By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008
At 7 feet 3, Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet is a double-digit rebounder, a shot-blocking machine and, despite offensive skills that haven't fully evolved, the most imposing center in the Big East.
Thabeet stands to be all those things when Georgetown travels to Hartford today, as well as a measuring stick of how far the Hoyas have come and how far they have yet to go in this season of rebuilding.
With an NBA prospect at every position, the second-ranked Huskies (11-0) are favored in the Big East opener for both schools. But Georgetown (9-1) has emerged as the most surprising team in the conference, marching steadily up the standings each week on the grit and guile of its defense.
Projected to finish seventh among the Big East's 16 teams, the Hoyas have already vaulted ahead of conference rivals Louisville, Villanova and Marquette in the Associated Press poll.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III dismisses early-season polls as nothing more than a popularity contest. If so, the Hoyas have happily proved themselves more capable than liked, ranked 12th behind only Connecticut, No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 8 Notre Dame among conference teams.
Much of the credit goes to freshman center Greg Monroe and sophomore point guard Chris Wright, who have exceeded expectations in filling the major vacancies on the Hoyas' roster.
Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall called Monroe, who is averaging 12.4 points per game, "one of the best -- if not the best -- freshman centers in the nation."
"His potential is limitless," Marshall said following the Hoyas' 58-50 victory in Thanksgiving weekend's Old Spice Classic.
And Sergio Rouco, coach of Florida International, called Wright the best player his team had faced in a season that has included games against Washington, UCLA and Miami.
"He's special," Rouco said of Wright, who is averaging 13.2 points and playing with a swagger and authority well beyond his years. "He runs his team, he gets to the cup and he's making jump shots. He's so hard to guard because he is so strong."
Both will be facing Connecticut for the first time: Monroe, as a freshman; Wright, having missed the Big East season his rookie year because of a foot injury.
Asked if his squad is ready for the veteran Huskies, Thompson simply says: "We are as ready as we can be."
Thabeet will represent Monroe's toughest challenge to date, towering four inches above the Hoyas center. He also averages more rebounds (11.1 per game) than Monroe and junior forward DaJuan Summers combined.
But his advantage is more than sheer size. Thabeet has a knack for drawing fouls, and the Hoyas' relatively thin front court can't afford to commit very many.
Eighth-ranked Gonzaga virtually depleted its roster trying to keep Thabeet in check during its recent game against Connecticut in Seattle. Coach Mark Few succeeded in relegating Thabeet to the bench for much of the second half but simply ran out of players to stop the Huskies' offensive assault in overtime. Connecticut remained unbeaten, clawing back from an 11-point deficit for the 88-83 victory.
But accounting for Thabeet is by no means the only task the Hoyas face.
Filling out Connecticut's imposing front court is 6-7 senior forward Jeff Adrien, who's averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
And senior A.J. Price has recovered from last season's knee injury, scoring 24 points, including the game-tying three-pointer with 8.5 seconds left in regulation, and a career-high 10 assists in the victory over Gonzaga.
"It's easy just to talk about, write about [Thabeet] because he is so big," Thompson said. "But they are daunting at every position. They have a terrific team, if not the most talented team in the country. They have a presence at every position."
The Hoyas have only a few days to regroup after their Big East opener, with Pittsburgh on tap Saturday and a trip to Notre Dame on Jan. 5.
"We're in an unforgiving league," Thompson said. "There is nothing that is going to be easy from here on out."