Showing True Grit

By Mike Wise
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The team that doesn't hit the boards as much as it massages and caresses them, the swell if toughness-challenged kids in their navy blazers on the Hilltop, finally found a bit of an ornery streak last night.

The Georgetown Hoyas of John Thompson III -- whose dad surmised during his radio show this week that more "thugs" might be needed to represent such an upstanding academic university on the basketball court -- showed the hammer of Big John's old teams early and the scalpel of Little John's recent teams late.

They dissected Jim Boeheim's signature zone in an 88-74 Big East win over eighth-ranked Syracuse -- a triumph that assuaged at least two fears about the No. 13 team in the nation from the District.

No. 1: The Hoyas might have more depth than "Real Housewives of Orange County" after all. Usually five, maybe six players deep, they had nine different names score in the first half, including Nikita Mescheriakov, who dropped in two deep three-pointers as Verizon Center whooped and hollered for the zone-buster from Belarus.

And No. 2: They're not about to hand over their 2008 Big East regular season title prior to February.

Boeheim brought a mirage of a 16-1 team to town, unbeaten at 4-0 in the conference to the 2-2 Hoyas. There was no Carmelo Anthony or Hakeem Warrick to speak of for the Orange, but Boeheim did have a bolt of a 6-foot guard named Jonny Flynn and some abnormally wide bodies that portended doom for Georgetown, which came in ranked, uh, 298th nationally in rebounding.

And while Syracuse became the ninth team in 15 games to have a better night than the Hoyas on the glass, there was an unmistakable energy out on the floor, a grit the Hoyas could have used against rugged Pittsburgh 11 days ago, the team that made the patriarch of Georgetown basketball wish for more tenacity from those polite undergraduates on his son's team, the kids who kept giving up extra shots, putbacks and essentially ceding the nastiness factor to anyone else on the floor who wanted it.

John Thompson Jr. took a bit of guff this week for his choice of word -- the idea being that anyone outside the Hoyas program who used that term for one of his players, circa 1980s, usually caught hell from Big John.

"What's said on my radio show stays on my radio show," he said after J.T. III's team moved to 12-3. "It's a lot different for me to say 'thug' than you to say 'thug.' "


"Look, they took the word in the literal sense." Thompson said. "I wasn't saying they needed to get someone who robs somebody or stabs somebody. I'm talking about a completely different thing in a basketball sense, which was explained that day."

Frankly, what Big John said needed to be said about these gentlemanly Hoyas for a while -- that it's not dirty to lay a little wood on the opposing team, that using your forearm to ensure your opponent does not get to the rim unmolested is a virtue in big-time college basketball, not hooligan hoops. And who better to say it?

Bottom line, the quicker freshman Greg Monroe and other Hoyas unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble Big East grow up, the quicker the Hoyas are going to make another genuine run into March.

If Georgetown found out anything about itself last night, it's that life on the court can be much easier if the Hoyas come out with a sense of entitlement toward the basketball -- before halftime. They led 50-32 at intermission, discombobulating Boeheim's vaunted zone with three-point bombs and crisp ball movement that either resulted in layups or putbacks.

The thing about playing with the aggression and purpose of Pops's old scowling Hoyas -- manning up, getting in someone's grille while the game is still young -- is that it enables you to play the backdoor, kill-the-clock execution ball so brilliantly patterned by his son after Pete Carril's Princeton offense.

Grunt first, gravy second.

DaJuan Summers had to make the 21 NBA scouts there happy, finishing with 21 points in 34 minutes. It wasn't the total of his stat line as much as the timing of some of his biggest shots -- the three-pointer from the right wing as Syracuse threatened to make it a game at the outset of the second half, and the baseline jumper from the left side that ignited the rout a few minutes later.

Erratic at times offensively, he's got presence of the moment, including his first-half dunk on the dome of Syracuse's Kristof Ongenaet, who was called for an intentional foul. Summers flushed on Ongenaet but then had to get up and start flapping his gums at the Syracuse player, until a technical foul was called.

It's that kind of gamesmanship that had the dean of college basketball writers, the New York Daily News's Dick "Hoops" Weiss, exclaiming, "Syracuse-Georgetown is still a real rivalry."

Among the cadre of scouts was Geoff Petrie, the Sacramento Kings' president of basketball operations. He couldn't publicly say that Monroe, projected to go No. 9 by in the June draft, wasn't quite ready for the next level yet, nor could he publicly say there are a lot of wing players like Summers, projected to go No. 6 last week and No. 10 this week, or Flynn from which to choose.

But as a general manager of a lottery-bound team, he said, "You go where the talent is, and there is definitely some here."

Another aside: When the Hoyas close out on shooters, when they really apply their face and hands toward a rising marksman, they're as good as anyone in the country as perimeter defenders.

When they get ornery and nasty like last night before a very loud home crowd at Verizon Center, it's enough to tease the masses about another tournament run.

In the Big East and beyond, of course, things can change very quickly. Like Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where No. 3 Duke often dominates teams that don't have the same urgency. We'll have to wait till the weekend to see if the Hoyas have become aggressive for good.

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