NCAA tournament 2012: Georgetown aims to accelerate past early exits

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III isn’t hiding from the fact his Hoyas were bounced in the opening round of the NCAA tournament the last two years.

Nor is he turning it into a crusade, haranguing his players with rants about the peril of failing to guard hot-shooting underdogs from upstart mid-majors such as Ohio and Virginia Commonwealth.

Instead, Thompson has addressed the losses with his players head-on, acknowledging they’re part of Georgetown’s recent basketball history (as are a Final Four and Sweet 16 appearance). And he has smartly compartmentalized the defeats in hopes that his Hoyas, the third seed in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region, take the court for Friday’s opener against No. 14 seed Belmont without the past dragging them down.

“The group that’s in that locker room has not lost an NCAA game,” Thompson said of his 23-8 Hoyas before a Thursday afternoon workout at Nationwide Arena. “We’re a much different group than we’ve been. This group right here is 0 and 0 [in the NCAA tournament]. So let’s go out and play.”

It’s an intriguing matchup, pitting one of the nation’s more prolific three-point shooting teams (Belmont) against the nation’s most effective three-point defenses (Georgetown).

And though Georgetown is heavily favored, having played a far more rigorous regular season schedule than that of the Atlantic Sun champions, a surprising number of basketball pundits have predicted a Belmont upset.

Though unfamiliar to many sports fans, Belmont, a small liberal arts school in Nashville that counts country music stars Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood among its alumni, has proved it’s not to be taken lightly on the basketball court.

Under Coach Rick Byrd (in his 26th season), Belmont (27-7) is making its fifth NCAA tournament appearance in the past seven years. The Bruins nearly toppled Duke in their season opener, placed all three starting guards on the first-team all-conference squad and arrive in Columbus on a 14-game winning streak.

“We know they’re favored and should be favored,” Byrd said of Georgetown. “But I do think our mind-set is a more confident one than it has ever been.”

Georgetown has been disproving skeptics all season.

Little was expected of the Hoyas after losing last season’s team leader, Chris Wright, and biggest scoring threat, Austin Freeman, to graduation. While the departure of its veteran back court didn’t make Georgetown a more feared team entering the season, it appears to have made Georgetown a better team — one that consistently and instinctively sublimates personal glory for collective good.

With no stars among them, the Hoyas are selfless to a fault, passing the ball among themselves as long as it takes to find the teammate perfectly positioned for a shot. Defense is a point of pride rather than a chore. And when the Hoyas’ starting lineup (all but one 6 feet 8 or taller) stands side-by-side on defense, arms fully extended, it’s as if a modern-day Great Wall has been erected in front of the basket.

Says Thompson: “Everybody is just trying to figure out how we can win games and not thinking about my shots, my touches, my points, my minutes.”

Jason Clark, who shares co-captain duties with fellow senior Henry Sims, leads by example through the work ethic and selflessness he has displayed throughout his career on the Hilltop.

Clark remembers the first day he stepped onto campus as a freshman as if it were yesterday — unsure what would be expected of him, not clear where he would fit in, but determined to do whatever he could to help his team.

Four years later, Clark has emerged as an effective leader and honed his skills as the squad’s most versatile guard. But his inner fire is unchanged; he’s still determined to do whatever he can to help his team.

In Clark’s view, lax defense is what cost Georgetown so dearly in the past two NCAA tournaments. This year’s team won’t make that mistake, he said.

Sims agreed.

“This is a whole new group of kids, new team, and we’re determined just to not let that happen again,” Sims said. “It’s hard to make people forget what happened until you made something different happen. The best way for us to fix that is to win this first game.”

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