Georgetown no longer 'Big Man U' in basketball

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 12:14 AM

The names changed over the years, but Georgetown's identity did not. From Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe, it seems there's always been a premier post presence casting his considerable shadow on the paint for the Hoyas.

This season, however, "Big Man U" needs a new nickname.

With Monroe gone to the NBA and no front-court player of his caliber in waiting, Coach John Thompson III has turned to seniors Chris Wright and Austin Freeman - two of the team's four returning starters - to direct the No. 20 Hoyas as they aim to redeem themselves from a solid if inconsistent 2009-10 season that ended with a confounding loss to an unheralded foe in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"All throughout last year, we all knew, and everyone on the opposing bench knew, that we've got this guy, number 10 down there, and that's where we're going," Thompson said, referring to Monroe. "Now we know we've got number 15 and number four out there, and that's where we're going. It's not rocket science."

It does, though, involve chemistry, the intangible that helps Wright and Freeman form one of the nation's top back courts - and the Hoyas a potential threat to contend for a conference championship.

There are dozens of examples, but few illustrate their uncanny connection more than a highlight-reel steal-and-dunk in a tight loss to Syracuse in February. Wright stole the ball from Orange forward Kris Joseph and, without so much as a peek, skipped a long bounce pass right into the hands of a cutting Freeman, who threw down a one-handed slam that trimmed what had been a 23-point second-half deficit to two points.

"I can't explain it, for real," shrugged Wright, who is pictured on a banner hanging on the side of Verizon Center. "It was my first instinct. I just threw it out there and I knew he was going to get it."

Freeman, who last month joined Ewing, Mourning and Hibbert as the only Hoyas named Big East preseason player of the year, added: "I just knew it was coming. It's the chemistry that comes from the long period of time we've been playing with each other."

In today's college game, starting back courts are fortunate to have two years to get familiar. But Wright and Freeman have known each other since the age of 8 and competed for fierce rivals in high school, Wright suiting up for St. John's and Freeman anchoring DeMatha.

"Did I beat Chris?" Freeman cracked last month. "I beat Chris 11 times. But it's all good."

Wright smiled and shrugged. "They were the better team," he said.

Freeman helped persuade Wright to attend Georgetown after he originally committed to North Carolina State, and the two were roommates their freshman and sophomore seasons. But Thompson said he was forced to separate them as juniors because "like brothers, they needed a break." Neither player elaborated much, though both said they remain best friends - and each other's biggest source of motivation.

They spend hours each afternoon guarding each other in practice and are often joined in the intense drills by junior guard Jason Clark, the Hoyas' third starting guard.

"Sometimes we all get frustrated with each other, but we know that it's part of getting better," Clark said.

Being better will be required if the Hoyas are to advance deeper into March this season. Without Monroe's 16.1 points and a team-leading 9.6 rebounds per game, Wright and Freeman will have to score, rebound and help set up their teammates more consistently, despite the additional defensive attention they are undoubtedly going to face. Both showed down the stretch last season that they're capable of doing so, with Freeman scoring 20 or more points 10 times after New Year's Day and Wright averaging 20.3 points and 4.7 assists per game in March.

"It's something us guards are really excited about and are ready to take advantage of," Wright said.

Wright and Freeman, who are both senior captains, said they also are ready to take charge of setting the tone for practices and games. Inconsistency of intensity, after all, led to losses against Old Dominion, Rutgers, South Florida and Ohio last season, the last one in the NCAA tournament.

"It's a matter of having the same intensity as when we're playing Duke, and the game is sold out, and Barack Obama is here, or the same when we playing 'Cuse at the dome, or West Virginia in the [Big East tournament] championship game," Wright said. "We have to approach each game with the same mentality. That's on our shoulders, not the coaches."

In the eight months since the Hoyas' NCAA tournament flame-out, the friends admit that hardly a day has passed without their conversation eventually turning to the same subject.

"We have to take care of business this year," Freeman said, "because we're not going to have this chance again."

Added Wright: "We still have a chance to leave our own legacy here. We don't want to live in the shadow of the people who came before us or the people who come after us. We want to be remembered."

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