Georgetown basketball heads into Seton Hall game on upswing in Big East play


Otto Porter Jr. (22), here against American in December, averaged a double-double in Georgetown’s impressive wins over Notre Dame and Louisville. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
January 29, 2013

Unranked and down a man, Georgetown played some of its best, most balanced basketball of the season in toppling then-No. 20 Notre Dame and formerly top-ranked Louisville in a six-day span last week.

But co-captain Markel Starks refuses to get carried away by the impressive spurt, which had the Hoyas garnering top-25 votes once again this week.

“Obviously we’re looking for more,” Starks said after practice Tuesday. “We’re trying to find something consistent and keep building.”

Coach John Thompson III said he anticipated the 2012-13 season would be more up-and-down than most, given the Hoyas’ heavy reliance on sophomores. His hope was that a rock-solid defense would help the squad weather the inevitable fluctuations on offense.

That formula worked up until the calamitous 73-45 loss to Pittsburgh in the Hoyas’ Big East home opener on Jan. 8, in which erratic offensive play was compounded by a total defensive collapse.

Then came news that sophomore Greg Whittington, the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, was ineligible to compete as the team prepared to tip off against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 12. Suddenly, the prospect of an 0-3 start in Big East play looked plausible.

Instead, Georgetown won that game by a 16-point margin and has gone on to win three of the four games that followed.

While it’s far too early to declare that the wildly inconsistent Hoyas have found a winning formula, three factors help explain how Georgetown (14-4, 4-3) settled itself after a rocky start to conference play: Better rebounding; a quicker tempo; and new motivation, with Whittington’s absence serving as the rallying cry.

Whittington was averaging 12.1 points and seven rebounds when ruled ineligible earlier this month.

“One thing we stressed we needed more than anything else” with Whittington out, Thompson recounted, “was to make up for his rebounding. “Everything else, we can figure out.”

Freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has established his value in that regard, coming off the bench to prove himself not only a scorer but also a banger with a knack for grabbing rebounds. Sophomore Jabril Trawick flexed his rebounding prowess with an eight-rebound performance against Louisville.

Georgetown is also playing at a quicker tempo. That’s partly a result of having more ballhandlers on the court. It’s also a function improved rebounding.

“If you rebound better and create turnovers, you can get out and run,” Thompson noted. “It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘Pace! Pace! Pace!’ ‘Run! Run! Run!’ But if you’re not in possession of the ball, you can’t.”

And then there’s the Whittington effect.

To be sure, Georgetown is a better team with the long-limbed forward in the lineup. What team wouldn’t miss a 6-foot-9 player who runs like a gazelle and jumps more explosively than any analogy could convey? Starks asked. “He’s a key factor.”

And Whittington remains a factor behind the locked doors of McDonough Arena’s gym each afternoon. He still practices with the team, markedly elevating the skill of the practice squad. And though he can’t compete, his presence is felt, teammates say.

“Right now we’re taking it as a motivation thing,” said sophomore Otto Porter Jr., who has elevated his already impressive play to greater heights in Whittington’s absence, averaging 18 points and 10.5 rebounds in the two victories last week. “One of our players is out: We want to take it upon ourselves to pick up the load and kind of play for him. He’s hurting, for sure. We’re hurting too. We’re just going to pick up the pace without him.”

None of this, of course, guarantees victory over Seton Hall (13-7, 2-5). The Pirates are the Big East’s most prolific three-point shooters, averaging 8.2 baskets per game from beyond the arc to Georgetown’s 5.1. And perimeter defense has been the Hoyas’ undoing more than once this season.

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