George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs was sitting in the stands of the Smith Center after a practice last week, watching his basketball team shoot foul shots. Hobbs leaned back, blew his whistle and yelled: "The stakes just went up! Twenty push-ups for a missed free throw, 40 if you miss the second one."

The stakes have gone up considerably this season for the Colonials, as they are an overwhelming choice to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, ahead of Saint Joseph's and Xavier, teams that advanced to region finals of last season's NCAA tournament. That's a pretty lofty expectation for George Washington, which played in the National Invitation Tournament last season and hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1999.

"We feel like we haven't proved anything yet," Colonials forward Mike Hall said. "There are teams in this league that consistently win 20 games and are staples in the NCAA tournament. Teams like Xavier and Dayton have consistently won, and we haven't done anything to justify expectations like that. Until we get to the NCAA tournament, we don't deserve any of this recognition."

It won't take long for Hobbs to figure out whether the expectations are realistic. The Colonials open their season tonight at No. 2 Wake Forest in the opening round of the preseason NIT. The Demon Deacons feature all-American guard Chris Paul and seven other returning players, and are a popular pick to advance to the Final Four this season.

"All the games are important," Hobbs said. "We have to try and make the best of this opportunity, knowing that we're capable of playing at this level. This will be a great test for us. This will give us a measure of where we're at and how far we've come."

The Colonials have come far in Hobbs's first three seasons. When the former Connecticut assistant was hired to replace Tom Penders before the 2001-02 season, the Colonials had only 10 scholarship players, and two were declared ineligible by the NCAA.

Hobbs turned over his team's roster, bringing in 11 new players during the last three seasons, including three who were ranked among the top 100 prospects in the nation. The Colonials finished 18-12 last season after winning 12 games in each of Hobbs's first two seasons, and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament field after losing three of their last five games.

More than 5,200 fans attended the Colonials' final regular season game last season, against Richmond. Several hundred more were turned away at the doors of Smith Center and instead watched George Washington lose to the Spiders on big-screen televisions at the student union. The Colonials will play on national television at least five times this season, after appearing on a major network only once during Hobbs's first season.

"I think we were picked to finish last in the league my first year," Hobbs said. "This year, they're picking us to win the league and we got about every vote. We've come a long way in a very short time."

Prognosticators are picking the Colonials to go even farther this season. Xavier lost coach Thad Matta, who left for Ohio State, and standout guards Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato graduated. Saint Joseph's, which was ranked No. 1 last season and finished 16-0 in Atlantic 10 games during the regular season, lost all-American guard Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, both first-round choices in June's NBA draft. Dayton and Richmond, which also played in last season's NCAA tournament, both lost their top three scorers.

So perhaps it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the Colonials were picked to win the conference. They return five starters, including senior guard T.J. Thompson, a preseason all-Atlantic 10 choice who led the team in scoring last season. Junior forwards Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu were named to the preseason all-Atlantic 10 second team.

"We're not really caught up in the attention and hype," Thompson said. "Last year, we went to the NIT and there were four other teams in our league that went to the NCAA tournament. We're still trying to be like Xavier and Saint Joe's."

While Hobbs says tonight's game at Lawrence Joel Coliseum "is not going to make our season, and it's not going to break our season," it could go a long way in justifying the tall expectations. Last season, Richmond won at Kansas, 69-68, a victory that helped the Spiders earn an at-large bid into the NCAAs even though they finished behind George Washington in the Atlantic 10.

"This game will hopefully prove to the nation that our conference can compete with the best teams in the country," Hall said. "It's a great opportunity to gauge ourselves and learn another level of intensity. We've got a lot of good pieces and guys that are willing to get better. I'd like to think we're capable of getting to the NCAA tournament, but we're still a long way away."

Coach Karl Hobbs has George Washington men's basketball pointing toward its first NCAA tournament berth since 1999.There is no sense in trying to calm the high expectations surrounding Karl Hobbs, GW men's basketball.