Part 1: George Washington's ascent to the big time
Posted: Tuesday February 14, 2006 12:58PM; Updated: Tuesday February 14, 2006 2:05PM
From left: Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Danilo Pinnock, Carl Elliott and Maureece Rice are leading GW's charge up the national polls.
Karl Hobbs is among the nation's most animated coaches on the sidelines.
The outside of Hobbs' modest townhouse office in Foggy Bottom.
Washington, D.C., is college basketball's hotbed of 2005-06, with the nation's No. 7 team (George Washington) and No. 17 team (Georgetown) leading a local hoops renaissance. SI.com's Luke Winn visited the nation's capital for two days last week with the Colonials and Hoyas.
Part 1: On the Rise in Foggy Bottom
The man running the seventh-ranked Division I basketball program in the country does not occupy a palatial coach's chambers attached to a state-of-the-art athletic megaplex. Karl Hobbs' office is in a town house: quintessential D.C., a two-story, red-brick building with stained glass over the front door. To visit him I ascend a narrow flight of stairs and proceed to the end of the hall, where he is camped behind a wooden desk.
"It's very unique, and when I first came here I didn't like it," Hobbs says -- he did, after all, come to struggling George Washington University in 2001-02 after eight seasons as an assistant at East Coast powerhouse UConn -- "but it has a real nice feeling, like home. I actually love it now."
Contentment and success are common bedfellows in the coaching world, and Hobbs can look through the half-open blinds, across 22nd Street, and see the Charles E. Smith Center, where the Colonials are 14-0 this season. The team he assembled from unheralded parts -- a core of athletic juniors and seniors, including forwards Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Mike Hall, and guards Carl Elliott and Danilo Pinnock, who were sparingly recruited yet have been molded into NBA prospects -- is leading a hoops revival in Foggy Bottom, regularly selling out its 5,000-seat arena and bringing recognition back to a program that had been in serious decline at the start of the decade.
That GW is in the top 10 and undefeated in the Atlantic 10 still seems astonishing, even to Hobbs. "All you have to do is name the top 25 teams in the country," Hobbs says, enlisting his interviewer to participate.
"UConn, Duke," he begins.
"Memphis, Texas ..."
He continues: "Illinois, North Carolina, George Washingto- ... excuse me, run that back again. George Washington? That's what it makes you do. I think it's extraordinary what these kids have done."
Hanging over the bookcase behind Hobbs' desk is a panoramic photo of UConn's 1999 national championship team (further Husky ties are a Rip Hamilton mini-bobblehead on the table, as well as a "really long" congratulatory message, following a Feb. 2 win at Xavier, from ex-Husky Donnie Marshall on his answering machine). And on the opposite wall, a large shot of a February 2004 court-storming at the Smith Center, when T.J. Thompson hit a shot with 1.2 seconds left to beat Dayton -- incidentally, the same team the Colonials face on this night. Hobbs would rather his veterans be negative storytellers, however, and traffic in memories like their loss to Fairfield in December '03, in which they squandered a 17-point lead in the final nine minutes and lost in overtime. "I tell them to make sure to share the stories," Hobbs says. "Tell the younger guys about Fairfield. Make them realize how far we've come."
If they had to, though, what positive tale would you have them spread, Coach? "Yet to be told," he says, alluding to March. "Yet to be told."
TOP REBOUNDERS: Mike Hall (7.5), Mensah-Bonsu (7.2 rpg), Pinnock (5.0 rpg)
SKINNY: The Colonials' size and athleticism are unmatched in the A-10; they prefer to play "at 90 miles per hour," according to Mensah-Bonsu, and lead the league in scoring at 80.7 points per game. Gauging GW against the nation's powerhouse programs is difficult, however; the Colonials' non-conference schedule featured just two teams in the top 50 of the RPI -- Maryland (which they beat 78-70) and N.C. State (which they lost to, 79-58). To validate its top-10 status, GW will need to go deeper in the NCAA tournament than it did last season, when it entered as a No. 12 seed after winning the A-10 tournament and bowed out in the first round to fifth-seeded Georgia Tech.
Two hours before game time last Wednesday, 26-year-old Andrew Wiseman is seated at a table in Lindy's Red Lion, a pub just blocks from the Smith Center, with a Foggy Bottom Ale in his hand. His red winter coat is unzipped to reveal a gold -- "buff is what they call it," he corrects me -- Colonials jersey with Mike's Hall's number 3.
Wiseman is a GW alum and devoted season-ticket holder -- a geography major, he stayed in D.C. to work for the city as a cartographer, and on the side, he is the founder of the colonialhoops.com blog, whose traffic continues to grow as the Colonials rise up the polls. GW fans, the soft-spoken Wiseman explains, tend to be a little "sensitive" about their position in the D.C. hoops hierarchy: "We're the third banana," he says. "The local news will come on and will say, here's what happened at Maryland, and here's what happened at Georgetown, and then it's us."
It may not be that way for long. The Colonials' profile is rapidly escalating. They're ranked 10 spots above the Hoyas, whom they don't play -- a situation that the two schools, given their recent success, are starting to take heat over. And the Terps, whom GW beat, 78-70, on Dec. 5, have fallen out of the polls. Hobbs said that seeing GW become D.C.'s team "is definitely a goal" of his, and Wiseman shares the same optimism -- with one caveat: "I think we could be D.C.'s team," he says, "but the key is Hobbs staying around."
A byproduct -- one GW fans whisper about -- of the team's explosion is that Hobbs' stock as a candidate for more lucrative jobs is soaring. "I hope Hobbs can be our [Phil] Martelli [who led fellow A-10 team St. Joe's to a No. 1 seed in 2003-04]," Wiseman says. "I'd like him to be here for a while. Maybe that's a pie in the sky, but I think it's possible."