COLUMBUS, Ohio — Unique. Irritating. Frustrating. North Carolina State’s players used each of those words Saturday to describe Georgetown’s offense.
The Wolfpack’s upperclassmen faced it early last season, when Georgetown earned an 82-67 win in the Charleston Classic’s championship game. This season’s N.C. State squad got a comparable feel in November, squeaking past Princeton on a game-winning jumper with four seconds remaining.
In the eyes of the resurgent Wolfpack, which revels in pace, Georgetown’s Princeton-derived offense slows proceedings to a crawl, turns back the clock on the modern-day game and recasts the center as an oversize point guard in the paint.
“It can be irritating,” N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie said. “It can be frustrating. It can be very unique because a lot of coaches still don’t play that way. So it’s all of those.”
In many ways, Sunday’s clash between third-seeded Georgetown and 11th-seeded N.C. State for a place in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region Sweet 16 will be a test of which offense can more effectively impose its will.
Georgetown (24-8) would love nothing more than for N.C. State to mistake it for a team with only one speed (plodding) and one offensive trick (backdoor cuts).
“We can play different kinds of ways,” senior center Henry Sims noted. “We can play slow-down-the-game. We can play kind of fast.”
At 6 feet 10 and 245 pounds, Sims stands at the heart of the Hoyas’ offense — and not simply because he towers over it. He has deft hands for a big man (a holdover from his quarterbacking days in playground football games), and Coach John Thompson III has put them to work distributing the ball from the post.
As a result, Sims boasts the statistical oddity of leading his team in both blocks (44) and assists (112).
No player is exempt from passing in Thompson’s system. All are charged with creating plays for others, as well as for themselves.
The multifaceted role thrills Sims, who chafes at the limited skills implied by the term “pure center” — in other words, a tall guy who scores with a right hook or left, blocks any shot in reach and doesn’t trip over his feet.
“I feel I can do a lot of things on the court,” Sims said. “I feel I can just call myself a basketball player . . . not a typical Georgetown center, but just one that they found a little diamond in the rough.”
Led by Leslie and Richard Howell, two 6-8 forwards, N.C. State has outscored opponents in the paint its last eight games.
“They’re a very difficult matchup,” Thompson said of N.C. State. “In most games, we’ve had a size advantage. I don’t think that’s going to bother them at all. They have a very distinct, very tough interior presence. At the same time, they have very good perimeter players.”
That means Georgetown can’t afford defensive breakdowns anywhere on the court, whether playing man-to-man or the 2-3 zone that was so effective against Belmont.
There wasn’t a weak defensive link among the Hoyas in their tournament opener. According to Thompson, that’s a reflection of commitment more than scheme.
“We have a group of guys that take pride in their defense and care about defense,” Thompson said. “It’s not just a period of time that you spend before we get back to offense.”
But there’s another quality in Georgetown’s favor that’s difficult for opposing coaches to dissect via videotape: A heightened sense of camaraderie that can be traced to the ugly brawl that erupted last August on a Beijing basketball court during a goodwill tour. The game against a Chinese professional team was physical. And in the late stages with the scored tied, jostling turned into a shoving match and a bench-clearing melee.
No one was seriously injured. But with courtside chairs and water bottles being hurled, Thompson led his players off the court immediately.
“That’s definitely where it kicked off,” senior Jason Clark said. “When you’re first building a team, you have to find out if you can trust that person. And with everything that happened over there in China, after the whole brawl, we all understood that everybody had each other’s back, no matter what.
“That’s something you don’t wish to happen. But when it happens, you want to know that the guy you’re going to battle with every day has your back. . . . Moving on from China, ever since then we’ve had each others’ back in every game we’ve ever played and every practice.”
More on Georgetown and the NCAA tournament: