RICHMOND, VA. — RICHMOND, Va. -- A year ago, Virginia Commonwealth resided at the bottom of the Metro Conference, and transfer Bernard Hopkins was introduced to Division I against the likes of Louisville, Tulane and Virginia Tech.
VCU since has moved to the Colonial Athletic Association, and power forward Hopkins is the leading candidate for CAA Player of the Year. The obvious assumption is that Hopkins is repeating the big-fish-in-a-little-pond act he perfected at Overlea High and Hagerstown Junior College. But easier competition doesn't explain all of his increased production.
"Bernard isn't dominating just because we changed leagues," VCU coach Sonny Smith said. "He's slimmed down, and that's made him a quicker, better player who can do more things. He's much more confident, but he was feeling that late last year in the Metro. He's good for almost a double double every night."
Hopkins, 6 feet 7, still goes 240 pounds, but he's no longer just a wide-body. He dropped 10 pounds over the summer, and in the process beefed up his game. Hopkins still thrives on put-backs, but now he also can fill a lane in transition, break a press or find the open man when he's double- or triple-teamed, which happens most possessions.
"Hopkins was like a man playing with children out there. No, not children. He was like a man playing against babies. He beat us every way you could," James Madison coach Lefty Driesell said last week, after Hopkins bruised JMU for 24 points and 17 rebounds.
Actually, there is one hole in Hopkins' game. If he could stick the 15-foot jumper, NBA scouts would be making more visits to VCU.
"To go to the next level, it's something I have to work on," Hopkins said. "I feel I can hit it, but I just don't shoot it enough."
Why bother when you're a master at creating position under the basket and using the backboard once you're there? Hopkins recognizes that the closer he is to the hoop, the higher his percentage, and that kind of pragmatism has guided his career.
"Don't think about what you can't do," Marsha White told her son. "Think about what you can do."
Running with the wrong crowd as a freshman at Lake Clifton High? Follow Mom's orders and move to Overlea, where Hopkins scored 1,554 points and the Falcons went 61-5 in his three seasons. He didn't play in the only loss as a junior; and as a senior, the lone loss came in the state 2A final, when he played with a stress fracture in his foot.
Academic deficiencies cancel a football scholarship to Boston College and end your days as a tight end? Make the difficult decision to instead concentrate on basketball, and head to Hagerstown to intensify the lessons that began at Baltimore's rec centers.
Want to make sure that you make the most of your two years in Division I? Pass on the glitter of UNLV and the Big Ten grind of Iowa. Looking for a coach who knows something about power forwards? Go with VCU and Smith, who had Charles Barkley at Auburn.
"I didn't have a year or two to establish myself at a place like Vegas or Iowa, but I felt I could make a difference here right away," Hopkins said. "Charles [Barkley] was also a big influence on my coming here. He's still close with Coach Smith, and I talked to him on my visit."
Smith, meanwhile, was sold on Hopkins' work habits, which aren't restricted to basketball. He's a regular speaker at area schools, closing in on a degree in administration of justice and just starting an internship at a home for troubled boys.
Hopkins averaged 13.7 points and 8.5 rebounds last season, when he wasn't the focal part of his team for the first time since he posted up for a Cecil-Kirk AAU powerhouse that included Donta Bright, Cyrus Jones and Kevin Norris. VCU kept Virginia Tech out of last year's NCAA tournament with an upset win, but had little else to cheer about en route to a last-place finish in the Metro.
That league's merger with the Great Midwest to form Conference USA didn't include VCU. Now, the Rams (12-7, 5-1) are tied with North Carolina-Wilmington atop the CAA and contemplating their first NCAA tournament berth since 1985, thanks to orders to get the ball to Hopkins.
Hopkins is averaging 16.5 points on 60.4 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds, and has had double doubles in 10 of 19 games.
"I'm like any other coach," Smith said. "I'm always telling the team it's a five-man game, but by now, our guys had better know who the go-to guy is. Our offense has become very simple. When we get the ball to Bernard Hopkins, he scores and we win."