By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., March 14 -- The predictions have come from everywhere over the past four days -- from newspapers in places such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee, from television talking heads -- all proclaiming Georgetown to be a team that will reach the Final Four and possibly win the national title.
"I hear that on ESPN," junior Roy Hibbert said. "But we try to stay focused, focused on our objectives and that is to make sure we win games, one game at a time."
That is the mantra -- as cliche as it sounds -- for second-seeded Georgetown as it opens the NCAA tournament with a game against 15th-seeded Belmont on Thursday afternoon at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
But it is one that has served the Hoyas well, as evidenced by the determined, efficient way they marched through the Big East tournament last week. And that kind of approach -- coupled with the Hoyas' obvious physical skills -- is a big reason why Belmont Coach Rick Byrd said that Georgetown is "the two seed that we'd prefer not to play."
"They're not going to be unfocused nor are they going to look past us," Byrd said. "They just don't beat themselves."
Georgetown was faced with high expectations earlier this season, when it was ranked eighth in the preseason national poll. The Hoyas then lost three of their first seven games -- with all three losses (to Old Dominion, Oregon and Duke) within a 14-day span -- and plummeted out of the rankings.
Several players attributed those losses to growing pains -- "We just hadn't really molded as a team yet," junior captain Tyler Crawford said -- rather than the pressure of the rankings.
But the losses "helped guys get back to reality as far as what it takes to win at this level," junior guard Jonathan Wallace said. "The guys were able to throw all those expectations out the window and play ball for us. . . . We had to get out of that phase of letting the media and outside expectations control our style of play. Guys got back to the basics of knowing that the next game is the most important game."
Coach John Thompson III spent 13 seasons as a player and coach in the Ivy League, where the next game really is the most important one, because the regular season champion gets the automatic NCAA tournament bid. Thompson and his players often talk about the importance of being precise in everything they do. It starts in practice, when Thompson demands that even the most routine skill be performed perfectly.
"When we start practice, we do a drill called star passing, where we've got five spots and we pass the ball [to each other]. Coach wants us to hit the ball in the chest, and if it's not done the right way, he gets upset," Hibbert said. "It starts small. Whether it's cutting hard on a backdoor cut or dribbling, Coach wants things done a certain way, and we have to give it to him. It starts from the beginning, from the small things to the big things."
The players credit Thompson -- whom Crawford described as "cool, calm and collected" -- with giving them the equilibrium to handle difficult situations. Even when the Hoyas were struggling earlier in the season, Thompson remained calm and continued to focus on the process, on making improvements.
"He didn't want to overreact and get too excited, because then we'd get too excited," sophomore guard Jessie Sapp said.
"A good coach is like a good jockey. You've got to know when to hit the horse," Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr. said after the Hoyas beat Connecticut on March 3 to win the Big East regular season title. That's what his son, Thompson III, is "so good at: He's patient. He doesn't get emotional or upset to the point where he brings his team down. He could've gotten very emotional and upset; I probably would have. I think he's got great timing with his teams. This is the time to hit the horse."
Now, the Hoyas have won 15 of their past 16 games. They've beaten bad teams by double-digit margins and have done the same to teams that are now in the NCAA tournament. They've won games with Hibbert dominating the action, and games in which the 7-foot-2 center attempts just four shots.
In last week's Big East tournament, the Hoyas let a 25-point lead dwindle down to single digits in their quarterfinal against Villanova. Against hot-shooting Notre Dame, Georgetown fell behind by 14 points in the first half. At no point did the Hoyas panic, or drastically alter their style of play. Freshman forward DaJuan Summers said there was never any moment when he was worried -- unlike earlier in the season.
"We're tougher now," Summers said.
"People are going to make their runs," Hibbert said. "We take their hardest punch, and we give them ours. Coach always says, we don't have to hit them with the big punch to knock them out; we just do it methodically, just one at a time. Then we'll eventually break them down. It's just one possession at a time."