George Washington men's basketball regains its form

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; D09

Jack Kvancz is hearing it from George Washington basketball supporters again. They fire him e-mails and initiate conversation in the narrow halls of Smith Center. Only this time, the feedback received by the longtime athletic director is not questioning the direction of the program or advocating for the dismissal of Coach Karl Hobbs.

That particular storm, stirred up by two turbulent seasons and a precipitous plunge from top 10 in the nation to bottom two in the Atlantic 10, has seemingly passed.

The commentary remains breathlessly fervent, but on the opposite end of the spectrum.

"I heard it every day when we were struggling: 'What are we doing? How come we are so bad?' That's not even a conversation now," Kvancz said Friday. "Now the conversation is, 'Hey, we are really good!' And I am saying, 'Whoa, you're right, but let's wait and see how this turns out.' "

The Colonials (11-3, 1-0) are good -- not great, mind you, like they were between 2004 and '07 when they won 72 games and reached the NCAA tournament each March.

Heading into Sunday's noon tip-off against visiting Xavier (9-5, 1-0), George Washington has yet to earn a signature victory. But it has surpassed the win total for the previous two years (nine and 10) and won six of seven on the road.

"It's great that we are establishing that excitement again," said Hobbs, in his ninth season. "That is step one."

The Colonials' five-man freshman class is contributing more than 31 points and 12 rebounds per game, and with a deeper, athletic roster, Hobbs has reemployed a fast-paced style that defined the program just a few winters ago.

"The past two years were rough," senior forward Damian Hollis said, "but now it feels like a basketball school again."

What triggered the fury among fans and soul-searching by the program's principals was not necessarily the absence of postseason appearances or 20-win seasons, but the abrupt and tumultuous downfall. Programs go through cycles -- a sensational season followed by a rebuilding year before a gradual resurgence. GW not only disappeared from the national discussion; it fell into obscurity in its own basketball-absorbed city.

In the spring of 2008, a starter was booted off the team in the final week of the season and a couple months later two other players were dismissed. Midway through last season, another regular departed. Over two seasons, there were embarrassing losses to Coppin State, Longwood and UMBC.

Amid an 11-game losing streak last January, there was a downright embarrassing defeat to Dayton: Too many players on the court in the final seconds led to a technical foul and provided the Flyers with the go-ahead free throws.

"When you take a program like GW to sixth in the country [in the Associated Press poll in 2005-06], people tend to forget that this is GW," Hobbs said. "We're not getting [high school] all-Americans every year. This is a challenging school, meaning that it ain't for everybody. It's tough academically, it's demanding, and you are going to go through stretches where kids just aren't going to adhere to those demands. As a result, some players were no longer here. You are going to have difficult years sometimes."

Hobbs, whose contract runs through the 2011-12 season, was at the center of the storm.

"What I struggled with is how you went from so good to so bad," Kvancz said. "There wasn't a step in between."

Nonetheless, Kvancz maintained his faith in Hobbs, who, just two years earlier, was being eyed by major programs around the country.

This season, with a promising freshman class, influential sophomores and the resurgent senior Hollis (15.1 points per game), Hobbs seems to have the right mix of personnel. Besides the uptick in talent, the attitude and work ethic are improved.

"Anytime you are trying to coach effort, you are doomed," he said. "The good part about this year is that I am not coaching effort. I am just dealing with the learning curve of so many young guys. They are growing and they are getting better."

Hobbs is using a 12-man rotation and no one is averaging more than 30 minutes of playing time. The most productive freshman has been guard Lasan Kromah, an Eleanor Roosevelt High graduate who scored a career-high 23 points during a 78-71 victory at St. Bonaventure on Wednesday.

The personnel has allowed Hobbs to return to a quick-paced style, which, in turn, has increased the team's scoring average by more than eight points over last season and is forcing nearly 17 turnovers. "On defense," Hollis said, "there is an absurd amount of energy."

The Colonials will gain a truer measure of their progress Sunday against the Musketeers, NCAA tournament regulars who reached the regional semifinals last season.

"We've overachieved at this point," Hobbs said. "But to be 11-3 at this juncture, winning tough games on the road with a young team, I am very pleased with what we've accomplished."

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