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Running With the Big Boys

 

The inside story of how a midlevel school built a Top 10 team -- and hopes to reap the rewards in the NCAA tournament

By STEFAN FATSIS

March 13, 2006; Page R1

 

In late November, Karl Hobbs sat behind a cluttered hardwood desk in a small office at George Washington University in the nation's capital and evaluated his basketball team.

 

The fifth-year head coach was optimistic. The Colonials had lost just one key player from a team that had won its conference championship. The starting lineup was experienced -- three seniors and two juniors -- and the team overall was fast, strong, deep and balanced. Preseason polls ranked GW in the Top 25.

 

Mr. Hobbs's goal was both simple and ambitious: to make a name for his school -- and himself -- in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament almost four months later. "What can I do to put us on the national scene?" he said. "What can I do to bring attention to this university?"

 

THE JOURNAL REPORT

 

 

 

See the full NCAA Basketball Tournament report. Plus, download printable men's brackets and check back Monday night for the women's brackets. Plus, see tournament records, bracket facts and more. (Adobe Acrobat required)Of the 334 colleges and universities that play men's basketball in Division I of the NCAA, 65 will join March Madness, the three-week-long national ritual that begins tomorrow in Dayton, Ohio, and culminates April 3 in Indianapolis. Most of the tournament participants belong to one of the six richest intercollegiate athletic conferences, which have produced the last 15 national champions.

 

GW doesn't. Its basketball revenue is about one-quarter that of the nearby University of Maryland's. Its games are rarely on national television. Its gym has foldout bleachers and seats fewer than 5,000 people, and even so fills up only infrequently.

 

And yet every year GW and its peers dream of dethroning the Dukes, Connecticuts and Michigan States that dominate the sport. The allure is great. National expo-sure, fatter donations, more applicants, buzz among elite recruits -- and a larger slice of the tournament revenue the NCAA distributes to its members, projected at $123 million this year.

 

"You're sort of waiting," says Mike Jarvis, who coached GW to the tournament four times in eight seasons in the 1990s. "You load up, and if everything goes right, then you have a chance."

 

This year, GW had a chance. The Colonials had NCAA tournament experience. Two of the seniors hoped to be drafted into the National Basketball Association. As underclassmen abandoned big-conference schools for NBA riches, Mr. Hobbs believed a non-major stocked with talented upperclassmen one day soon would reach the Final Four, maybe even the title game.

 

POWER BALL

 

 

 

PODCAST: WSJ's Stefan Fatsis interviews Jeff Orleans, executive director of the Ivy League, to discuss how college basketball's power structure is shaping the game in general and the tournament in particular.So why not this team? Why not this season?

 

BIG DREAMS, LIMITED RESOURCES

 

In the 1988-89 season, GW posted a record of 1-27. The university's new president, Stephen J. Trachtenberg, considered dropping to less competitive Division III. But he decided to stay in Division I and invest more in sports. "I think it's very hard to say you're committed to excellence if you're prepared to deny excellence in a very conspicuous and public aspect of your enterprise," says Dr. Trachtenberg, who still heads the school.

 

GW hired Mr. Jarvis, who reached the "Sweet 16" of the NCAA tournament in 1993 and left in 1998 for St. John's of the Big East Conference. His replacement was Tom Penders, a friend of GW athletic director Jack Kvancz. Mr. Penders had recently resigned as head coach at the University of Texas.

 

The Colonials were mediocre under Mr. Penders and, worse, got into trouble. A player was convicted of sexually assaulting a prostitute at gunpoint in his dorm room. Four others used an assistant coach's telephone access code to place more than $1,400 in calls. In 2001, Mr. Penders resigned.

 

Mr. Hobbs, a 5-foot-8-inch former point guard, had GW connections. In high school, he was coached by Mr. Jarvis. (Future NBA star Patrick Ewing was a teammate.) His coach at the University of Connecticut in the early 1980s was Dom Perno, now GW's head of athletics fund raising. For eight years, Mr. Hobbs had been an assistant to Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, a friend of Mr. Kvancz.

