A Good Run, But Plenty Still To Learn

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, April 1, 2007

ATLANTA Nothing is harder than achieving a feat that exceeds, even if only slightly, our own expectations. For an athlete, a career is a continual process of improving skills and adding experience so that those privately held, almost secret expectations can rise dramatically over the years. But occasionally, in an ironic and bitter punishment for overachievement, a deserving team finds itself on a stage one level beyond its own imaginings. Then, a predictable but painful fate awaits them.

Call it a slight case of stage fright, just enough to be fatal. Call it death by dozens of tiny big-game pressure nicks and cuts. But the next day an awful hangover arrives. That's when a team, like the Georgetown Hoyas after their 67-60 loss here to No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the NCAA semifinals, realizes that, if it had played as it usually does, it would probably be appearing in the national championship game on Monday night.

A similar experience befell Maryland six years ago, also in the semifinals. The Terrapins built a 22-point first-half lead over Duke. The Terrapins were about to be in the championship fight. And they just weren't ready. Hair was pulled over a couple of meaningless foul calls, momentum was lost, then a huge lead was blown. And Maryland went home. One year later, with essentially the same team and coach, but a different state of mind, an elevated set of expectations and higher self-imposed demands, Maryland returned with the imperious poise of champions and claimed a title.

For those who were courtside then and now, the feeling was eerily similar, even if the details were very different. Maryland found a huge opportunity sitting squarely before it because of its own fine play. On this Saturday night, Georgetown found the door to sudden and unexpected greatness thrown open before it after less than three minutes of play. Ohio State's 7-foot all-American center Greg Oden got his second foul and had to sit out the last 17 minutes of the first half. As if that weren't enough, eight minutes into the second half Oden picked up his third foul and headed back to the prison of the pine again. What a gift.

If Oden had played all night, maybe GU would have lost anyway. After all, Oden had 13 points and nine rebounds. But he didn't play all night. In most of the night's decisive junctures he was barely around. The 19-year-old only played 20 minutes. That's what will hurt. Ohio State may be ranked No. 1, but they played with only half a battleship.

The Hoyas simply didn't take advantage. Why? Perhaps it was because, like so many other teams before them, they weren't quite ready. In some part of their basketball personality, they weren't fully formed, just as Maryland still had to grow from contenders in '01 to champions in '02. Remember, just three years ago, when Coach John Thompson III arrived, the Hoyas were a losing team and a Big East tail-ender. Last season, they celebrated mightily after reaching the Sweet 16.

And last week, J.T. III cut down the nets after reaching the Final Four. Cut down the nets. That's usually what you do after you've gotten what you really wanted. So, you savor the experience. But you also tip off your sense of your own limitations.

"The last month everything has happened so fast. It's just been one big pleasure after another," said John Thompson Jr., who built the Hoyas champs of '84. "First, they won the [Big East], which wasn't necessarily expected. Then they won the tournament. Then they reach the Final Four. It's been like a fantasy wheel for me."

"I'm extremely proud of this team, even though we are all very disappointed at tonight's performance," JT III said. "There are always a million things you wish you could go back and pick apart. But we competed. We fought and scrapped when we were behind. And we lost to a very, very good team."

That's all true. But when the Hoyas pick apart the films, consult their memories and let their hair down among themselves, they may also see that they're not quite ready yet. For example, Jeff Green, the Big East player of the year, only took five shots, which stunned some OSU players. "We were pretty pleased with the way he played that game," said Ohio State's leading scorer, Mike Conley, who had 15 points. "He could have taken over the game anytime he wanted."

But he didn't. "I didn't want to force shots," Green said. Or maybe he just wasn't ready to take charge as he did against Vanderbilt to stave off defeat and reach the Elite Eight -- where the Hoyas absolutely believed they belonged.

Even Coach Thompson may not have been quite ready to feel the flow of the game and realize that, since Green didn't score until just 3:16 was left in the half, that perhaps he needed to demand that his star take charge. But he didn't.

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