By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007
The banners that hang from the ceiling inside McDonough Arena commemorate the postseason trips made by Georgetown men's basketball teams. Ask any current Hoya about what enabled those teams -- particularly the three national finalists -- to have so much success, and they give a quick answer.
"That was defense," junior forward Jeff Green said.
"It was crazy how they just dominated on defense," sophomore guard Jessie Sapp said. "But we want to create our own kind of buzz on defense. Everybody talks about our offense, but defense is what wins ballgames."
Indeed, much attention is paid to how efficiently Georgetown runs its Princeton-style offense. But over the past 10 weeks, as the Hoyas (28-6) have won 17 of 18 games and moved into the NCAA round of 16 for the second straight year, their defense has been their backbone. Georgetown, which faces Vanderbilt on Friday, ranks fifth in the nation in field goal defense, limiting opponents to just 38.2 percent shooting.
Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson Jr., who took the Hoyas to 20 NCAA tournaments, turned defense into a weapon in the 1980s. His Georgetown teams used full-court pressure to wear down and intimidate opponents; they were aggressive, smothering, attacking.
"We used our defense to score," Thompson Jr. said. "That's what pressure defense does: They go after you, they go after steals, they try to force you to play at a tempo where they can get up and down in transition. [Coach John Thompson III's] Georgetown is not a transition team. But it plays solid, sound defense, and very good defense."
These Hoyas occasionally use full-court presses, and they will sometimes trap out of their half-court man-to-man. The one thing this team has in common with the great ones of the 1980s and early 1990s is a big man in the middle. Roy Hibbert, a 7-foot-2 junior, is not yet in the same class as Patrick Ewing Sr., Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo -- each of whom was honored as Big East defensive player of the year multiple times -- but he averages 2.4 blocks and gives his teammates the same sense of security that those three centers did.
"When you've got 10-foot guys in the lane, if a guy gets past you, you've got Roy down there to cause some controversy," junior guard Jonathan Wallace said. "It puts me a little at ease."
But Hibbert is just one piece. The Hoyas have great length and athleticism in their front-court players -- Hibbert, Green (6-9), freshman DaJuan Summers (6-8), junior reserve Patrick Ewing Jr. (6-8) and freshman reserve Vernon Macklin (6-9) -- and they try to take advantage of that by constantly keeping their arms up on defense.
"Maybe they don't have that [defensive] swagger in a 1980s Big East sort of way, but in a new millennium sort of way, they have that swagger," Marquette assistant Jason Rabedeaux said last week. "Their size is so impressionable."
Sapp is 6-3, but he is capable of defending bigger players, just as Ewing Jr. is able to guard both taller and smaller men. Ewing Jr., in fact, spent part of last season (in which he was a redshirt) defending Brandon Bowman (6-9) and Ashanti Cook (6-2) in practice.
Said Sapp, "We look at it as, we all can guard everybody."
The key is communicating with each other and staying disciplined. Sapp is quick and strong -- two of his career-high five steals against Boston College were the result of stripping the ball from 6-7 Jared Dudley -- but Sapp says he carefully picks his spots to go for steals, because he doesn't want to be out of position and put his teammates at a disadvantage.
The Hoyas ranked 12th in steals (93, or 5.8 per game) in conference play, and they forced a total of 199 turnovers -- only two teams in the Big East, 14th-place South Florida (180) and 15th-place Rutgers (168) caused fewer turnovers by their opponents.
"We might not force a lot of turnovers, but the main thing is to make sure that the other team doesn't put the ball in the basket," Patrick Ewing Jr. said. "Obviously we don't have players back there like Alonzo [Mourning], and my father and Dikembe [Mutombo], but we feel that if we make teams take tough, contested twos instead of wide-open threes, that helps us out a lot."
In the past 13 games, only one team has shot better than 40 percent against the Hoyas; Syracuse made 44.4 percent of its shots in its 72-58 win on Feb. 26. Pittsburgh was a paltry 16 of 61 (26.2 percent) in the Big East tournament final, a 65-42 Georgetown victory. Notre Dame was held under 40 percent shooting just six times this season -- twice by the Hoyas.
"Maybe better than any team in the country that I've seen, they contest shots," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "At the end of the day, it goes back to something I heard Bob Knight say: Essentially the game comes down to the quality of shot you get, as opposed to the quality of shot that your opponent gets. They're great defensively because they really distract and minimize the quality of shot that their opponent gets."
That kind of defense, combined with such an efficient and deliberate offense, makes it difficult for opposing teams. The Hoyas are shooting 50.5 percent (fourth in the country), and they are willing to be patient on offense in order to get the shot they want. Georgetown, according to Kenpom.com, averages just 60.1 possessions per game, which makes it ninth in the country.
"Because a game with Georgetown has limited possessions, as an offensive team going down, there's a little bit of pressure built into you that you have to score," Rabedeaux said. "You have to get a positive offensive possession out of it, because you know going in that they're not going to make a lot of mistakes."