As his players dunked basketballs off shot clocks and backboards on the first day of fall practice last month, George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs told the thousands of fans gathered at Smith Center what he hoped they were watching.
"The best team in this area," he said.
At least initially, it's a description that's hard to dispute. The Colonials, who open their season tonight against Kennesaw State, have nearly every key player back from a team that beat Maryland and Michigan State and advanced to the NCAA tournament last season. They're ranked 21st in the country, higher than any other team in the District, Virginia or Maryland. They are favored to repeat as Atlantic-10 champions and are included in virtually every preseason NCAA tournament projection.
"A lot of people are putting a lot of expectations on us," guard Danilo "J.R." Pinnock said. "But their expectations for us can't be as high as our expectations for us."
Pinnock is the only new starter, although 6-foot-9 forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu could miss tonight's game because of a sprained left ankle. Hobbs has said that Mensah-Bonsu is day-to-day. Point guard Carl Elliott and forwards Mike Hall and Omar Williams round out a projected starting five in which every player averaged between eight and 14 points a year ago.
Still, a narrow exhibition win over Division II school Augusta State perhaps demonstrated that the Colonials are adjusting to the absence of guard T.J. Thompson. Thompson led George Washington in scoring before departing as the first pick in the Continental Basketball Association draft; early in the season, he is already the CBA's third-leading scorer.
Hobbs said virtually his entire team will be needed to replace Thompson's various contributions. Outside shooting will come from sophomore guard Maureece Rice, a prolific scorer in high school who was used sparingly as a freshman. Pinnock, who was second on the team in scoring as a reserve, should become more of a featured weapon. Elliott, who sometimes received ballhandling assistance from Thompson, will have even more decision-making responsibilities. And the three senior starters -- Hall, Williams and Mensah-Bonsu -- will fill Thompson's leadership role.
With a 27-game schedule that includes just one meeting with a team in this week's top 25, the Colonials will also need to remain focused, something Thompson has already stressed to Hall during their weekly phone conversations.
"It's going to be easy to play against Maryland; our mind frame's going to be so pumped up," Hall said. "It's going to be easy to play against a Temple, a Dayton, an Xavier. But we have to be the same way no matter who we play, no matter who's lining up against us, and that's what we're going to have to learn these first few games."
Tonight's game, for example, comes against a Kennesaw State team spending its first season in Division I. The Owls won the Division II national championship in 2004, but have five new starters this season and already lost to Division II school Alaska-Fairbanks by a double-digit margin.
And they are hardly the lone soft spot in a nonconference schedule that can be generously described as forgiving. Of 11 nonconference opponents, only N.C. State played in last year's NCAA tournament. Seven of the teams were ranked in the bottom half of Division I, according to the Web site RPIRatings.com. The 11 teams are a combined 9-22 this season.
"I feel like we should come out against these teams and take it like it's our last game," Elliott said. "Those kind of games we definitely should win. Those are the type of games that will break us if we come out slacking."
While the schedule isn't likely to do George Washington any favors in the NCAA's actual RPI rankings, which are not released publicly, Hobbs said the schedule was "just where it needs to be."
"It's a terrific schedule," he said. "Now what we've got to do is go out and play up to our expectations."