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Georgetown sophomore Mikael Hopkins experiencing growing pains as his role grows

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Every college coach wants smart players — athletes who can grasp complex offenses, dissect sophisticated defenses and react quickly under pressure.

But there’s such a thing as over-thinking situations on the field of play. And that’s what Coach John Thompson III suspects is complicating Mikael Hopkins’s transition from lightly used freshman reserve to starting center for the Georgetown Hoyas.

It’s a pivotal role and a daunting transition for a sophomore, as Saturday’s 49-48 loss at Marquette testified.

Through their feel-good nonconference season, Georgetown enjoyed a considerable size advantage against nearly every opponent. Then came the Hoyas’ Big East opener at Milwaukee’s wildly partisan Bradley Center, where Marquette, riding a 17-game winning streak at the venue, trotted out a 6-foot-11, 275-pound center, Chris Otule, and 6-8, 290-pound power-forward Davante Gardner.

“They’re a big team, and Gardner and Otule are two big, strong kids,” said 6-8 junior forward Nate Lubick, who held down the front court with the 6-9, 223-pound Hopkins. “As much as they were doing with their own offense, they were creating opportunities, too. It was a big job dealing with them the whole day.”

Hopkins’s day got off to a particularly rough start. He missed his first two shots, both from near point-blank range, then missed his first two free throws, as well. After making limited inroads in a poor-shooting half by both teams, Hopkins was relegated to the bench for all but three minutes of the second half, finishing with four points, two rebounds, three steals and no assists in his 18 total minutes.

But neither Thompson nor Hopkins’s fellow Hoyas are losing faith in their undersize big man.

“He’s progressing,” Thompson said Monday, asked to assess Hopkins’s progress. “Now, as in any coach’s world, I would like it to be faster. But I could say the same thing for Greg [Whittington], Otto [Porter], Markel [Starks], Nate and so and so.”

The key, Thompson said, is for Hopkins to settle down and relax. And he tells him this frequently.

“He’s hearing it, so he’s probably thinking about it a little bit,” Thompson said. “We have to make a concerted effort to make sure get him the ball when and where he can be effective. And then he’s just got to relax and put the ball in the basket. He’s thinking now.”

It’s no easy feat, playing center in Thompson’s offense.

Henry Sims was terrific at the role last season, not simply converting the easy shots that came his way but creating shots for teammates on the perimeter. Sims averaged 3.5 assists his senior year, serving as the fulcrum for the Hoyas’ playmaking. But Sims was a far cry from that player his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, prone to turnovers and rarely registering more than one assist.

Starks, a junior co-captain on this season’s squad, points out that such transformations don’t happen overnight.

“He’s stepping into a big role,” Starks said of Hopkins. “Obviously Henry Sims gave us a lot last year, so everybody is looking for it right now.”

Added Porter: “We just need him to take his time, settle down and get used to his new role, doing what Henry did last year. Every day in practice he’s starting to mature more and get better.”

“He’s a talented, talented kid,” Lubick says. “When he gets that motor going — and we see it in practice all the time — it’s impressive. He’s going to be okay.”

Georgetown (10-2,0-1) hopes to get its first Big East victory Tuesday at Verizon Center, where the Hoyas host Pittsburgh (12-3, 0-2).

It was a difficult opening week for both teams, with Georgetown slipping from No. 15 in the rankings to No. 19 following the loss to unranked Marquette, and Pittsburgh falling out of the rankings altogether after losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers.

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