 

 

At Connecticut, Mr. Hobbs was known as an aggressive recruiter who landed future NBA players including Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons, whose bobblehead doll adorns the coach's desk. That wouldn't happen at GW. The small-time gym, the lack of exposure, the local standing behind Maryland and Georgetown -- all posed obstacles. "Very few kids are making a decision because you've got a great engineering department," he says.

 

Not including salaries and scholarships, GW spends about $1 million a year on men's basketball, one-fourth as much as some elite programs. The Colonials travel by bus when others fly, fly coach when others charter. A home sellout generates about $25,000, one-tenth to one-fifteenth of what a big school can get. Mr. Hobbs's base salary is close to $400,000, Mr. Trachtenberg says, with bonuses for conference success, NCAA appearances and player graduation rates. Coaches at some larger programs earn $1 million or more.

 

The Colonials won 12 games in each of Mr. Hobbs's first two seasons. Then, in 2003-04, they went 18-12 and reached the postseason National Invitation Tournament, and followed that with a 22-8 record, including a first-round NCAA tournament loss. Attendance increased each season.

 

Mr. Hobbs wanted a bigger commitment from the university to extend his team's progress. But Mr. Kvancz, a college basketball coach and administrator for more than 35 years, had orders from on high: Do well with what you have.

 

"We want to win as much as anybody," Mr. Kvancz says. "The price that we'll pay for that is capped."

 

BUILDING A TEAM

 

GW considers itself academically selective. The private school received 19,000 applications for the current freshman class of 2,400. Those students posted average SAT scores of about 1300. Tuition and other costs are nearly $47,000 this year.

 

But like most Division I schools, GW makes exceptions when it comes to athletes, especially basketball players. Several Colonials spent more than four years in high school, and GW, like other programs, has recruited from schools with questionable educational practices.

 

Enrolling some players with substandard academic backgrounds is "just the nature of basketball," says Robert Chernak, a GW senior vice president who oversees athletics. He says GW limits the number of risky admissions, owing in part to limited resources. With a staff of just five athletics academic advisers, he says, "you can't tax the support system."

 

 

JOY AT GW Players and fans celebrate after the Colonials close their regular season with a dramatic overtime win over Charlotte

 

 

A federal student privacy law makes it difficult to evaluate the academic life of athletes, such as what classes they take or their grades. According to NCAA data for the past two academic years, GW's team ranked in the 50th to 60th percentile of Division I men's basketball in terms of academic progress toward graduation, and in the 20th to 30th percentile for all sports.

 

GW officials say the team's four seniors are on track to graduate in May. "Almost all these kids have been pretty good about trying to get through, and some have excelled," Dr. Chernak says of the team. Mr. Kvancz, the athletic director, says GW doesn't offer classes designed to make life easy for athletes. "There's nowhere to hide them," he says. "This is a hard school."

 

As a coach, Mr. Hobbs wants the best players possible. As an African-American who grew up in Boston's inner-city Roxbury neighborhood, he says recruiting involves giving opportunities to people who wouldn't otherwise get them. That, he says, can mean judging a player's character more than his grades.

 

Mr. Hobbs says he arrived at GW with a strategy: Identify underrated players who could improve. He assembled a group of mostly long, lean athletes who could play multiple positions. He promised them they would graduate, win, become better people and have a shot at the NBA.

 

The 2005-06 team was led by two seniors. Nana Papa Yaw Mensah-Bonsu -- "Pops" since infancy -- was a fan and media favorite. The affable, 6-foot-9 center was born in London and didn't play organized basketball until coming to the U.S. at age 16 for boarding school. Mike Hall, a carefree, 6-8 forward from Chicago, was the Colonials' top rebounder each of his first three seasons.

 

Both players explored entering the 2005 NBA draft but returned to GW. Mr. Mensah-Bonsu was suspended for the first three games of the season because he failed to reimburse NBA teams for tryout visits, an NCAA violation. He attributed the violation to "miscommunication" with the university.

