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Hoyas Tap In to Their Biggest Asset

By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 11, 2007

When you think Georgetown, you think big. Ewing. Mutombo. Mourning. Allen Iverson and Sleepy Floyd made you watch, but the big fellas made you remember. Authentic Georgetown is the senior, stay-and-graduate pivots -- and their papa bear coach who used to back up Bill Russell.

So it's refreshing that a program defined by its centers the last three decades sometimes recognizes the one, current big man calling for the ball inside, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert.

It's also alarming when the Hoyas don't regularly feed Hibbert, who continued to round into tournament form yesterday in 22nd-ranked Georgetown's nice little upset of No. 11 Marquette at Verizon Center.

Using a buffet of baby hooks, dunks and power dribbles to get within inches of the basket, Hibbert scored an economical 23 points. He grabbed 11 rebounds. He blocked three shots and altered at least 10 more, and his fitness allowed him to play a career-high 35 of 40 minutes.

"Get it to the big fella," Patrick Ewing Sr. said at halftime after he had watched Hibbert fight for position on the blocks against a bunch of 6-7 Marquette players unable to stop the junior center.

"He must have done something his teammates didn't like in practice," John Duren mused.

The Hoyas finally got it. Hibbert and Jeff Green imposed their will on Marquette and refused to let a much smaller team invalidate their superior front line.

Hibbert, especially, is picking up his game. In Georgetown's last four victories, he has averaged 19.3 points and nine rebounds (and that includes an eight-point, three-rebound clunker at St. John's) and showed an aggressiveness belying his placid facial expressions.

Don't look now, but that gangly, seemingly uncoordinated youngster from two years ago has grown into one of the country's finest big men. And we're not just talking the college game.

The dearth of good American centers is evident at all levels of basketball today. Every 6-10 and taller kid with any skill or athleticism wants to cross up his defender on the perimeter, drop three-point rainbows and lead the break. In other words, they want to play small.

The reason NBA bottom-feeders are salivating over Ohio State freshman Greg Oden is that he is one of the first mean-mugging, take-no-prisoners big men expected to come out of college since, well, Shaquille O'Neal.

The decline is well documented, and most of it is about image -- specifically shoe commercials, playground peer pressure and those traveling junk salesmen on the AND 1 bus.

As a result, there hardly is any competent, reliable play from the center position domestically. We import better than we assemble our own. No matter what a tall teenager is told about his station in the game by his coach, in the heart of every 7-foot youngster now is a 6-4 slasher -- who can't quite understand why everyone wants him positioned underneath the rim.

That's why Hibbert is such a joy to watch. He gets it. In point of fact, he has to get it. It's the only way he can be successful.

It sounds like backward logic, but the fact that Hibbert is not extremely athletic -- that he doesn't jump particularly high or run particularly fast -- actually helps him become a better center. If he were quicker and more explosive, he would crave the point guard game like all the other Kevin Garnett wannabes masquerading as pivots.

Because he still runs like a newborn doe and can't take off from the free throw line and dunk, he is physically limited in his options. So learning proper footwork on the blocks is essential to his success.

The repetition of learning to score with his back to the basket -- the sweeping hook, the up-and-under move, all the spatial relationships that a center develops with the area around the rim -- becomes crucial to his education. It's not dismissed as Boring Things a Big Man Must Learn.

"He's late developing," Duren, the former Georgetown guard who was named to the school's all-century team, said yesterday. "He doesn't run fast and he can't really jump, but his footwork is very good. He plays like a big man, which you often can't say for a lot of people that size."

"His future is still in front of him," said Hibbert's coach, John Thompson III. "He's a lot more confident now, and his teammates are a lot more confident in him from the 7-2 goofy kid he was a freshman to . . . I started to say, to the 7-2 goofy kid he is as a junior. But he's growing up, he's in the process of growing up on the floor and off the floor."

There was a nice moment yesterday afternoon when the 100th anniversary team was announced. After all the very, very old-school players jogged out to the court -- until Duren, Class of '80, the gathering looked like a Brooks Brothers commercial -- Ewing and some of his contemporaries came out.

Gray men in their 60s, 70s and 80s reached up to receive a hug from the future Hall of Famer, paying their respects to the man in the middle who grasped what it meant to play big.

Roy Hibbert then took the floor in the second half and paid his predecessor in the pivot the ultimate homage -- dunking, rebounding, rejecting shots to the floor. He seemed to know: If you play center at Hoya Destroya U., those aren't electives.

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