- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

While Maryland and American traipse off to the NCAA tournament and George Mason, three years removed from the Final Four, takes its 22 wins to the NIT, George Washington wonders what went wrong - and how it got that way so fast.

You remember GW, don’t you? The same year Mason stole America’s heart, the Colonials were 26-1 in the regular season and ranked as high as sixth in the nation. How did they go from that mountaintop to missing the A-10 tournament this March and last - a feat that requires finishing in the bottom two of a 14-team, mid-major conference?

It has been a startling descent, to say the least. But then, no less startling than the program’s rise. And therein, it might be argued, lies the explanation for what’s happened to poor, pitiful G-Dub.

Simply put, the team Karl Hobbs enjoyed a nice little run with from 2003 to 2007 was a mirage, kinda like the real estate bubble. And we’ve all seen what happened to the real estate bubble.

By “mirage,” I mean the Colonials were fortified with players from suspect academic backgrounds, players who had come out of dubious - if not make-believe - “preparatory” schools like Celestial Prep in Philadelphia and Coastal Christian Academy in Virginia Beach. Without the contributions of Omar Williams, Maureece Rice and Danilo Pinnock, there would have been no 26-1. There probably wouldn’t have been much of anything.

It doesn’t matter that the NCAA, in its temporary blindness, cleared such players for competition. What matters is that GW showed itself to be, in certain instances, virtually devoid of standards. And it only got worse when senior VP Bob Chernak, who oversees athletics, tried to defend the university by pointing out that a high school diploma has never been required for admission - as if Hobbs were recruiting home-schooled savants.

The whole campus was sullied by the coach’s corner-cutting. Steve Trachtenberg, George Washington’s president at the time, admitted to being “embarrassed” by the disclosures - as well he should have been. It isn’t often such naked ambition is dragged into the sunlight. GW, it’s clear, was willing to do just about anything to be a “playa” in the A-10, to recapture the lost glory of the Mike Jarvis era.

And now, eight years after Hobbs arrived in Foggy Bottom, the Colonials are back at square one. Indeed, they might even be worse off than that. After all, Hobbs’ first two teams went 12-15 and 12-17; his last two have gone 9-17 and 10-18 (and hovered around 200 in the RPI rankings).

On top of that, he has a reputation now. In the beginning he was an unknown quantity, a first-time head coach sprinkled with some of the stardust from the UConn program, where he’d served as an assistant. But he’s looking more and more like a purveyor of snake oil, like a coach who has trouble recruiting. Otherwise, why would he have been dragging the depths of Celestial Prep - and why would he have brought in transfers like Cheyenne Moore, who got booted off the team last year, and 7-foot-3 Jermaine Middleton, who transferred out almost as quickly?

Here’s the thing about transfers (and Hobbs has had plenty of them): Their original schools rarely misjudge their abilities. (D-I coaches ain’t stupid.) And it’s even rarer that one of them ends up making a major impact someplace else. Also, you only get them for two or three years, not four, which just increases the amount of turnover (read: instability) in your program.

Still, no event in the Hobbs era was stranger than the dismissal last March of Rice, a senior captain, mere days before his career ended. Forget about the particulars or about assessing blame, how many times - if ever - have you heard of something like that happening? It was beyond bizarre.

A year later, the Colonials are still lost in the wilderness. They’re said to be bringing in five recruits next season, but there’s so much ground to make up in the A-10, so many schools to climb over. Heck, even Duquesne is no longer a gimmie; the Dukes reached the conference tournament final last weekend. La Salle, meanwhile, is showing signs of life again, and rest assured Saint Louis will be heard from now that Rick Majerus is rattling cages. Throw in perennials Xavier, Dayton and Temple - not to mention Saint Joseph’s and Rhode Island - and, well, you can see what GW is up against.

Oh, and did I mention that three of the Colonials’ top four scorers are graduating?

Hobbs’ job is safe for the moment, the university insists, but you can hear the clock ticking. All around him in the D.C. area, programs are enjoying success - without nearly the drama the Colonials have had.

As much as anything, his continued employment might be a case of good luck. In the current economy, an economy down even further than GW basketball is down, how many schools can afford to get rid of a coach who still has three years left on his contract? You’ve gotta admit, there’s never been a better time to have a really bad season… or two.

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