- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Without Pops Mensah-Bonsu, seventh-ranked George Washington has to refine its image, and No. 4 Villanova could serve as a blueprint.

The Colonials play tonight at St. Bonaventure without Mensah-Bonsu, who will miss his second game with a slight tear in the meniscus of his left knee. The team’s greatest strength is now on the perimeter with guards Carl Elliott, Danilo Pinnock and Maureece Rice as the focal points.

“They have to go through some growing pains without Pops, but I think they can be just as effective,” Fordham coach Dereck Whittenberg said after GW handed his Rams a 78-67 loss four days ago. “When you start to play all those guards, now they become like a Villanova. Now they become difficult to guard. Now you have four guards out there or three guards and a forward out there. That is even more difficult when you are starting to play against — especially in the NCAA tournament — teams that have all these big guys.”

The Wildcats have become national title contenders this season with a quartet of lethal perimeter players who hit many 3-pointers. GW’s guards may not shoot as well, but the Colonials had an impressive 22 assists on 30 baskets while locking up the Atlantic 10 regular-season title outright at Fordham.

The Colonials (24-1, 14-0 A-10) won’t abandon the inside game completely when they go for a program-record 25th win tonight against the lowly Bonnies (8-17, 2-12), who recently ended an 11-game losing streak. In contrast, GW holds the nation’s longest winning streak at 16.

Six-foot-11 Alex Kireev is starting for Mensah-Bonsu and gives the Colonials a solid, if not nearly as agile, inside target. Senior forwards Omar Williams and Mike Hall also can do damage in the paint, and freshman Robert Diggs is an improving prospect.

As GW tries to become the fourth team in the 30 seasons of the A-10 to go undefeated in league play (Saint Joseph’s in 2003-04 and Temple in 1983-84 and 1987-88 are the others), the outside influence could be the most important. The trio of Elliott, Pinnock and Rice posted 52 points in the win against Fordham by shooting a combined 20-for-31. Rice had 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting as GW excelled in transition and scored easy points off its defense.

The three guards did that without much help from Regis Koundjia. The junior transfer from LSU played only 16 minutes because of foul trouble and was held scoreless. The one-time top-100 recruit was coming off a 13-point performance — all in the second half — in a comeback win against Massachusetts after Mensah-Bonsu went down shortly before halftime.

“This is what we have,” Hobbs said. “This is what we need to play with. Let’s make whatever adjustments we need to make and let’s try to do the things we know we can do.”

For the Colonials, that means playing pressure defense and forcing turnovers to create easy baskets. That’s still working despite the absence of Mensah-Bonsu and freshman forward Montrell McDonald, who is expected to miss his fourth game after being suspended for breaking team rules.

“We haven’t really sat down as a team or individually and said, ‘What are we going to do now that Pops is gone?’” Hall said. “Throughout the entire season, it’s what are we going to do as team, how are we going to play team defense? It’s never been about an individual player. It sounds funny to say. People say it all the time, but that is really how we are.”

And that is perhaps the key to the Colonials’ unprecedented success. The Colonials not only will be playing against St. Bonaventure tonight but will be challenging history.

“It is not something we are focusing on,” Hobbs said. “If we can [go undefeated] — great. That’s a [heck] of an accomplishment. Most certainly it wasn’t like our goal. Our goal was we want to defend our Atlantic 10 regular-season championship, and the next goal is we want to defend our tournament championship. It just so happens in the midst of doing that we have been able to do it without losing a game.”

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