By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; D01
Over the course of a college basketball season, there are bound to be games in which balls that ought to swish in inexplicably pop in and out of the basket instead. Just as certain, there will be games in which an aggressive move that has worked for a player all season suddenly draws an official's whistle.
That's why Georgetown Coach John Thompson III drills into his players the importance of controlling every element of the game that they can control, such as shooting high-percentage free throws and keeping turnovers to a minimum.
The Hoyas' failure to do either against unranked South Florida on Wednesday night was, from the coach's perspective, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 72-64 loss.
While crediting South Florida with soundly outplaying his team, Thompson said after reviewing tape of the game that his team played "out of character."
Nearly to a man, the Hoyas echoed that analysis.
"We had  costly turnovers," junior guard Austin Freeman said. "I missed free throws, too. They capitalized on us not getting back in transition and blocking out."
Junior forward Julian Vaughn cited the same shortcomings -- careless turnovers, poor free throw shooting [11 of 22] and lax defense in the second half, when South Florida's Dominique Jones scored 22 of his game-high 29 points.
"We didn't play hard enough to win the game," Vaughn said. "We have big goals this year. Playing like that, we're not going to achieve anything."
The loss capped a four-day span in which Georgetown (16-5, 6-4) showed two radically different faces to its hometown fans. On Saturday, the Hoyas looked as if they could beat any team in the country, routing then-No. 8 Duke with dazzling shooting by its three principals, Freeman, Greg Monroe and Chris Wright. On Wednesday, they looked as if they could lose to anyone.
And it raised puzzling questions about the Hoyas on the eve of a huge game Saturday at the Verizon Center, where Georgetown will host No. 2 Villanova (20-1, 9-0), the lone Big East team yet to lose in league play.
Just what is the character of this Georgetown team? And how tenuous is its identity, now that the Big East season has passed its midpoint?
When its big three players are on, as they were against Duke, Georgetown is close to unstoppable. But if one struggles, the Hoyas can look average. And they are particularly vulnerable if one fouls out, as Monroe did against South Florida. With a thin, inexperienced bench, Georgetown has little cushion if its starters founder.
Georgetown's 82-77 loss to Villanova on Jan. 17 underscored the point.
Monroe had a career day against Villanova's four-guard offense, finishing with 29 points and 16 rebounds. But it wasn't enough to carry the Hoyas in a game in which they fell behind early, trailing by 15 at the half; Wright hit just 1 of 7 shots; and Georgetown's bench was outscored, 25-4.
Wednesday against South Florida, it looked as if Monroe might carry Georgetown to victory -- at least early on. Hoyas guard Jason Clark was keeping Jones in check and South Florida couldn't stop Monroe, whose 14 first-half points spurred Georgetown to a 13-point lead with two minutes remaining in the half.
But shortly after the second half started, Monroe was slapped with two quick fouls (his second and third of the game) in the span of an eye blink.
Monroe insisted that the fouls had no effect on his intensity. "None at all," Monroe said. "I was still in the groove of the game. That didn't slow me down any."
Thompson said that's exactly what he asks of Monroe, or any player, when he keeps him in a game despite multiple fouls.
"Don't change how you're doing things because you're a different person, and we're a different team," Thompson said, recounting his instructions. "You just play. Let me determine whether you're in the game or not."
Nonetheless, Monroe wasn't as active in the second half, failing to grab a single rebound. South Florida, to its credit, started double-teaming him. And the Hoyas lost focus and tenacity at both end of the court.
It's hardly a secret that Monroe is the Hoyas' motor. As Wright said at the season's outset, "We go as far as he takes us."
Villanova Coach Jay Wright also understands how much the Hoyas depend on Monroe, particularly after the 6-foot-11 sophomore center almost single-handedly led the Hoyas to victory in last month's game against his Wildcats.
"He's a big part of everything they do," Jay Wright said of Monroe. "I think [Georgetown has] outstanding players at every spot; they're probably as talented at each spot as any team in our league. But I don't know if anybody in the league has someone as talented at that center position.
"He is a mismatch no matter who you're playing against. And defensively, he's a person [who], because of his mobility, can cover everywhere on the floor. I don't think there's another player like him in our conference."