 

The team's on-court coordinator was Carl Elliott, a 6-4 junior guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was recruited by bigger schools to play football; GW dropped the sport in 1966. Danilo Pinnock, a 6-5 junior forward, played for a basketball-centric program at a Virginia prep school after failing to graduate from his public school in Georgia. "People have given me second chances," he says. "I've been blessed."

 

 

Finally, there were two recruits that GW administrators and coaches considered risky at the time. Maureece Rice, a tough, 6-1 sophomore guard, broke Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia public high-school scoring record but didn't qualify academically to play in Division I; he attended three prep schools in one year after that. Omar Williams, a 6-9 senior forward, spent five years at a public high school in Philadelphia and two more in prep schools run by a basketball coach.

 

None of the Colonials were elite prospects in high school. But Mr. Hobbs employed an entertaining, fast-paced, ball-sharing style designed to compensate for the absence of a star.

 

"We don't have the All-Americans, but we have guys that can play," Mr. Mensah-Bonsu says. "No egos on this team."

 

WORKING THE SCHEDULE

 

Like parents arranging play dates, college basketball teams negotiate with each other to schedule nonconference games. It's a complex dance dictated by status, strategy and money.

 

Who plays whom in December is important come March. The NCAA's 31 conference champions get automatic spots in the big tournament. The other 34 "at large" berths are chosen by an NCAA committee that weighs such factors as overall record and schedule difficulty.

 

In 2004-05, GW played four big-conference schools. It beat Maryland, which was ranked No. 12 in the nation at the time, and No. 9 Michigan State, and lost to No. 2 Wake Forest and West Virginia. The team compiled an impressive record and won the Atlantic 10 Conference postseason tournament, earning one of the NCAA's automatic bids.

 

But Mr. Kvancz, who was on the NCAA selection committee for five years, believed the Colonials wouldn't have received an at-large bid had they lost the conference championship game. The reason: The team had lost five games in the relatively weak Atlantic 10, hurting its schedule strength.

 

This year, Messrs. Kvancz and Hobbs took a different approach: more games at home against pushovers like Kennesaw State and Florida International, but only two big opponents, Maryland and North Carolina State. The goal: a gaudy record that would outweigh the pillowy schedule if the Colonials didn't get an automatic NCAA bid.

 

The choice was costly. Home teams pay nonconference opponents as an inducement to play on the road, where losing is more likely. The bigger the host, the larger the payment. So GW would pay a total of about $125,000 to smaller schools to play at the Colonials' home court, the Charles E. Smith Athletic Center, while foregoing income of $50,000 to $70,000 a game to visit power schools.

 

"It kills you financially," Mr. Kvancz said. But he reasoned the resulting record would help more than "playing everybody in the world and coming home 0-6."

 

The approach raised the stakes for GW's two big-conference games. Maryland was first, as part of an annual tournament at the 20,000-seat MCI Center in Washington in early December. GW had won its first four games, and a victory would justify its No. 19 ranking. A loss would return it to college hoops purgatory.

 

After a practice at the campus gym a few hours before the game, Mr. Hobbs gathered his players around the foul line. He delivered some final instructions: Keep Maryland's players off balance. Pressure them on defense. "And remember, guys," he said, "this game is not going to make us, it's not going to break us."

 

Given the team's weak schedule, Mr. Hobbs knew that wasn't entirely true. But the soft sell worked. The Colonials forced 25 turnovers and beat the No. 21 Terrapins, 78-70. Outside the locker room afterward, the GW staff whooped and high-fived. "How's your schedule now?" assistant coach Phil Rowe shouted.

 

THE DAILY GRIND

 

By Christmas, the Colonials were 8-0 and ranked No. 12. But they weren't attracting attention. "It's not like the news media is camping out at GW," Mr. Hobbs said.

 

After a brief vacation, the players returned to an empty campus and bused to Raleigh, N.C., to face No. 19 North Carolina State. The Colonials made just 30% of their shots, were routed 79-58, and sank eight places in the polls.

 

GW practiced on New Year's Day before traveling to Philadelphia to begin Atlantic 10 play against Temple. Until the end of the regular season, the Colonials would go no more than four days between games, usually two or three.

