Monroe shows up at just the right time

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Between the low score and two former Ivy League coaches opposing each other again, it was natural to refer to Georgetown's riveting home opener as a "Princeton-Penn kind of game." But one look at Greg Monroe seizing the game in the final seconds, and it's also easy to see why John Thompson III quickly -- and correctly -- killed that angle.

"It was like Princeton because I was sitting on one bench and Franny was sitting on the other bench," the Hoyas' coach said of his counterpart, Temple's Fran Dunphy. "In every other way, it's not like Penn and Princeton."

J.T. III is right. The Ivy League, bless its heart, could not sign and seal a player the caliber of Monroe.

He's the sharing-is-caring sophomore center on the Hilltop, a place that has had, oh, a few good players at the position. With his 19th-ranked team in real peril early Tuesday night, he peeked at the clock with less than 10 seconds left, put his head down, took a power dribble and scored in the clutch to push the Hoyas past the Owls in a scrum more than a game.

Monroe has a soft shot, a remarkable understanding of space and trajectory underneath the backboard for 19 years old, already has a pretty jump hook in his offensive arsenal and, at 6-foot-11, is one of the best interior passers in America. Oh, and if needed he can play point guard and initiate the offense, too.

But that last quality is a double-edged sword, playing to perhaps Monroe's most glaring weakness, the one flaw that keeps him from realizing his full potential: Niceness.

Deference. Being unselfish almost to a fault. As a friend and colleague said, "He must have a good mother, because he's so polite."

Okay, that's nitpicking. And in an era of big-time college athletes misbehaving on so many levels, it's a character trait to be celebrated more than denigrated. Fine. Understood. Monroe should be a caring, kind and concerned-for-others person -- off the court.

Once he dons that blue and gray No. 10 jersey, once he steps into the midcourt circle like Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Michael Sweetney and Roy Hibbert before him, there are times when he doesn't need to worry about finding Chris Wright backdoor or making sure Austin Freeman gets his touches behind the three-point line.

Sometimes, he needs to put his head down and win basketball games like Tuesday night. He's surely heard this from Little John, Big John and everyone who has his ear and understands the game. (Heck, the entire arena was egging him on when he caught the ball in the high post. Frightened he would take too much time or pass the ball, they were essentially telling Monroe with their pleas, "Don't pass! Go! Now!"

And he did, going to the rack, putting the ball softly off the glass with his left hand on the right side as the building stood and roared with 6.5 seconds left.

That he's being proactive in the crucible of a one-point game is a nice and welcome development for Georgetown, who, let's be clear, rarely won these down-to-the-wire affairs during the soul-searching that went on endlessly last season.

As much of an eyesore to watch as most of the game was, it's the perfect victory for a team that routinely beat itself mentally a year ago. Regardless of what the nonconference record or ranking looks like, the Hoyas have to feel and know they can execute and beat teams in the final 10 seconds by the time Big East play rolls around.

Going into all they did wrong the last 16 minutes to give back a 12-point lead, all the late-game execution foibles, would just be revisiting a crash site for no good reason. The bottom line is, they got out with a victory, and they won the way they should be winning more often when the game is tight.

Greg Monroe, on the blocks.

Asked in the postgame news conference whether, when he played pick-up ball, he preferred to play on the perimeter or inside, he hesitated for a half-second before his coach light-heartedly answered for him.

"Depends on who's guarding him," Thompson said, which got some chuckles.

Monroe finally said he actually preferred playing inside more than outside, adding, "I just think about making the right play."

The right play in the opening minutes was when he found Wright cutting backdoor, one of those perfectly designed Princeton kind of plays.

But as the game wore on, and his assertiveness was clearly lacking, and he was being outplayed by Temple's Lavoy Allen, that was no longer the right play.

Monroe didn't score his first basket until 5:46 remained in the half. But then, the guy Georgetown needs resurfaced. Monroe faced up Allen on the right block and beat him baseline, drawing a foul and then hitting an impossibly tough leaner for what would become a three-point play with less than seven minutes left.

His game-winner was power mixed with grace. It was the right play if ever there was one, the kind of play Greg Monroe needs to give the Hoyas this season if they want to go back to the NCAA tournament and continue the climb J.T. III's program began five years ago.

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