- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Welcome to college basketball’s reverse universe.

Enormous arenas with luxury boxes, national television appearances and boundless budgets almost always are the underpinnings of success in college athletics.

The George Washington Colonials, meanwhile, play in an antiquated gym with collapsible bleachers. They rarely pack the 5,000-seat Smith Center, even though it sits on a campus with 9,700 undergraduates in downtown D.C.

Fewer than half of their games are on television, and only three regular-season games will be televised nationally despite the myriad networks and stations carrying countless games this season.

It’s hardly a top-10 resume.

But here they are, the little boys from Foggy Bottom basking in the big time.

The Colonials are ranked No. 8 in the country, sharing the top-10 spotlight with powerhouses like Duke, Connecticut and Illinois. GW reached the NCAA tournament last year for the first time in six seasons and has not won a March Madness game since 1994. But they have emerged as the little program that could.

“Everything is different,” senior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu said. “I always liked walking around campus, but now I like it a whole lot more. When I first got here, I used to be able to walk across campus and my own teammates might not recognize me. Now it is kind of hard for us to go to the 7-Eleven without somebody wanting to shake our hands or fans saying, ‘Good game.’ ”

The Colonials are enjoying their greatest season in half a century. They last appeared in the top 10 on Jan. 3, 1956, when they were ranked No. 7. The current Colonials have won 10 straight, have an 18-1 record (8-0 in the Atlantic 10) and can match a program-best record through 20 games with a victory at home tonight against Dayton.

The success is even more impressive considering the Colonials must compete for attention in the Washington area with two bigger, tradition-rich powers in Maryland and Georgetown.

Sunday illustrated perfectly how the program remains out of the limelight. Maryland lost on national television at N.C. State. Georgetown drew more than 13,000 to MCI Center for its win against then-No. 9 Pittsburgh in a game televised in Big East markets.

Meanwhile, several hundred seats behind each basket at Smith Center remained empty — officially, the game was announced as a sellout — as the Colonials defeated Richmond in a game carried just regionally on Comcast SportsNet.

Regardless, the Colonials enjoy the raucous atmosphere in their bare-bones bandbox and know how far they have come.

“What they have done is extraordinary,” coach Karl Hobbs said of his players. “They have made this a special place to play basketball. It is incredible what they have done considering the state of the program when they arrived. Not only the winning but the fans and how they have turned this whole thing.”

Still, the Colonials have their critics. GW has not beaten a team currently in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. They have, in fact, played only one team now in the Top 25 — losing to No. 16 N.C. State by 21 points in December — and won’t face another the rest of the regular season.

The nonconference slate was filled with Division I bottom-feeders. GW’s league — the Atlantic 10 — is suffering a second straight down season, with the Colonials the only sure NCAA tournament team.

Nevertheless, Hobbs clearly has transformed the scandal-ridden and losing program he inherited from predecessor Tom Penders. In his five seasons, the Colonials have become a consistent winner and the class of the conference.

Hobbs suffered two losing seasons when he took over but found underrated and overlooked players like Mike Hall and Omar Williams that he could mold into virtually interchangeable parts of his pressing, up-tempo style of play.

The Colonials produced a winning record and reached the NIT in the 2003-04 season. Last season they went 22-8 and won the A-10 tournament for the first time, earning an automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Expectations were high coming into this season, but reaching the top 10 has surprised even this confident group.

“When we were freshmen, I saw the potential we had if we worked hard. I never imagined this much,” said Hall, one of five Colonials averaging in double figures and one of eight who play at least 15 minutes a game.

Hobbs said he does not particularly enjoy the Colonials’ new status, though he does like seeing his players get better and enjoy their success. He has a typical coach’s attitude, afraid it all could end at any moment.

“The expectations just went up,” Hobbs said. “It gives [the media] an opportunity to smack us when we lose and say we shouldn’t have lost the game. … I want to enjoy when the season’s all over. I don’t enjoy the process.”

The veteran squad appears to agree.

“We are in the top 10, and that is motivation enough,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “But if we lose in the first round of the [NCAA] tournament or the A-10 tournament, we would have just been another team. We have to win the A-10 tournament and go to the round of 64 and try to win as many as possible. That is when I think we can be satisfied.”

In the meantime, they will just enjoy their new status as Big Men on Campus.

“Students are always thanking us,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “They can brag to friends at other schools that we have a top 10 team. Just going into the students’ center to get food and everybody is saying ‘hi’ or ‘congratulations’. They are just thanking us. It is kind of overwhelming for someone to thank us for doing the thing we love.”

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