). Fairleigh-Dickinson made Illinois nervous after having won Mount's Northeast Conference. And while Niagara got smoked by Oklahoma, it also got lots of publicity after winning Loyola's conference, the Metro Atlantic.

There are dreams available for grabbing out there. GW, stumbling around not long ago in the same place these Maryland schools are now, got in position to grab. The question here is whether these programs have already put the next version of Hobbs in place already.

Four of the aforementioned schools hired new coaches before this season, and they all (as they say) struggled to stay in games with people. None struggled more than Pat Kennedy, who brought a record of previous turnarounds to Towson and went 5-24 out of the box.

Loyola's Jimmy Patsos, Gary Williams' longtime second-in-command, went 6-22. Billy Lange arrived at Navy from Villanova's staff (yup, another assistant from a successful Big East program) and went 9-19, up from 5-23 the previous year. Randy Monroe was elevated at UMBC after 10 years as an assistant. Coming in with a whole extra year of experience, meanwhile, was Milan Brown at Mount St. Mary's, where he's still 47 years away from matching Jim Phelan's tenure.

They all hope to do what Hobbs did Friday night after his team was eliminated: write on a locker-room chalkboard accomplishments like that 22-8 record, wins over teams like Michigan State and Maryland, a conference title, an NCAA berth.

"I'm reflecting back a little bit on how far we've come in such a short time," Hobbs said.

The schools around here have the first part of the formula down. They've got a long way to go.

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