 

Mr. Hobbs believes the grind is harder for players at non-elite programs. At Connecticut, he says, players face constant scrutiny and pressure from media, alumni and fans. GW players don't, so they can lose focus more easily.

 

At Temple, Mr. Hobbs stopped a pregame workout. "You guys are practicing as if it's no big f- deal what's happening tomorrow," he said. Losing would make it difficult to reach the NCAA tournament without winning the Atlantic 10. "That's why we will be a team on the bubble," he said. "Because we can't get five guys to consistently do what they're supposed to do."

 

Leading Temple by just 34-30 at halftime, GW quickened the pace, built a 15-point lead and won, 72-60. In the locker room, Mr. Hobbs distributed praise. But he also warned that, because of GW's place in college basketball's hierarchy, the team couldn't afford to lose.

 

"It's a show-me program," he said. "Show me tomorrow that you can play."

 

THE AFTERMATH OF SUCCESS

 

Of the 52 NCAA semifinalists since 1993, just four have come from outside the power conferences. Each year, only a handful of at-large bids go to non-biggies. "Everything is so tilted and slanted," says Don DiJulia, athletic director at Atlantic 10 member St. Joseph's in Philadelphia. When a remarkable season happens, he says, "it's a wow."

 

St. Joseph's had the last one. Led by national player of the year Jameer Nelson, the Hawks in 2003-04 won their first 27 games, made the cover of Sports Illustrated, earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament and were a basket away from reaching the Final Four.

 

The impact was huge. Athletics revenue increased 50% to about $3 million. Applications rose to 9,000 for the class entering in fall 2005 from 7,500 in 2003. But St. Joseph's hasn't built a new arena or practice facility. Mr. DiJulia says he has used the financial windfall to buy an extra piece of equipment or pay for an athlete to attend summer school. The reason for the restraint: "You can't win and sustain it," he says.

 

Mr. DiJulia says St. Joseph's higher profile has at least helped it gain entree to, if not commitments from, top recruits. But such a player wasn't in evidence for the Hawks when they visited the Colonials' home court in mid-January. GW stormed to a 36-15 lead and won 82-70. Its record: 12-1.

 

On the court afterward, the athletic directors shook hands. "You're good," Mr. DiJulia said.

 

"Yeah, we're good!" Mr. Kvancz replied.

 

"We'll be rooting for you," Mr. DiJulia said.

 

HITTING THE BOOKS

 

In late January, GW assistant coach Roland Houston stood in the hallway of a campus building waiting for a player to emerge from an anthropology class. Spot-checking attendance is done for almost every player. "Just to let him know we care," Mr. Houston said, smiling.

 

The player was in class. Earlier that day, though, an academic adviser told Mr. Houston the player needed to be cautioned about his work. Another problem: A different player had failed a class in the fall. At a coaches' meeting that afternoon, Mr. Hobbs asked about the player's academic standing.

 

"No wiggle room whatsoever," Mr. Houston replied.

 

"I need to have a sit-down with him," Mr. Hobbs said. "He has got to get his s- together. He has got to step it up."

 

GW's three assistant coaches divide the roster and monitor the players' academic and personal lives. In these young men, Mr. Houston sees himself. He grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from the University of Rhode Island and played 14 years overseas. He is 6-foot-8 and, like every Colonials player but one, black.

 

Mr. Houston says he asks players to consider their image on a mostly white and wealthy campus. "You can't walk around here like a dumb jock," Mr. Houston says. "Not on our watch."

 

The day after the academic updates, media reports said Maryland's leading scorer was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season. At the end of practice, before a four-hour bus ride to Pittsburgh to play Duquesne the next night, Mr. Hobbs talked about the news -- and reminded players about new, less-forgiving NCAA rules on academic progress.

 

"I believe they want to eliminate some of you people whose skin color is the same as mine," he said. "Let's make sure we don't have any slippage. Let's make sure we bring our syllabus on the road. Let's not let anything distract us. Remember, you're trying to do something special."

