Six weeks ago, hardly anyone expected George Washington to be be 9-4 overall, leading the Eastern Eight Conference with a 4-0 record and playing the type of defense that wins championships.
Last year, the Colonials struggled to win eight games, four in the conference. Coach Bob Tallent was fired and replaced by Gerry Gimelstob, an assistant at Indiana.
"We weren't very good last year," said Wilbert Skipper, a senior guard. "We approached the games much differently and weren't together as a team. This year, everyone had to really work to play. It took a few wins to get our confidence up but now we believe in ourselves. Things have changed around here and the coach has convinced us we can be successful if we work. No one is laughing at GW now."
Third-ranked Virginia (16-1) will play at Smith Center tonight at 8, and although no one around the Foggy Bottom campus is predicting a victory, the Colonials are certain they will not be embarrassed.
"If we play as hard as we can, we won't lose by any 30 points," Skipper said, alluding to Virginia's 86-56 victory last season. "As long as we give a 200 percent effort for 40 minutes, what more can a coach ask?"
That's all Gimelstob asks. "It was simple," he said. "The players know we'll only be satisfied if they play up to their potential. If they don't, they don't play. And everyone on the team wants to play."
Gimelstob learned about preparing a team psychologically from his former boss, Indiana Coach Bob Knight. The GW coach asked Isiah Thomas, the former Hoosier all-America guard, to talk to the Colonials when the Detroit Pistons were in town to play the Bullets Dec. 29.
"I listened to him," said Skipper. "He told us to believe in ourselves and we would do fine. He said if a team works hard 40 minutes and never quits, they'd be in every game. I was never a great defensive player but I've worked at it this year."
Skipper and the other GW starters said the main reason for the team's success is that everyone has accepted his role, as established by Gimelstob.
"We want people to do what they're capable of doing," Gimelstob said. "Everyone plays a part and when he goes in the game, he knows what's expected of him. There are no stars here. We're in this together. We've improved each time out and I have to be happy about that. We don't talk about winning and losing, we talk about playing basketball the way it should be played. If we do that, the scoreboard will take care of itself."
Skipper shot frequently from long range last season, but now is content shooting 15- to 18-foot jump shots. He is shooting 56 percent from the field compared to last year's 45 percent and has increased his assists. He also has a better relationship with Gimelstob.
"I wasn't all that happy with the way he treated me earlier but I began to understand what he wanted," said Skipper, who was a team captain before being stripped of that honor by Gimelstob before the season. "I'm sensitive and I can be hurt. Now I know he tells me things that are good for me. I did a few things wrong and, rightfully so, I'm not a captain any more. But I'm happy with the way things are."
Mike Brey, who played at De Matha High School and Northwest Louisiana, is the starting point guard. The 6-foot senior was set to give up his final year of eligibility and coach De Matha's freshman team before Gimelstob promised him a fair chance to play.
"I was a senior transfer and a lot of coaches will go with youth," said Brey, who averages only three shots per game but has 51 assists and 16 steals. "I'm no scorer and I can't come down and go one-on-one and shake my man, but I've played a lot of basketball and I can contribute. They needed a leader on the court and that's the role I'm comfortable with. I'm the old man out there and my job is to take a charge, play good defense and get the ball inside, keep the big boys happy."
Right now, the happiest player is 6-9 freshman center Mike Brown, who Gimelstob believes is an all-America candidate. One of only two Division I freshmen averaging in double figures in scoring and rebounding (Memphis State's Keith Lee is the other), Brown has far exceeded the coaching staff's expectations. He is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, leading the Eastern Eight in both categories.
Brown is complemented by another senior transfer, 6-9 Penny Elliott. Always a big scorer at Virginia Commonwealth, Elliott was not an instant hit with Gimelstob.
"I wasn't happy with the way I was being used and not being a big scorer was a definite change for me," said Elliott, averaging seven points and five rebounds per game. "I had my best overall game last week in Rhode Island, 17 points and 10 rebounds, and my back is healed now. My role is to play good defense against the other team's big man--Wednesday it's Ralph--and I just try to do my best. I'm playing more defense here than I've ever played before."
The other starter is 6-3 junior forward Oscar Wilmington, who spent most of his court time last year shooting 22-footers and looking for that one sensational dunk. An excellent leaper, Wilmington has been advised to keep his feet on the floor more this year and leave the crowd-pleasing moves to Gimelstob, who has four technical fouls.
"The first couple of years, I took my jumpers and got my dunks without worrying about being yelled at," said Wilmington. "If you want to play, you do what the coach says. No problem with that. You have to play defense and take good shots. The coach must know what he's doing because we're winning and that's fun. Who am I to argue about my role?"