Can They Cut It?
Saturday, March 31, 2007
ATLANTA, March 30 -- In three seasons under Coach John Thompson III, the Georgetown men's basketball team has gone from barely making the Big East tournament -- they were the 12th and final seed in 2004 under former coach Craig Esherick -- to winning the event this year. The Hoyas went from qualifying for no national postseason tournament in 2004 to NCAA appearances in 2006 and 2007.
And this weekend in the Georgia Dome, the program's turnaround reaches its apex, starting Saturday night when Georgetown (30-6) faces Ohio State (34-3) in the Hoyas' first Final Four appearance since 1985.
So much has been made of the poise and calm Georgetown displayed in overcoming deficits to win its past three games, but the Hoyas are well-constructed to withstand those kind of contests, the kind they could face again this weekend. All five of their starters have scored at least 20 points in at least one game this season. In the NCAA tournament, all five starters are averaging double figures in scoring, and a different player has led the Hoyas in scoring in each of the four wins.
"It helps us because everybody knows that the weight is not on two players, like Jeff [Green] and Roy [Hibbert], because it's a team effort. That's how it's been all year," said freshman forward DaJuan Summers, who is averaging 11.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in the tournament. "Nobody feels like there's pressure on them at the end of the game to make a play. Even though Jeff makes those huge plays, he doesn't feel like there's pressure on him to make it, because he knows he has other players around him."
The Hoyas' 96-84 overtime win over North Carolina in the East Region final was a perfect example. Georgetown trailed 75-65 with seven minutes left in regulation, but from that point on, the Hoyas outscored the Tar Heels by a 31-9 margin -- and Green and Hibbert, the team's top two scorers, accounted for just seven of those points. Summers (eight points), sophomore guard Jessie Sapp (seven), junior guard Jonathan Wallace (seven) and junior forward Patrick Ewing Jr. (two) scored the rest. Wallace sent the game into overtime with a three-pointer with 31 seconds left.
For his part, Wallace cites the disappointment of last season's region semifinal loss to eventual champion Florida as important to the Hoyas' learning process.
"Just developing that killer instinct -- from what we took from the Florida game last year -- has been very key for us this year," Wallace said. "Just being able to close out games."
Georgetown "can have different guys taking the big shot," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "They don't necessarily have a go-to guy; they have a bunch of go-through guys -- guys they can go through to get what they're looking for. And that makes them harder to guard, because you don't have anybody [specific] you have to stop. If you stop Green, you're going to leave somebody else open, and they're very good at taking advantage of that."
But that's something that has evolved over the course of the season. When Thompson is asked about the Hoyas' improvement following their 1-2 conference start, he often responds by saying the players have found a comfort level with what they're doing and with each other.
At the start of the season, Georgetown had three experienced players -- three-year starters Green, Hibbert and Wallace -- surrounded by newcomers or players who were stepping into new roles. Sapp, who averaged 16 minutes as a freshman reserve and became a starter this year, describes it as players "finding each other, and finding that niche" on the team.
Ewing, for instance, went from a player who mainly provided an energy boost when he entered the game to someone who could alter a game with either his defense, rebounding or scoring. Against Notre Dame in the Big East semifinals, while Hibbert's impact was limited by foul trouble and the fast pace, Ewing, who averaged just three shots per game in conference play, scored 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and was instrumental in the Hoyas' comeback.
"They have roles, but their roles aren't boxes," Bilas said. "If you looked at this like they were a group of plants -- if you put them in five separate pots, the plants would grow and conform to the size of the pot. But these guys are just planted in the ground, and they may have roles, but at the same time, they can break out of those roles when the situation dictates it."
Thompson doesn't like to define players by their position; he prefers to look at them as simply "basketball players." He wants all of his players to be comfortable handling the ball, or moving without it. His offense is not defined by a series of set plays; it's about spacing and motion and making reads.
"When I say 'the Princeton offense,' I just think of guys playing together, sharing the ball, talented basketball; talented, unselfish players," Thompson said.
"Just 'becoming a player,' that's the way [Thompson] words it: becoming an all-around player," said the 6-foot-8 Summers, who is second on the team with 42 three-pointers. "Like with me, he doesn't want to classify me as a three-man; he wants me to become an all-around player, which means working on your ballhandling, your shooting, all of the above. It reflects on the court. Sometimes I might be posting up; sometimes I might be on the wing. That's just the makeup of our team."
And it's one of the things that has helped carry the Hoyas to this point, which seemed so unreachable just three years ago.
On Friday, Sead Dizdarevic, who joins fellow senior reserve Kenny Izzo as the only holdovers from the 2003-04 team, sat in a locker room inside the Georgia Dome and watched as crowds of reporters and television cameras surrounded his teammates. The room buzzed, and players joked and smiled.
It was very different from the funereal scene in Madison Square Garden three years ago, when Georgetown lost to Boston College in the first round of the Big East tournament and ended its season with just 13 wins and without a postseason invitation for the first time in 30 years.
"Coming to Georgetown, I did not expect to not make the [NCAA] tournament, and to have to fight for the Big East [tournament]," Dizdarevic said. "It's been an incredible ride."