- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

Karl Hobbs took a defensive stance at the postgame press conference.

It was a year ago yesterday the George Washington Colonials escaped Smith Center with a 69-66 win over Massachusetts. GW had not played up to its expected level of excellence, much less its strong record.

“Just so you guys know,” the Colonials coach said sharply, “we are 21-1.”

The Colonials would rise to No. 6 and finish the regular season with a 26-1 record and, at 16-0, become only the fourth team to go undefeated in the Atlantic 10.

It also was one year ago this weekend that Jai Lewis threw an inside-out pass to Tony Skinn, who nailed a 3-pointer to give George Mason what is billed as the program’s greatest regular-season win. The Patriots beat Wichita State 70-67 on the road in a nationally televised ESPN Bracketbuster contest.

The victory over the Missouri Valley Conference leader propelled the Patriots into an NCAA tournament at-large bid and began the Cinderella story that would take the unheralded Patriots all the way to the Final Four.

What a difference a year makes. But such is life as a mid-major program.

Most programs in major conferences like the ACC and Big East have peaks and valleys. At mid-major programs, it is much more severe.

GW and George Mason had career seasons with veteran squads built from the ground up. While North Carolina and Ohio State reload with McDonald’s All-Americans destined to leave early for the NBA, smaller programs peak with senior-oriented lineups, plummet, then start over again.

The Colonials (15-8, 6-5 A-10) this season won six of their first seven conference games but have lost four straight. It may be a disappointing slump, but it is hardly a surprise. After all, GW lost four starters from last season, including early departing guard J.R. Pinnock.

George Mason had a similar exodus. Lamar Butler, Lewis and Skinn graduated from the program. The Patriots (14-12, 8-8 Colonial Athletic Association) have not found a consistently effective lineup and rely heavily on junior college transfers Dre Smith and Darryl Monroe to fill the void. George Mason ended a three-game skid with a win over lowly Delaware on Wednesday.

These Patriots and Colonials teams do resemble teams of their past — just not from last season’s career years. Two years ago, George Mason geared up for its magical run by going 16-13 and getting no postseason berth. The Patriots lost three starters from the previous season’s team, which had set a school record with 23 wins and advanced to the third round of the 2004 NIT with wins over Tennessee and Austin Peay.

The departure of starters Mark Davis, Terry Reynolds and Raoul Heinen meant coach Jim Larranaga had to do a major overhaul. Starters Lewis and Butler came back, while part-time starter Skinn, Will Thomas and John Vaughan moved into the lineup. Folarin Campbell, an all-rookie team selection, also returned.

That group, even though Vaughan missed last season because of knee surgery, carried George Mason all the way to the Final Four the following season.

Similarly, next season’s Patriots should have few changes from this team. Thomas and Campbell will be seniors. George Mason loses only reserve Gabe Norwood from its eight-man rotation. The Patriots again will be league favorites, capable of making some noise in the NCAA tournament.

This season’s GW looks a lot like the 2002-03 team when then-freshmen Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Omar Williams and Mike Hall landed in Foggy Bottom. The Colonials went 12-17 that season with Mensah-Bonsu and Hall starting and Williams as the sixth man. Guards Carl Elliott and Pinnock came in the next season to form the core of NCAA tournament teams in 2005 and 2006.

The Colonials are inexperienced this season. Elliott is the lone returning starter. A pair of 6-foot-8 forwards, sophomore Rob Diggs and Damian Hollis, along with freshman point guard Travis King are the future of the program. GW will get that much bigger next season when two transfers, 6-7 Wynton Witherspoon (Virginia Tech) and 7-3 Jermaine Middleton (Central Connecticut State), become eligible.

That five should grow together next season and peak in 2008-09. Meanwhile, George Mason is developing through a difficult season as it points toward another big run next season.

Such is the life at better mid-major programs.

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