 

The coach repeated one of his favorite sayings: "Don't let it be you." GW beat Duquesne, 94-78, to improve to 15-1.

 

A HIGHER PROFILE

 

Sports aren't central to life at GW, for students or alumni. Despite modest fees of $100 to $1,000, only a few hundred people belong to GW's booster clubs. The athletic department has never received a gift of more than $1 million.

 

The small-time atmosphere is fine with fans. "I expect GW to make do with the limitations it has," says Bob Mentzinger, a 1990 graduate and frequent poster to an online team discussion board. "It creates its own excitement and its own set of achievements."

 

So it wasn't surprising the Colonials' success wasn't translating into donations. "We've got people coming out of the woodwork saying, 'I went to GW, I graduated in '54, this is great,' " Mr. Kvancz said in December. "But there's no check in the letter."

 

The university took some steps to try to change that. In January, GW hired a development executive whose job included athletics. Another first: The alumni office asked for a list of season-ticket holders. Major donors were invited to watch the Colonials play La Salle. The admissions office touted the team in emails to applicants.

 

Some on campus thought GW could be more aggressive. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sports management, said GW should hire consultants to push ticket sales, get merchandise in stores, interest major media in the team and raise the school's national profile. "This is what other universities do," she said.

 

But GW officials felt they were doing enough. Home games still weren't selling out, though ticket demand was increasing. Earlier in the season, "I would go across the street to the deli and say, 'Joe, can you give away these 200 tickets?' " Mr. Perno, the athletics fund-raiser, said the day after the Duquesne game. "We don't go out anymore."

 

CRACKING THE TOP 10

 

"Welcome to the District of Colonials," read a sign in the student section when GW hosted Rhode Island in late January. "HOBBS-ZILLA," said another. Members of the Colonial Army, a student group, wore yellow foam tricorn hats, to honor the school's namesake.

 

GW raced to a 23-11 lead. Then Rhode Island slowed the pace, frustrating the Colonials and Mr. Hobbs, who drew a technical foul for staring down a referee. GW trailed at halftime. Its response? Outscoring Rhode Island 42-17 in the second half and coasting to an 81-62 victory.

 

GW rose to 10th in the nation -- its highest ranking in 50 years. "Our name up there next to the Dukes and Connecticuts?" said Mr. Mensah-Bonsu. "I never thought I'd see that."

 

A COACH'S AMBITIONS

 

Mr. Hobbs doesn't hide his ambitions. He expects someday to coach a national power. When he leads a team to the Final Four, he says, he'll write a book: "Getting There When No One Else Believed I Could."

 

The 44-year-old coach is crafting a persona: volatile on the court, stomping, jumping and yelling at referees; alternately testy and chummy with media; unafraid to tout his accomplishments. "What's happening here is not an accident," he says.

 

After the St. Joseph's game, Mr. Hobbs hosted a reception in the Smith Center for more than 150 of his family members and friends. He thanked his coaches and welcomed a recruit. Then he introduced a video retrospective of his career, compiled by a friend, set to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

 

Mr. Hobbs says he wants to stay at GW. "I have a certain dream and want to see it through," he says. But he also keeps tabs on how other schools pay coaches and support basketball. He notes that Atlantic 10 rivals Xavier and Temple, both in cities, have modern arenas.

 

At GW's Smith Center, he says, "people don't even know basketball is important." Indeed, the 30-year-old building has just a couple of small, dusty trophy cases. Its two concession stands aren't equipped to heat food. The locker room is cramped; players usually shower at home. The basketball offices are across the street, in a narrow, two-story townhouse.

 

Mr. Hobbs wanted a new arena, but GW's administration rejected building one on the last empty parcel of university-owned land. In 2002, the athletics department drafted plans for a Smith Center renovation. The estimated cost: more than $30 million. Mr. Kvancz says he found an interested donor, who withdrew when construction complications arose. Instead of an overhaul, GW in 2004 spent close to $1 million to install new scoreboards and replace seats.

