This is an article from the Feb. 13, 2006 issue
Deep andrelentless George Washington is a perfect 8-0 atop the A-10 and enjoying itshighest ranking in 50 years
This year'sgut-check moment for George Washington didn't happen on the court. It tookplace on a boat above the Great Barrier Reef during the Colonials' five-gametour of Australia last August. "Eighty percent of the guys couldn't swim,but most of us had jumped in anyway," recalls 6'8" senior forward MikeHall. "The only two left were [sophomore guard] Maureece Rice and Coach[Karl] Hobbs. Maureece said, 'If Coach jumps in, I'll jump in,' and Coach said,'If Maureece jumps in, I'll jump in.' I know it sounds cheesy, but that was adefining moment for us. When they jumped in, we all knew we could rely on eachother. Everybody helped each other in the water, and we had a great time. Sincethen everyone has been clicking."
The Colonialshave been clicking so well that after beating Richmond 80-55 on Sunday fortheir 10th win in a row, they are 18-1 and 8-0 in the Atlantic 10. Moreover,they are ranked No. 8 in the nation, their highest position in 50 years."The ranking doesn't bring pressure; it gives us motivation to keep playingwell because everyone is counting on us," says Hall. "The student body,the faculty, even the maintenance people are so proud to have a team to cheerfor."
Last season'steam had created a buzz on campus too, after back-to-back wins over MichiganState and Maryland in December 2004 thrust GW into the Top 25 for the firsttime in six years. But the excitement passed as the Colonials dropped out ofthe polls by mid-January. "Last year we struggled with success," saysHobbs, who's in his fifth season as GW's coach. "We seemed surprised thatteams were playing us so hard every night. If you watched us at the right time,you said, 'Boy, I don't want to play those guys.' But if you caught us onanother day, you'd say, 'I can't wait to play those guys.' This year our efforthas been far more consistent."
Aside fromconsistency, the hallmarks of this team are speed and an enviable depth thatprovides fresh legs as the Colonials press and trap on defense all game long."We play so fast I don't think there are many teams who can play with usfor 40 minutes," says 6'9" senior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu. "Maybethey can for 20 or 30 minutes, but with five minutes to go, we're still goingto play like we did at the beginning. I think that definitely wears teamsdown."
Mensah-Bonsu,whose parents are from Ghana and whose last name means "whale killer"in his mother's native language of Twi, was averaging 12.6 points and 7.1rebounds a game at week's end. He's one of five players averaging more than 10points a game for the well-balanced Colonials. A native of London who grew upplaying soccer before he moved to Princeton, N.J., at age 15, Mensah-Bonsu hasfocused on basketball for only six years. "I still learn something newevery year," he says. "That's my favorite part of the game."
With Mensah-Bonsuregularly drawing double and triple teams, there's room to operate for guardsCarl Elliott, Danilo Pinnock and Rice (the team's sixth man), who have combinedfor 38.4 points a game. But Mensah-Bonsu, whom Hobbs calls the Mayor, drawseven more attention off the court. "Pops has a million-dollar smile,"says the coach. "When he walks around campus, people come up to him to hughim, kiss him and shake his hand."
These days,Mensah-Bonsu's teammates are enjoying the same celebrity treatment. "Youcan't walk a block around campus without getting a high five or somebody sayingsomething nice," says Hall, who was leading the team in rebounding with 7.4a game. "After four years, that is such a good thing to be a part of. We'regoing to keep working hard to make sure that doesn't end."
Saving Grace AtStanford
In what has beena wildly erratic Pac-10 season-preseason favorites Arizona and Washington haveboth lost three in a row and are now fifth and sixth, respectively, in theconference-Stanford (12-7) is becoming one of the league's rare successstories. The Cardinal lost four of its first six games (including one to UCDavis) to start the season, but at week's end it had won eight of its last nine(and five straight) to improve to 8-3 in conference play, and was tied with Calfor second place, one game behind UCLA. According to fifth-year senior guardChris Hernandez, the Cardinal's early woes stemmed mainly from poor executionon offense and "everyone not being on the same page at the same time."But, he adds, "we've worked through that, and we've gotten better. That'swhy we've been successful the last few weeks."
Matt Haryasz, a6'11", 230-pound senior center, is the team's leading scorer (18.5 points agame) and rebounder (9.3), and he has been dominant in the paint during Pac-10play, but Hernandez has been the hero of the last three games. He hit threefree throws at the end of regulation to tie the game in an eventual 76-67overtime win against Washington on Jan. 29; he nailed a three-pointer with 11.3seconds left to beat Oregon 57-56 last Thursday; and last Saturday he scored 22of his 28 points in the second half of a 71-64 win at Oregon State, anespecially clutch performance since Haryasz was out of the game after gettingpoked in the eye in the first half. "I'm just doing what I can to help theteam win," says the 6'2" Hernandez, who is playing out of position onthe wing this year to accommodate freshman point guard Mitch Johnson. "Weall know we can't afford to lose because of how we started the season. Everygame is do-or-die time for us."
The road to a12th straight NCAA berth for Stanford gets treacherous this week. On Thursdaythe Cardinal is scheduled to visit Cal, which has won four straight, and onSaturday, Stanford will square off against No. 5 Gonzaga and player of the yearcandidate Adam Morrison in Spokane. Although some claim that Stanford needs awin to save face for the Pac-10, which has performed badly out of conferencethis year, Hernandez doesn't agree. "We're not going to change theperception of the Pac-10 with one game," he says. "Right now all we'reworried about is winning every game we can."
• Power Rankingsevery Thursday at SI.com/collegebasketball.
Mensah-Bonsu, a versatile, 6'9" forward, draws a crowd on and off thecourt.
Playing a new position, Hernandez has his team back in the Pac-10hunt.