Back-Court Depth Has Helped Keep The Hoyas Afloat

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

Georgetown's 76-67 loss at Duke on Saturday exposed two undeniable truths:

· The Hoyas have limited options when center Greg Monroe accumulates fouls early in a game.

· But when Georgetown's back court struggles, the Hoyas' young bench appears ready to help.

Coach John Thompson III can't do much about the former, but he showed against Duke that he's prepared to be more bold and shake up his lineup of guards, if need be, to get the offensive spark the team lacks when its starters fall flat.

With the Hoyas trailing 40-29 at halftime, Thompson tapped freshman Jason Clark and sophomore Omar Wattad to start the second half while starters Jessie Sapp and Chris Wright, who had been held scoreless to that point, were relegated to the bench.

Thompson, whose team is 12-4, 3-2 Big East, declined to say yesterday who would get the nod for tonight's return to conference play against West Virginia (13-4, 2-2).

"I think that who starts is irrelevant," Thompson said. "It's who plays, and when they play, and who is playing well, and what combinations are playing well at a specific time. Who parades out there when the score is 0-0 and there are 40 minutes on the clock is not that big of a deal."

But Thompson made clear, just as he did after the loss to Duke, that he feels the disparity between his starters and backups had diminished, giving him more latitude to experiment with his lineup.

"Right now, we're not necessarily thinking of our freshmen as freshmen," Thompson said, adding that he included Wattad in that group, given his limited minutes last season. "They're settling into a comfort level, so we have more options."

Clark, in particular, has impressed in the last four games. In that span, he has played more minutes than Sapp, scored more than twice as many points (36 to 17), posted almost the same assist-to turnover ratio and pulled down an equal number of rebounds (12).

On nearly every other college team, Clark would have stood out immediately among an incoming class of three freshman recruits -- if not for his McDonald's all-American credentials, then for his exceptional reach. Just 176 pounds, he stands 6 feet 2 but boasts the wingspan of a man 6-8 and throws himself around the court like a barrel-chested power forward.

But he was overshadowed by Monroe, a fellow freshman, when the season opened. The Hoyas didn't have a glaring need for guards on Day One, at least not with the same urgency that they needed at center after Roy Hibbert's graduation. So Clark waited his turn on a team with a full complement of guards as the 6-11 Monroe stepped into the spotlight.

Lately, Clark has stepped out of Monroe's shadow to assume his own place on the floor -- not because he fits a prototype, but because he has proven sufficiently versatile and dogged to be plugged in anywhere.

"Jason is a basketball player," Thompson said after Clark's career-high 12 points against Syracuse on Jan. 14, conferring a coach's highest compliment. "People try to pigeonhole players: 'Little Billy can do this, so that's his position!' Jason is someone you put on the floor, and he makes plays. He makes the hustle plays."

For four seasons at Bishop O'Connell in Arlington, Clark was what Coach Joe Wootten calls "a warrior." He averaged more than 20 points per game and led the squad in rebounds despite being a half-foot shorter than some of his teammates.

"As a player, he doesn't look that big, and he doesn't weigh that much," Wootten said of Clark. "But he does so many of the little things that don't show up on the stat sheet but make the team play better, whether it's going after a loose ball, running down a long rebound, hitting the teammate in the right spot so he's ready to score."

Wootten went on, lauding Clark's basketball instincts and toughness. "He spent the entire four years in the training room banged up," Wootten said, "but he never missed a game."

Georgetown has won its last three games against West Virginia, including last January's controversial game in Morgantown that ended on a block that Mountaineers fans felt was goaltending.

West Virginia isn't the typical Big East opponent. The Mountaineers are small and not strong at rebounding, which might not hurt them much considering Georgetown's own struggles on the boards. But they lead the Big East in turnover margin and have two potent scoring threats in senior guard Alex Ruoff (16.5 points per game) and 6-7 forward Da'Sean Butler (16.4), a defensive challenge for whoever takes the floor for the Hoyas.

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