By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The numbers are hardly what Georgetown's fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
The Hoyas are off to a 3-4 start in the Big East, their worst mark in conference play at this point in a season since Coach John Thompson III arrived in 2004.
They have lost three consecutive games for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Plus, they plunged from 12th to 25th in this week's Associated Press poll.
All of this makes a victory tonight at Cincinnati -- the second in a three-game stretch of road games -- critical if the Hoyas (12-6, 3-4) are to shore up their morale and raise their standing in college basketball's pecking order.
Cincinnati (13-7, 3-4), which is tied with Georgetown in the middle of the Big East standings, has just as much as stake. But that's a welcome step up for the Bearcats, who are off to their best start since Mick Cronin took over in 2006 after leading Murray State to two NCAA tournament appearances.
The Bearcats are led by junior guard Deonta Vaughn, who has proved capable of shouldering Cincinnati's offensive load single-handedly. If the Hoyas can contain Vaughn, they'll go a long way toward a badly needed victory.
But to reverse their fortunes in the 11 regular season games that remain, the Hoyas must shake off what has become an extended shooting slump, particularly from three-point range.
Georgetown is shooting just 30.1 percent from beyond the arc in conference play. That's down from 31.7 percent during its first seven Big East games last season. Before that, Thompson's Georgetown teams had not shot worse than 35 percent from three-point range in their first seven Big East games.
In the Hoyas' four Big East losses, they have made only 15 of 76 three-point attempts, or 19.7 percent.
On the one hand, this season's rocky start to the Big East could have been predicted given Georgetown's youth and, more significantly, the way its schedule was front-loaded, opening with Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame -- each was ranked among the top 10 at tip-off.
However, it was folly to think that a team that starts two sophomores and a freshman would open 6-1 in the Big East, as last year's veteran bunch had, or even 5-2, the mark achieved by Thompson's teams during his first three seasons.
But it was reasonable to assume that the Hoyas would gain ground when they reached the softer part of their conference schedule, although coaches bristle at the suggestion that there is any such thing in the brawny Big East.
Unranked West Virginia and Seton Hall took turns proving the coaches right.
Led by Da'Sean Butler's 27 points, the Mountaineers manhandled the Hoyas on Thursday, forcing 19 turnovers, dominating the boards and winning the scoring battle in the paint for a 75-58 drubbing at Verizon Center.
The Hoyas played far better defense against Seton Hall on Sunday, holding Pirates leading scorer Jeremy Hazell to 5-of-21 shooting. They won the rebounding battle, too, but their shooting deserted them in the second half and they fell, 65-60.
Georgetown's most glaring deficiency in both losses was three-point shooting. The Hoyas made just 2 of 16 (12.5 percent) against West Virginia and only 3 of 22 (13.6 percent) against Seton Hall.
Thompson said it was inevitable that the team's efficiency would drop after losing its top three-point threat, four-year starter Jonathan Wallace, to graduation. Wallace sank nearly every other shot he attempted from the distance last season (44.7 percent).
"Obviously, when you lose Jonathan Wallace, you're going to see a difference," Thompson said yesterday. "But more important, this group still needs to understand and learn what threes are good threes, and what threes are not."
It's a difficult distinction for coaches to draw, and it's equally difficult for young players to differentiate during the heat of competition.
What Thompson doesn't want is for his players to race down the court, pull up just shy of the line and let a three-pointer fly. But he got plenty of it in the Hoyas' final minute of futility against Seton Hall.
Seton Hall Coach Bobby Gonzalez said he felt his defense had something to do with that. "We took away the inside and rushed them into shots," Gonzalez said.
Thompson's plan from the start of the season wasn't to live or die by the three-point shot. On the contrary, with freshman Greg Monroe and junior DaJuan Summers anchoring the post, Georgetown has made a concerted effort to shoot fewer three-pointers this season and work the ball inside instead.
But the long-distance game is undercutting the Hoyas nonetheless, whether it's characterized as a slump, a blip or a series of impetuous attempts.