 

Dr. Trachtenberg, the university's president, says a modern arena is on his list of priorities, "but it's about 15th." Even a deep run in the NCAA tournament probably wouldn't change that, he says.

 

"I view all this with humility," he said after the Colonials hit 16-1. The team's success "hasn't happened on a persistent enough basis to see it as more than a wonderful experience.... It's not something I can rely on to make decisions about the future."

 

DOWN TO THE WIRE

 

In a corridor of the Cintas Center at Xavier University in Cincinnati, 12 framed NBA jerseys adorn a wall. Each has a plaque detailing the alum who made the pros. The men's locker room boasts a giant-screen TV, plush couches and a glass wall etched with a large X. The $50 million arena has 10,250 seats and 22 luxury suites.

 

"See what we have to compete against?" Mr. Hobbs said as the team filed into the building in early February. "Now where's a kid going to go when he comes here and then goes to GW?"

 

The game would be GW's first national appearance of the season, on ESPN2. The Colonials could demonstrate to skeptical fans and the NCAA tournament committee that they were as good as their record and ranking. "Let's show the country what we are about," Mr. Hobbs told his players.

 

The first half wasn't what he had in mind. Scoring at will, Xavier built a 17-point lead. At halftime, Mr. Hobbs unleashed an expletive-filled tirade. Banging a whiteboard and screaming himself hoarse, he called his players "gutless." "You're showing everybody you ain't got no tick-tock," he said.

 

Then GW did it again. The Colonials erased a 10-point deficit in six minutes and surged ahead by eight. Xavier recovered to tie the score at 72. The lead changed hands eight times in the last four minutes -- for good when Maureece Rice hit a three-point shot with 38 seconds remaining. Carl Elliott sank four straight free throws and GW won, 89-85.

 

After an interview with ESPN's boisterous Dick Vitale, Mr. Hobbs raced into a euphoric locker room. "Hey fellas," he announced. "I have two things to write on the board." In blue marker, he scribbled: "Beleive in System."

 

"I before E except after C!" Danilo Pinnock shouted.

 

Then Mr. Hobbs wrote, "Dreams To Come True." The players erupted in laughter. "UConn!" they shouted, referring to Mr. Hobbs's alma mater. "UConn education!"

 

Waiting to join a news conference, Mike Hall, who scored 18 points, stood in the corridor surrounded by the NBA jerseys. "Need to get us one of these hallways," he said. Mr. Hobbs replied, "We're definitely going to have one of these."

 

A BREWING CONTROVERSY

 

The Colonials won their next five games, rising to eighth, then seventh, then, at 22-1, sixth in the nation. USA Today and Sports Illustrated's Web site wrote flattering articles. Mr. Mensah-Bonsu appeared on an ESPN show.

 

But problems emerged. During win No. 23, against La Salle on Feb. 22, Mr. Mensah-Bonsu hobbled off the court. Six days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He hoped to return in time for the NCAA tournament.

 

In articles about academically suspect prep schools, the Washington Post and the New York Times noted that GW's Omar Williams and Maureece Rice attended schools in Philadelphia that had submitted apparently bogus course information to the NCAA.

 

The stories put GW on the defensive. In his Smith Center office, Mr. Kvancz said the NCAA had certified the academic records of Messrs. Williams and Rice, clearing them to play in Division I, and GW had vetted the players before they were admitted. Dr. Chernak, the vice president who oversees athletics, said, "We're not doing anything that isn't being practiced at any level of Division I."

 

On March 3, GW issued a statement backing Mr. Hobbs and the players.

 

NOTHING BUT NET

 

A win over Charlotte the next day would make GW only the fourth team in Atlantic 10 history to go undefeated in conference play. A loss by Duke already had left the 25-1 Colonials as the last team in the country with just one defeat overall.

 

Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood felt like hoops hotbeds Chapel Hill, N.C., or Storrs, Conn. Students lined up overnight to get the best seats. A pregame ceremony honored the team's seniors; Mr. Mensah-Bonsu walked without crutches to center court. An ESPN anchor sat amid the Colonial Army during the nationally televised game.

