But there’s an unseen factor at work, as well. It’s Georgetown’s practice squad, the so called “White Team” that plays the role of the upcoming opponent during workouts behind closed doors at McDonough Arena.
Though its lineup is fluid, with a subset of the Hoyas’ 15-player roster filling spots as the pending opponent dictates, two particularly skilled and imposing players are fixtures: Sophomore forward Greg Whittington, who was ruled academically ineligible to compete in games on Jan. 12, and former UCLA center Josh Smith, a 6-foot-9, 300-pound-plus former McDonald’s all-American who enrolled at Georgetown this past spring but can’t play for another year.
According to Mikael Hopkins, who struggled in his new role as the Hoyas’ starting center in the season’s early going, the challenge of scrimmaging against Smith has helped raise his level of play.
“He’s a big guy,” the 6-9, 223-pound Hopkins said. “It prepares me for the next week, knowing that most of the time Josh is bigger than the guy I’m going to be playing against the next game.”
Over the last three games, Hopkins is averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists — a marked improvement. His performance in last Saturday’s 63-55 victory over Marquette underscores his strides.
Hopkins barely made a statistical ripple in Georgetown’s Jan. 5 loss at Marquette, contributing four points and two rebounds in the 49-48 defeat, while Marquette’s 6-8, 290-pound Davante Gardner romped for 12 points and seven rebounds.
In Saturday’s rematch at Verizon Center, Hopkins led the Hoyas (18-4, 8-3) with nine rebounds and added six points and three blocks, while Gardner was held to two points and two rebounds.
Added junior forward Nate Lubick, who faces Smith and Whittington in practice: “[Smith] is a big body to get around in practice. I mean, just rebounding-wise, we haven’t really had to box against anyone like him in a regular game. That actually has probably helped — him and Greg being on the scout team. I mean, most teams in America don’t have that!”
That said, Coach John Thompson III would rather Whittington elevate his starting lineup than practice squad. Asked if there were a chance Whittington could return to the lineup this season, Thompson said “slim,” declining to elaborate.
The 6-8 Whittington was Georgetown’s second-leading scorer and rebounder (12.1 points, 7.0 rebounds per game) when school officials announced he had been ruled ineligible.
Smith, who was ranked among the nation’s top five center prospects in the 2010 recruiting class, must sit out a full year under NCAA transfer rules before becoming eligible to compete for Georgetown.
Georgetown could use both big bodies Friday at Cincinnati (19-6, 7-5), which leads the Big East and is seventh in the nation in rebounding (41.1 per game). The Bearcats also boast prolific guards Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker, who combined for 49 points in Tuesday’s 68-50 victory over Villanova. That snapped a two-game losing streak that cost Cincinnati a spot in the rankings after climbing as high as No. 8 in late December.
According to his new teammates, Smith is working hard in practice, as is Whittington, projecting a positive attitude rather than sulking over not being able to play.
“He’s always smiling,” Hopkins said of Smith. “I think he’s ready to get on the court. He’s ready to get out here, and I’m ready to see him out there because of the things he does in practice. Be ready for next year, because we’re going to have a real big man for these Big East games. We’re going to have somebody down low who can bang.”