- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON -- Pops Mensah-Bonsu's first dunk in a game at George Washington is still being discussed like it was folklore.
The story, much like the one about Mensah-Bonsu's ancestor slaying a whale while on a ship off the coast of Ghana, continues to take on almost mythical proportions.
There is still no video to document the truth about the dunk, but to those who witnessed it three years ago in an exhibition at the Smith Center, it goes something like this:
"It was his first exhibition game, and Pops missed a free throw, and while everyone was standing around, he jumped up grabbed the rebound and dunked it," said GW assistant Steve Pikiell, his eyes opening wider and his voice raising with enthusiasm. "He dunked his own missed free throw!"
No. No. No. It wasn't even that basic, intoned GW head coach Karl Hobbs, who piped into the conversation.
"It was something only Dominique Wilkins could have done," Hobbs said. "You realize, before anybody reacted, he dunked it, hit the floor and popped up. The crowd didn't know how to react. It was quiet and then everyone was like, 'Did you see that?'"
Wait a minute. What do you mean, he hit the floor and popped up?
"He missed the free throw and then dunked it all in one motion and he landed right on the ground, face down, and his adrenaline got him back up so fast," GW senior guard T.J. Thompson said.
Hobbs said the crowd, staff and players saw him hit the floor, his chest breaking his fall, and then, "Wham, he bounced right back up."
"To this day, I don't know what I did because the game wasn't televised," Mensah-Bonsu said. "I was really, really nervous since it was my first college game. I had missed three or four shots and got to the foul line. I missed the first one and was really nervous after that and then when I missed the second one, I went up really high. When I'm nervous, I jump high, but I don't remember jumping this high ever in my life."
"We looked at each other as coaches when it happened and said, 'What the hell do we have on our hands,'" Hobbs said. "It was that phenomenal a play."
Fortunately for the Colonials, that is hardly the end of Mensah-Bonsu's story at GW. He has developed the past two seasons into one of the most exciting and anticipated dunkers in the country, to the point where students at GW will throw up Corn Pops cereal when he dunks the ball. But Mensah-Bonsu is also becoming one of the better forwards in the Atlantic 10 and the potential reason GW could become the new "It" team in college basketball.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another more gifted athlete at his size (6-9, 218) in the country," Hobbs said. "He's just so graceful."
No one is expecting the Colonials to go on a Saint Joseph's-like undefeated run in the A-10. But don't be surprised if GW, the A-10 West Division favorite, opens the season against Wake Forest in the Preseason NIT on Nov. 15 running stride for stride with the second-ranked Demon Deacons.
This team isn't just about Mensah-Bonsu dunking. The Colonials have go-go guards who like to push the ball and score at will, like Thompson, sophomores J.R. Pinnock and Carl Elliott and freshman Maureece Rice, as well as Mensah-Bonsu's running mates inside, Omar Williams and Mike Hall. Sure, the Colonials are defensively challenged, giving up 70 points a game and allowing teams to shoot 43 percent against them. That is still a work in progress. But don't sleep on this team one bit.
"What we really like about our team is that not one guy in the league was in the top 10 in scoring last season yet we were second in the league in scoring (75.3 ppg) to Saint Joe's," Pikiell said. "We share the game. That's what we say here, 'Share the game.'"
The Colonials finished 11-5 in the A-10 West, one game better than Elite Eight participant Xavier (10-6). But GW lost to Xavier 70-47 in the A-10 tournament semifinals in what was likely an elimination game for the Colonials. They finished at 18-12 a week later with a 13-point loss to Virginia in the first round of the NIT.
"What makes us interesting is that most of our guys are all versatile," Hobbs said. "But we have to play harder than we did last year. It's as simple as that. We have to be tougher collectively. If we do that then we have an opportunity to be an NCAA team."
Which brings us back to Mensah-Bonsu. Sure, the Colonials are, as Mensah-Bonsu says, one of the most entertaining teams to watch because of the up-tempo play, the alley-oops and the rush that fans get from the fast-paced action.
But that won't mean as much if the Colonials don't make the NCAAs.
And that won't occur unless Mensah-Bonsu is more consistent. He had his moments last season, like 25 points and 12 boards against Rhode Island and 23 and 11 against West Virginia. But he also disappeared with a two-point game against Temple and a five-point game against Dayton.
The rest of the team and staff refer to Mensah-Bonsu as "the mayor," in deference to the students' reaction to him on campus. His smile is infectious, his personality contagious, always trying to emit positive vibes. The London native didn't play basketball until, in his early teens, his brother, Kojo (who played at Washington State), got him interested in the game. His parents sent him to New Jersey in high school to play at St. Augustine Prep.
"I always loved the sport and it just grew on me," said Mensah-Bonsu, whose full name is Nana Papa Yaw Mensah-Bonsu.
Education is extremely important in his family and even though there is talk of a potential NBA career, he wants to finish and get his GW degree.
He wasn't highly recruited, yet when the Colonials nabbed him they had an idea he was something special. The first exhibition, or shall we say the first dunk, proved to be the prologue to what is still a developing story.
Mensah-Bonsu averaged 10.1 points and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman, shooting 58 percent from the floor and blocking 27 shots. He raised those numbers overall as a sophomore, with 11.6 points and 5.4 rebounds, with 30 blocks and 61.6 percent from the floor.
He was named the A-10's Chris Daniels most improved player last season and his dunking makes him an ESPN highlight favorite. Mensah-Bonsu knows, though, that the team has bigger ambitions than appearing in highlight clips.
"We haven't achieved anything yet," Mensah-Bonsu said. "We have high expectations, but (last year) we went to the NIT and lost in the first round. We've still got work ahead to get to the NCAA Tournament."
Just don't take your eyes off the screen if this team is playing because if you do, you might miss a Mensah-Bonsu dunk that could be talked about for years to come.
Andy Katz's 3-pointer from George Washington
1. The Colonials will have to find time for Maureece Rice: George Washington managed a huge coup when it was able to get Rice late in the recruiting period. Rice averaged 32 points and five rebounds at Lutheran Prep in Philadelphia. He can push the ball and isn't afraid to take a shot, even at the college level. He could find it hard to get minutes, though, behind Elliott and T.J. Thompson. If Rice can prove to be a pest defensively, then he has a chance to earn some quality minutes off the bench.
2. The players feed off of Karl Hobbs' energy: Hobbs said he doesn't have to stomp up and down like a maniac on the sidelines anymore. Yeah, right. Hobbs will still provide the same intensity during games because his players say they feed off his adrenaline. He is constantly in motion, which fits right into the Colonials' style of play. If they can maintain that pace defensively and be disruptive, they have a shot to be a factor in March.
3. Scheduling is still a chore for the Colonials: GW still has a hard time getting quality home games. It's the same problem that befalls Saint Joe's in the A-10. GW opens at Wake Forest in the Preseason NIT. The Colonials play Michigan State, but that's in the BB&T Classic at the MCI Center. Sure, GW is the home team but the Colonials don't have the same home-court advantage as they would in the cozy Smith Center. They have a shot, if they beat Michigan State, to play Maryland in the championship game the following day. The Colonials are at West Virginia, Florida International and St. Francis (Pa.). GW has four true non-conference home games -- against Morgan State, Fairfield, Mount St. Mary's and Towson. It's critical that GW gets at least one win, possibly two, in its high-profile games (Wake Forest, Michigan State and Maryland) to feel good about itself before the A-10. If the Colonials don't get any of them, then they definitely will have to win the A-10 West over Xavier to have a shot at the NCAAs.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.