By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 4, 2007
In the long tradition of Georgetown University big men, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is unquestionably the least athletic and, as a result, by far the easiest for whom to root. He's the only Goliath in Hoya history who reminds you far more of David.
Yet far more rapidly than anyone in college basketball suspected, the studious and devoted Hibbert has mastered the subtleties of his position, played to his strengths and stunned those who joked, just two years ago, that he could barely jump and would spend his years on the Hilltop trying to become merely adequate.
"Two years ago, he could not play in the game against us. Today, he dominated the game," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said after watching the junior lead the Hoyas to their first Big East regular season championship in 10 years with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists and 3 blocked shots. "It's a tribute to how much he has improved."
As a freshman, Hibbert was at the mercy of any defender who could leap. Now, after laboring with coaches, "I have a plethora of moves," he said. "When I came to Georgetown, I couldn't do one push-up," Hibbert added after dominating the inside against 7-foot-3 Huskies freshman Hasheem Thabeet in the Hoyas' 59-46 victory on Saturday at Verizon Center. "Now I can do . . . a bunch."
Just how many? That's probably still a secret. It might not be many. As hard as he works, he can still barely jump, at least compared with Georgetown legends such as Patrick Ewing Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. His running has improved so much that you no longer conceal a smile; his "speed" suits the Hoyas' half-court style of offense. Yet the weight of March basketball now has fallen on the sloped shoulders of the 270-pound Hibbert whether he is ready for it or not. As he showed against Connecticut, Hibbert now is a truly dominant college center -- when he plays his best.
"Roy is just starting to scratch the surface. He will be terrific one day because he has the 'caring' part of the game as well as the God-given part," Hoyas Coach John Thompson III said. "Roy did a very good job of getting position in the post so we could give him the ball [against Connecticut]. He was extremely assertive before he got the ball. I thought if they started to pay attention to him, other things would open up."
The plan worked perfectly. Hibbert scored 11 of Georgetown's first 16 points and the Hoyas went on to clinch the top seed in the Big East tournament. So the craziness is about to begin. As with so many Georgetown teams in the past, the key factor in how far the Hoyas go in March Madness probably will be the performance of their giant center. The difference this time is that the Hoyas must accommodate themselves to the odd idea that a gangly youngster who was "a project" two years ago is suddenly such a crucial element on a very physically gifted team.
Forward Jeff Green, who scored 14 against Connecticut, clearly is GU's best all-around player, with fluid, unselfish skills that should translate to the NBA someday. On Tuesday, he should probably be selected Big East player of the year. Guard Jonathan Wallace is swift, smooth and poised. And Ewing's acrobatic son, Patrick Jr., is a 6-8 explosion of energy as the sixth man. Those three are the elite athletes.
Yet it's probably Hibbert's ability to play like a star -- provided his teammates continue to get him the ball as they did against U-Conn. -- that makes Georgetown, ranked ninth, a team that could find itself in the Final Four. Few centers, especially anyone who is 7-2, stay in college long enough these days to become polished pivot men. Georgetown's foes in March have seen fine players in the mold of Green, Wallace or Ewing. But few have seen anything like Hibbert. He can bend the whole game to conform to his height and wingspan -- at both ends of the court. The stat sheet says he blocked three shots against Connecticut. I counted six clean blocks as well as a half-dozen other shots that he intimidated or changed.
Getting the ball to Hibbert inside frequently, even if he simply rotates it quickly back to the perimeter, also takes pressure off Georgetown's well-known weakness -- its lack of pure outside shooters. "They're going to face a lot of zone defenses when they get to the NCAA tournament," ex-Hoyas star Reggie Williams said. "Everybody is going to see Hibbert and Green and pack down inside. Wallace can shoot. But they probably need another guy or two to step up on the perimeter.
If the Hoyas' inconsistent outside shooting makes them vulnerable in any game, then the opposite also is true. "On any given night," said Williams, "they can beat anybody in the country."
Hibbert's combination of skills is one central reason that no team in the NCAA tournament will feel safe against the Hoyas, even if they look better on paper. He's the X-factor. In 16 Big East games, he has shot better than 72 percent both from the floor and the foul line -- a rare if not unique combination. He can hook with either hand, has smooth drop-step moves to the rim and puts back offensive rebounds with exceptional quickness. In his most energetic games, few centers fight for position better or present a bigger target in the post. And his passing in the Princeton offense is crisp and, on the backdoor bounce pass, downright sweet.
"I have never seen a player develop as rapidly as he has," former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. said. "They really needed him in the first 10 minutes of this game. They came out flat as hell. He had to step up. Stars have to be stars when you get into this time of year. It wasn't the time for equal-opportunity basketball."
Just a week ago, after beating Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh for its 11th straight win, Georgetown was as hot as any team in the country. Yet on Monday, the Hoyas looked emotionally deflated in a lopsided loss at Syracuse in which they trailed by more than 20 points late in the game. Hibbert, as sometimes happens, seemed to disappear with only six points and two rebounds. Perhaps the cause was a fine zone defense. Maybe his energy simply ran low. He averages just 26 minutes per game.
Against Connecticut, Hibbert quickly showed the crowd how exceptional a player he may someday become. On the Hoyas' first possession, he spun for a dunk. Next, he scored twice on quick offensive rebounds. His confidence growing, he hit two sweeping hooks shots, the second a three-point play to pull the sluggish Hoyas into a tie at 16. On defense, he seemed to block or alter half of the Huskies' shots.
Connecticut's Thabeet often seemed as lost as Hibbert did two years ago and finished with six points and four rebounds. "I told him afterwards: 'Keep working on your game. You'll be all right,' " Hibbert said.
"He's a project. I was there at one time."
But not anymore.