By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008
There are two schools of thought in preparing young college basketball teams for the rigors of regular season play -- particularly in a brutal conference.
One is to build their confidence with a soft preseason schedule that's guaranteed to pile up the victories and boost self-esteem.
The other is to test them early and often against better teams that represent more meaningful measuring sticks. That way, coaches can identify weaknesses quickly and, ideally, remedy them before conference play begins in earnest.
John Thompson III and Gary Williams each have chosen the latter route and picked the same preseason tournament -- Thanksgiving weekend's Old Spice Classic -- for getting down to work. The eight-team tournament includes four nationally ranked squads and two ranked in the top 10 (No. 5 Michigan State and No. 9 Gonzaga).
Both Georgetown (2-0) and Maryland (3-0) may well come away with a loss or two, as a result. Regardless, Thompson and Williams are confident that they also will come away with a keen sense of their respective team's heart, stamina and skill after playing three games in four days at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando.
"Obviously, I put that tournament on the schedule to get a feel for where we are, so we can see what we have to improve on," said Thompson, whose Hoyas inched up to 21st in the latest AP poll. "Everything in the preseason is done with an eye toward getting ready for Big East play."
The ACC, of course, boasts the country's top-ranked team, North Carolina. The Big East claims the next three: Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh, in that order.
Williams characterizes the Old Spice field as the toughest among the slew of preseason tournaments. In other words, it's exactly the sort of workout he thinks his Terrapins could use, particularly after they needed overtime to defeat Vermont, 89-74, on Friday.
"We'll have to play well," Williams said. "But at the same time, you want to see if you can play well for an extended period of time."
Georgetown opens against Wichita State (2-1) of the Missouri Valley Conference today at 2:30 p.m.
To Thompson's delight, his retooled starting lineup, which returns only senior guard Jessie Sapp and junior forward DaJuan Summers from last season's key group, made significant strides from its rocky season opener to its second game, an 81-53 rout of Drexel.
"We were so anxious our first game," said sophomore point guard Chris Wright, who succeeds four-year starter Jonathan Wallace, now playing professionally in Europe. That anxiety translated to a flurry of rash three-point attempts against Jacksonville, hardly the sort of deliberate offensive attack Thompson prefers.
The Hoyas did a far better job following Thompson's offensive script against Drexel, and their shooting percentage shot up as a result.
"I think we're going to make progress all year," Wright said.
Wichita State also is in rebuilding mode, having lost three of its four top scorers from last season. That means the Hoyas might not really be pushed until tomorrow, when they'll face either 12th-ranked Tennessee or Siena.
Maryland likely will have a rougher Thanksgiving, opening against Michigan State (2-0) at 7 p.m. The Spartans return last season's leading scorer, junior forward Raymar Morgan, one of the game's more versatile players.
It's possible Maryland will face a second top 10 opponent just 24 hours later. Tomorrow's schedule pits the Terrapins against the winner of today's game between Gonzaga and Oklahoma State.
"It's going to be a good experience," Maryland senior forward Dave Neal said. "We're going to see exactly where we're standing with some teams that are in the top 10 in the country. We've got a good chance to go down there, show some things and see how truly good we're going to be."
Added junior guard Eric Hayes, "The teams that are down there are going to be like the competition we see in the ACC, so if we can play well down here in the tournament, then I think that bodes well for us in the ACC schedule."
Saturday is an idle day for all eight teams. Play resumes Sunday morning, with the two undefeated teams squaring off for the championship at 7:30 p.m.
Georgetown and Maryland have played each other just twice since 1981, and it's doubtful they'll meet in Orlando -- unless, of course, both advance to Sunday's title game.
But at this stage, Thompson believes, the process matters more than any trophy.
"We're just looking for improvement," he said. "I think for this group, it's more important to be tested -- to grow, to learn and to go through that evolution early. Hopefully we can do that without losing games and without losing confidence in each other."
Staff writer Steve Yanda contributed to this report.