 

Fans witnessed two remarkable finishes. Charlotte erased an 11-point GW lead and was up by five with less than a minute to play. With 10 seconds left, Mike Hall missed a three-point shot to tie. But the ball caromed off the rim to Mr. Rice, who dribbled back out behind the three-point line and swished it: 74-74.

 

In overtime, Charlotte led 85-84 with three seconds on the clock. GW freshman Noel Wilmore hoisted a three-point shot from the right corner. The ball sailed over the rim. Carl Elliott raced from the opposite corner, grabbed it in midair and tossed it in as time expired: 86-85.

 

Mr. Elliott ripped off his jersey and ran around crazily as fans stormed the court. Mr. Hobbs was escorted through the crowd for a TV interview. Students genuflected behind him. He leaned over and, through the din, said slowly, "The Hobbs magic continues."

 

Nearly an hour later, in the locker room, the players gathered for a hands-in-a-pile togetherness moment. Danilo Pinnock said he would forever be in debt to the seniors, but also that the season wasn't over. "We don't want it to end till April-something," he said.

 

FACING THE MUSIC

 

The next day, the Washington Post published an article about Mr. Williams atop page one. It traced his journey through five schools, including one in a row house where players lived. Mr. Hobbs refused comment to the newspaper.

 

That night, in an hour-long phone conversation, Mr. Hobbs didn't dispute the accuracy of the Post account or defend shady prep schools. But he said the article failed to consider Mr. Williams's upbringing, the quality of his public high school or how he had turned out.

 

"The system is flawed, and yes, we need to correct it," Mr. Hobbs said. "But does that mean we should turn our back on these kids?" GW was being singled out, he maintained, partly because of its success. "Check some rosters of some other teams around the country and see what you get," he said. "This isn't a situation where in the last five years no basketball player has graduated.

 

"We run a good, clean program. What we have accomplished is to be admired."

 

Before the Charlotte game, Mr. Williams admitted he didn't work as hard as he could have in high school. "I made some bad decisions academically, but once I applied myself I got the job done," said the 24-year-old, who is majoring in sociology. "All I know is I'll graduate in May with a degree, the first in my family to accomplish that."

 

UNDERDOGS AGAIN

 

GW began the regular season seeking to prove it could run with the big boys. It would enter the NCAA tournament facing the same challenge.

 

The Colonials lost their first game in the Atlantic 10 tournament, to Temple, 68-53, at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati on Thursday. The defeat wouldn't jeopardize their spot in the NCAAs; the 26-2 record ensured an at-large bid. But it did mean GW would get a lower seeding, possibly exit the Top 10 and face a chorus of criticism that it had been overrated all along.

 

Mr. Hobbs told reporters the recent articles had bothered his team. (The next day, Dr. Trachtenberg announced a faculty-led review of athletics recruiting.) After the media cleared out and the players boarded the team bus, the coach sat in an empty locker room with his assistants. One bad game wouldn't tarnish the season, Mr. Hobbs said. In fact, everyone needed to forget about it. "We gotta grab the tape, we gotta burn it, we gotta pretend it didn't happen," he said.

 

Yesterday evening, GW players, coaches, administrators and scores of fans gathered at the student union on campus to watch the tournament pairings announced live on CBS. The marching band played the school fight song. Cheerleaders lined the room. The festive mood didn't last long: GW was seeded eighth in its 16-team grouping, far lower than expected.

 

Players sank in their black leather chairs and stared in disbelief at the three TV screens lining a wall. The Colonials would play their opening-round game Thursday against ninth-seed North Carolina-Wilmington—in Greensboro, N.C. The reward for winning that game? A likely match-up in the same place two days later against top-ranked Duke—of Durham, N.C.

 

In the end, going undefeated in its conference and posting the best regular-season record in the nation didn't compensate for GW's soft schedule. Mr. Mensah-Bonsu's injury also may have hurt the team in the eyes of the NCAA committee. Mr. Hobbs shrugged and smirked. "How about that?" he said. Then he added: "I need to find out as much as I can as soon as I can about Wilmington."

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