By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
The beauty of college basketball, Georgetown Coach John Thompson III likes to say, is that it constantly evolves.
There is no such thing as a finished product to sit back and admire, but instead a revolving cast of players, perpetually defining and redefining itself.
Thompson's fondness for that flux -- and the notion that his work, as a result, can never be finished -- will be tested this season.
That test gets under way tonight at Verizon Center, where Georgetown opens its first season in four years without Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing Jr., who led the Hoyas to consecutive Big East regular season titles and three NCAA tournament appearances.
The opponent is Jacksonville (0-1), a team Georgetown beat by 32 points last season but one Thompson isn't taking lightly. The Dolphins have all five starters returning and scored 40 second-half points against Florida State in both teams' opener Saturday before falling, 59-57.
"They're a significantly different team than when we played them last year," Thompson said of Jacksonville, picked to finish second in the Atlantic Sun Conference. "With their whole group back, they're going to be confident, and we're finding ourselves."
For the faithful at Verizon Center, where Georgetown was unbeaten last season, the focus will be entirely on the new-look Hoyas.
Will 6-foot-11 freshman Greg Monroe, a McDonald's all-American, show promise of becoming the Hoyas' anchor inside?
Thompson cautions against assuming that Monroe will simply step into Hibbert's role, characterizing him instead as "a facilitator."
"He's someone who'll make his teammates a lot better," Thompson said of the sought-after recruit. "He has an affinity and a gift for being able to pass the ball."
Teammates rave about Monroe's work ethic in practice.
"I love the kid!" gushed junior forward DaJuan Summers, who returns for his third season as a starter. "He works tremendously hard. His skill set is very good. And he's very aware of what's going on the game. For a young guy, that's not really likely to have the understanding he does."
Sophomore Chris Wright, who missed the entire Big East schedule last season with an injured foot, is far quicker than Wallace, who started every game at point guard for four seasons. But will Wright be as sure-handed directing his teammates on the floor?
Will Austin Freeman, a sweet three-point shooter, become more assertive? Will Jessie Sapp, the sole senior in the starting lineup, evolve as a leader? Will Summers, who averaged 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds last season, add variety to his offensive game and help shoulder some of a leadership role with Sapp?
"There has been significant growth in his comfort level, and we're going to need that," Thompson said of the 6-8 Summers.
With more speed on the roster than last season, these Hoyas are expected to play a more up-tempo style. But can they do that without sacrificing the smothering defense that has made them a force since Thompson took charge?
"We're anxious to get going," Thompson said. "I think the guys are tired of looking at each other. Obviously, we have a long way to go. But playing games is the first step toward that."
It's also the first step toward vanquishing the memory of their second-round loss to Davidson in the NCAA tournament -- a defeat that provided no shortage of motivation over the summer.
"We felt that we fell short of our main goal," Sapp said. "After that game, I think that our mindset was to work even harder and hopefully not be in that same situation this year."
With so much turnover, Big East coaches picked Georgetown to finish seventh in the league. And the major national preseason polls didn't know quite what to think, picking the Hoyas anywhere from 11th to outside the top 25.
After three seasons on the Hilltop, Sapp has learned that the only expectations that matter are his own -- and those of his coach.
"I love when people think we can't do this, we can't do that," Sapp said. "We'll show a lot of people. We'll shock the world."