If any freshman deserved to bring a shooter’s swagger to his first Georgetown practice it was Smith-Rivera, who scored 41 points in back-to-back games his senior season at Oak Hill Academy. And he backed it up in his college debut, scoring a team-high 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field, including hitting all four of his three-point attempts, in Georgetown’s season-opening victory against Duquesne.
But college defenders, he soon learned, are much quicker than the teenagers he routinely blew past in the prep ranks. And it became clear that his offensive gifts alone weren’t enough to justify his minutes on court. (Not every shooting night has been as charmed as it was against Duquesne; Smith-Rivera hit just one of his 11 attempts against Louisville, for example.)
But he has increased his value to the team, even as his shooting percentage has taken a few wild bounces, by putting more effort into creating shots for his teammates and rebounding. A stocky 6 feet 3 and 227 pounds, Smith-Rivera averaged 1.2 rebounds in Georgetown’s first 13 games. In the last six games, starting with the Hoyas’ 67-51 manhandling of St. John’s on Jan. 12, he has averaged 5.2 boards.
“A lot of people know I can score, and of course I want to come in and make an impact offensively.” Smith-Rivera said Friday. “But I also want to come in and give energy and just play a complete game. I feel like I have to impact the game differently, rather than just scoring. In high school, scoring was all I was known for, really. Now I feel like I can make plays for other guys on our team. And I can also rebound.”
In many ways, Georgetown’s victory over St. John’s last month marked a turning point. The Hoyas had started 0-2 in Big East play and just lost versatile forward Greg Wittington, second on the team in scoring and rebounding, to academic eligibility issues. But they bolted to a 23-point lead and ended up throttling the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden.
Georgetown has won its last three Big East games and five of its last six, with its defense improving at each stage. On Wednesday against Seton Hall, they forced 25 turnovers and held the Pirates to 32.6 percent shooting.
“Our defensive intensity has picked up,” junior Markel Starks said.
Heading into Saturday’s rematch with St. John’s (14-7, 6-3), the Red Storm has evolved, too, winning five straight since losing to Georgetown. But apart from a win over Notre Dame, St. John’s has built its undefeated run at the expense of league also-rans DePaul, Seton Hall and Rutgers. Saturday’s game at Verizon Center, which will be aired on CBS, offers St. John’s a chance to prove on a national stage that there’s substance behind its rebound.
Hoyas note: Earlier this week, Syracuse and St. John’s announced they have signed a deal for a home-and-home series starting in 2013-14, when Syracuse will become a member of the ACC, and in 2014-15. Asked Friday if Georgetown was working on a similar deal with Syracuse. Thompson said: “We’ve talked. Are we at a point of a contract? No.”