By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Georgetown's students have been supportive during Jessie Sapp's recent on-court struggles, telling him "just keep shooting!" when they see the senior guard on campus.
The other day, Sapp's mother called. She had been watching a tape of a Georgetown game from last season when something struck her, so she picked up the phone.
"She told me that I'm releasing the ball too early," Sapp said with a smile before Tuesday's practice.
The 13th-ranked Hoyas gave fans and family a huge reason to cheer last month by toppling then-No. 2 Connecticut to kick off the Big East portion of their season. But since then, they have lapsed into a slump, particularly from three-point range, where Sapp and back-court mates Chris Wright and Austin Freeman have combined to make only 7 of 32 attempts (21.9 percent) in their last three games.
"That's nasty!" Sapp conceded before vowing things will turn around soon.
While Georgetown Coach John Thompson III insists he doesn't diagnose his team's well-being according to the stat sheet, the Hoyas (11-3, 2-2) clearly would be better served if their guards found their groove again, particularly with longtime rival Syracuse visiting tonight.
The Orange has emerged as one of college basketball's bigger surprises this season. Picked to finish eighth in the 16-team Big East (just behind Georgetown), Syracuse (16-1, 4-0) now sits atop the conference standings and is ranked eighth nationally. In Thompson's view, the Orange is even better: "one 60-foot basket away" from being No. 1 in the country, he argues, their sole loss coming on a half-court buzzer-beater by Cleveland State on Dec. 15.
Entering tonight's game, the teams' shooting disparity isn't that striking. Georgetown is shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 33.2 from three-point range. Syracuse is slightly better on both counts: 50.7 from the field, 34.6 from three-point range.
But Georgetown's recent bout of errant shots is cause for concern because the Hoyas don't have the same depth as many of their Big East peers. Their offense relies heavily on a few players and tends to stall when more than one struggles.
In some games, DaJuan Summers, who leads the team with 14.7 points per game, has taken over on offense. Other games it has been freshman center Greg Monroe (13.5), who's prudent with his own shot and sure-handed in kicking out the ball when circumstance dictates.
But the point production by the Hoyas' guard hasn't been as reliable.
Sapp compensates by working harder on defense.
"I've missed a lot of shots that I normally make, but that's just one part of the whole game," Sapp says. "If you're looking only at [scoring], yeah, I'm playing bad. But if you're looking at the whole game, I think I've played very hard on defense. I've tried to rebound as much as I can. I try to pick up the intensity in other places."
Freeman and Wright say they handle slumps by continuing to shoot.
"If you don't shoot, you're not going to make any shots," said Wright, who's third on the team in scoring (13 points). "[Slumps] happen. It doesn't mean that you can't shoot anymore. It's just that some days you're on, some days you're off. If you start thinking too much, then you're going to get out of your flow."
"It happens with everybody," says Freeman, who has made 1 of 9 three-pointers in his last three games. "I don't want to lose my confidence at all. If I'm open, I'm going to take the shot. It if falls, it falls."
Thompson says he doesn't think that the NCAA's decision to move the three-point line back one foot this season has caused any dip in shooting percentages, either among the Hoyas or nationally. Instead, he says, coaches have put more emphasis on defending the three-point shot.
Syracuse does that well.
In fact, the Orange's defense, which consists of a heavy diet of zone, has stymied Thompson's teams in the past. Along with Connecticut, Syracuse is the only Big East foe with a winning record (4-2) against the Hoyas during Thompson's tenure.
Thompson isn't optimistic his players will find many open looks against Syracuse tonight.
"Because they play so much [zone], they know where their weaknesses are, and they close those holes quickly," Thompson said. "You think you're open, but you're not."
Wright can't wait to try, relishing the challenge of facing point guard Jonny Flynn, who leads the Orange at 16.4 points per game.
"I've always liked to play against guys that are not afraid of attacking," Wright said.