By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009
It's easy to spot what sets Georgetown's Greg Monroe apart from most college basketball players. For starters, he towers over just about everyone at 6 feet 11, has uncommon quickness and boasts rare court savvy for a freshman.
But what truly makes Monroe an anomaly is that despite all those qualities, he would rather fit in on a basketball team than stand out.
Monroe's view of the game and his place in it -- as one part of a greater whole, rather than as the star around whom lesser players revolve -- is rare among youngsters with comparable talent and hype.
And it's among the reasons why the 11th-ranked Hoyas, who stand to vault well inside the top 10 following Monday's toppling of second-ranked Connecticut, have outstripped expectations so dramatically through the season's early going.
When the season opened, most prognosticators looked at Georgetown (10-1, 1-0 Big East) and saw a gaping hole where the giant shoes of Roy Hibbert had trod for four years.
In six weeks, Monroe has made them forget.
It's not that Monroe has become a younger version of Hibbert. Rather, he has emerged as an entirely different sort of center, with deft shooting, skilled passing, authoritative shot blocking, unexpected foot speed and a graceful way of involving his teammates in the offense.
"Most big guys know their position, but Greg knows where everybody is on the floor," says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who provided commentary for the Hoyas' 74-63 upset of Connecticut and worked with Monroe in July at a camp for big men sponsored by Nike. "Greg has a understanding of the entire game. Most big guys play checkers, and he plays chess."
The ranks of basketball analysts singing Monroe's praises are sure to grow as the Hoyas move deeper into the media-saturated Big East season.
Today, they put their 28-game winning streak at Verizon Center to the test against No. 3 Pittsburgh (13-0, 1-0), the only remaining unbeaten team in the conference.
Pittsburgh gave the Hoyas fits last season, beating them in the regular season and in the Big East tournament final. The difference in each game was the Panthers' gritty, physical play, as evidenced by their rebounding dominance.
While Pittsburgh doesn't have a starter as tall as Monroe, the player he'll face off against -- 6-7, 265-pound sophomore DeJuan Blair (13.7 points, 12.1 rebounds) -- is among the most formidable players in the Big East.
"You watch him on TV, and you see how physical he is and how strong he is," Monroe said of Blair yesterday. "I've played against a few big men, probably not as good as him. But my teammates always have my back. It's all five of us on the court together."
It was Monroe's first interview since enrolling at Georgetown, where Coach John Thompson III, like his father before him, bars freshmen from speaking to reporters until their second semester. The idea is to give them a chance to adjust to college life and the rigors of the practice and actual games before fielding questions from reporters.
And though a Georgetown official monitored yesterday's proceedings, Monroe showed no sign of needing tutelage. The most shocking thing about his remarks, in fact, was their pitch. Monroe speaks in baritone so deep that it's startling coming from an 18-year-old, even one nearly 7 feet tall.
A native of Gretna, La., Monroe said he had been struck these last months by how friendly Georgetown students were and how much they loved their basketball team. Regarding his performance on the court, Monroe said he felt he was still growing and "trying to find out what Coach really wants out of me." But all he really wanted, he said, was to help the Hoyas win and continue to improve.
On the court, Monroe displays the same deliberation and thoughtfulness.
He didn't show a trace of jitters playing in his first true road game earlier this week, before a capacity crowd of zealous Huskies fans at XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Neither the hostile atmosphere nor Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut's 7-3 center, rattled him. The Hoyas bolted to a 15-1 lead and never trailed in the game. Monroe, who played 27 minutes, finished with 16 points. The vaunted Thabeet scored just four points in 34 minutes.
"The thing that impresses me the most is how he's able to control his demeanor on the court," sophomore guard Chris Wright said of Monroe. "He's always very even-keeled and calm. Even if he might feel within himself that he's mad, or something is going wrong, or he wants the ball -- whatever it is -- you don't see that."
It's a quality Monroe had in high school, and it's among the qualities that impressed Thompson.
"Greg is poised on the floor; he is poised off the floor," Thompson said. "And he's intelligent. A lot of that goes toward the fact that embraces helping his teammates. It's not just something that he's good at; it's not just something he has the God-given ability to do. But he gets pleasure in trying to help his teammates get better."