For GW, it's tried and true

Effort and hard work have carried Colonials to top of Atlantic 10, No. 6 national ranking

February 24, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- George Washington coach Karl Hobbs could not recall it happening.

Junior guard Danilo Pinnock, however, does have a memory of an opponent playing harder than the Colonials.

"The last time I can say that happened was my freshman year, in the NIT, against Virginia," Pinnock said. "That's the last time I can honestly say we didn't play hard. We addressed that. We don't play like that anymore."

GW responded in 2004-05 with its first Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title, a precursor to what has been the best season in Colonials' history. GW has a school-record 15 straight wins, a 23-1 record, a No. 6 national ranking and qualities that can't be quantified.

"You can have a bad shooting day," Hobbs said, "but I tell my guys, you can never, ever have a bad effort day. That is unacceptable here."

The Colonials haven't had many of those bad shooting days - they lead the A-10 in scoring, field-goal percentage, assists and steals - but what sets GW apart from the rest of the conference is the way it plays with a purpose.

Whether it's mixing defenses from man to 1-3-1, pressing and pushing the pace, or making six passes without a dribble in the half court, the Colonials mean business.

"If you can't play hard, you can't play for us," Pinnock said. "That all starts with the big man. If you watch Pops, he can only go for three or four minutes, because he plays himself to exhaustion. The rest of us just key off that. That's our style."

Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior from London, sustained a slight tear of the meniscus in his left knee in Wednesday's win over La Salle. He could be out two weeks and may not play again until the NCAA tournament. The Colonials are better equipped to replace his numbers than his spirit. In lieu of a single go-to guy, they put five on the floor who can beat you.

"We call that, share the game," Hobbs said. "I'm not so sure I've got a guy that can get 20 points a game consistently, nor do I need one, as long as I can get guys to play to their capability."

Mensah-Bonsu is the most familiar name on the Top 10's mystery team. While Adam Morrison and Gonzaga have had 11 games on network television, ESPN or ESPN2, GW's national exposure has consisted of two games on ESPN2.

Duke and GW are the only one-loss teams in the nation. The Blue Devils' direction was decided last spring, when J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams considered turning pro before deciding to return to Durham. The Colonials faced a similarly unsettling offseason, until Mensah-Bonsu and 6-8 senior Mike Hall decided to pass on the NBA draft.

Hall, Mensah-Bonsu and Pinnock are all 1,000-point career scorers. Sixth man Maureece Rice is one of the five Colonials averaging in double figures.

When the big men establish position on the block, they are rewarded with the ball and respond with dunks. The Colonials are the most imposing outfit in the A-10. Hobbs said that when he was hired in 2001, he inherited the smallest team in the conference in terms of physical size. He went after big men, even though he relates to tough, short guys like Rice.

Hobbs was Patrick Ewing's point guard in high school, where they were coached by Mike Jarvis, the GW boss from 1990 to '98. Hobbs led Connecticut in assists each of his four college seasons and never missed a Huskies' game, at a time when the Big East was building toward an unprecedented three teams at the 1985 Final Four.

"Every year," said Dom Perno, the Connecticut coach at the time, "people told me, `Karl's too small, he can't do this, he can't do that, get somebody else.' Other recruits came in, but no one ever took the point guard spot from him. He was relentless. He knew he had to outwork the opposition, which is what his teams do."

Perno has worked in athletic fundraising and marketing at GW since 1997. He was on the search committee when the Colonials needed a replacement after a messy departure by Tom Penders. Hobbs was an assistant at his alma mater, and had helped recruit Connecticut's 1999 NCAA champions. He arrived at GW with the kind of swagger the Colonials lacked.

The Colonials had a celebrated Sweet 16 appearance in 1993, but they haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1994, and Hobbs knew there would be no quick fix.

"We don't have any McDonald's All-Americans," Pinnock said. "Even if we were No. 1 in the nation, we would have that chip on our shoulder."

Hobbs got Mensah-Bonsu from England, Regis Koundjla from the Central African Republic, and Alex Kireev, another big man, from Ukraine. Hall is from Chicago, Pinnock an Atlanta suburb. Carl Elliott, a strong point guard, is from Brooklyn, New York. Two other regulars are from Philadelphia, the heart of the A-10.

They seem to be the only game on campus, as GW does not sponsor football or men's lacrosse.

Major conference opponents avoid the 5,000-seat Smith Center, and the Colonials are probably the only Top 10 team ever to play at Morgan State.

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