WASHINGTON - Three years ago, the best reason to go to a George Washington basketball game was to watch first-year coach Karl Hobbs throw a tantrum.
''My antics on the sidelines, stomping, jumping up and down - the students, they love that,'' Hobbs said. ''The first year, I think they were coming just to see that, to see how high I was going to jump in the air.''
Now the students come to see a Colonials team ranked in the Top 25 for the first time this millennium. Hobbs has cajoled the program out of the shadow of the scandalous final days of the Tom Penders era to a No. 19 ranking in this week's AP poll.
''It's crazy,'' senior guard T.J. Thompson said. ''You walk down the street, students want to congratulate you. We've come a long way since we started.''
The Colonials (6-1) reached the Top 25 for the first time since 1998 after back-to-back upset victories over Michigan State and Maryland in the BB&T Classic in early December. The BB&T has often been portrayed as ''GW's Final Four'' because it's the only time of the year the school at Foggy Bottom is showcased locally, but this year's team took its title in stride.
''It's a little bit of bragging rights, but that's not our main focus,'' Thompson said. ''Our main focus is to get into the tournament.''
The NCAA tournament is a distinct possibility for GW in a down year for the Atlantic 10 conference. Traditional powers Xavier, Dayton and St. Joseph's are not to be found in the national rankings, leaving the Colonials to carry the banner. In fact, George Washington doesn't have a ranked team on its schedule for the rest of the season.
Not so fast, said Hobbs.
''We have yet to go to Dayton and even be in the game, forget win the game,'' Hobbs said. ''We're chasing. That's the whole thing of our season. We're chasing Xavier. We're chasing Dayton. We're chasing St. Joe's. We're chasing Richmond. We're trying to become consistent winners. We want to be consistently a team that wins 20 games a year.''
That goal seemed a Herculean task in 2001. Penders quit as coach after a 14-18 season marred by criminal charges against a player and a scandal involving players making long distance calls using an access code that belonged to Penders' son.
Hobbs, a longtime assistant at Connecticut, was hired to erase the embarrassment, but he inherited a roster short on talent. He had a 10-game losing streak and went 12-16 his first season.
''I had a few people have to talk me off the 14th Street Bridge that first year,'' Hobbs said.
He went 12-17 his second year and got a contract extension from a school pleased with his dedication to academics and confident that he would eventually make the team a winner. He was pleasantly surprised.
''I really was, given the state of college athletics,'' Hobbs said. ''A lot of administrators talk the talk, but sometimes they don't walk the walk. They say 'We want you to do all the right things, we want you to win the right way,' but yet they don't want to accept the fact that you've got to have some type of patience.
''Everybody wants the McDonald's, man: right through the drive-through. Instantly. What's been nice is when I was hired for the job, my whole thing was it's not going to be a quick fix due to the state of the program at the time. We were going to have to put character before wins.''
Hobbs had to go far and wide to find the right players. Leading scorer Pops Mensah-Bonsu is from England. Alexander Kireev is from Ukraine. Carl Elliott is from Brooklyn. J.R. Pinnock is from McDonough, Ga. Mike Hall is from Illinois, having chosen GW over Princeton after his parents were suitably convinced that the academics were suitable for their bright son.
''We can get quality academic kids, and that's our aim,'' Hobbs said. ''We're not just selling basketball.''
Hobbs has made some inroads into local recruiting, but the task is difficult in a local college scene is dominated by Maryland.
''My recruiting base is very wide and diverse and it's going to stay that way,'' Hobbs said. ''Yeah, I'd like to be able to recruit in this area and go into Mom's living room here. I prefer to get into a car as opposed to get into a plane.''
Attendance started picking up at the Smith Center last year, when Hobbs went 18-12 for his first winning season. This year, the buzz on campus is hard to miss, and Hobbs feels he no longer needs to put on a foot-stomping show.
''Part of that was to get the players to understand how hard they have to compete,'' Hobbs said. ''I think now they're starting to understand that.''
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