By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 11:51 PM
With a record of 6-0 and an average margin of victory in double digits, the 16th-ranked Georgetown Hoyas aced this semester's first test. Their next exam, though, figures to be significantly more thorough, grueling and, perhaps most important, telling.
After Tuesday's game with No. 9 Missouri (5-0) in Kansas City, the Hoyas are scheduled to host three-time defending Western Athletic Conference regular season champion Utah State (4-1) on Saturday before going on the road to play Atlantic 10 favorite Temple (3-2) and, after a couple of games back home, No. 14 Memphis.
"Most people think I'm crazy," Thompson said with a laugh as he pored over video of Missouri early Monday. "And I might be. Most people don't put together a schedule like I did this year, or even last year. But I felt like this was the best way to prepare this group for Big East play."
It's also might be the best way for Thompson to keep his players focused. Lack of focus and intensity was, at times, an issue last season for the Hoyas, who defeated NCAA finalists Duke and Butler but suffered confounding defeats against South Florida and Rutgers before being dismissed by unheralded Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"In my opinion, you have to look at the personality and composition of your team," Thompson said. "Some years, you have to have a very difficult schedule and some years you don't. But with this group, I think we need a test every night. I want this team to get the mind-set of, 'Hey, we play 30, 40 or however many games this year, but every game is urgent.' "
Thompson said this is the most challenging early season slate of his seven-year tenure at Georgetown. And while the games against Missouri, Utah State, Temple and Memphis present a tough stretch, Thompson also pointed out that the Hoyas' first six opponents weren't exactly against pushovers. Old Dominion, Coastal Carolina and Wofford all claimed titles in their conferences a season ago.
"We have the hardest [non-conference] schedule in the country," Thompson said. "There isn't a game that you can look at and say, 'Okay, we just walk in the door and we'll be fine.' "
Senior point guard Chris Wright said he and his teammates understand Thompson's reasons for challenging them.
"Last year, a lot of people noticed that when we played against top teams, we showed up," Wright said. "But when we played lesser-level teams, or lesser-name teams, we didn't have enough intensity or energy. So Coach did this for two reasons: to get us tuned up for Big East play and also to make sure we come out prepared and focused for every game."
That focus had better be present Tuesday, when the Hoyas face Missouri's suffocating press at Sprint Center.
Four of the Tigers' top five scorers are back from a team that went 23-11 last season, and so far, Missouri is averaging 81.6 points per game behind guards Marcus Denmon (13.8 points per game) and Kim English (10).
But it's Missouri's frenetic pace and turnover-creating pressure defense that figure to pose the biggest problem for Georgetown, which committed a season-high 23 turnovers against UNC Asheville. Breaking the Tigers' press will be the responsibility of Wright, who also will be asked to dictate the game's tempo and slow "the fastest 40 minutes in basketball," as Missouri's program has been dubbed under Coach Mike Anderson.
"We're playing a team that plays with a high level of intensity and is all over you for 94 feet, the whole 40 minutes of the game," Wright said. "It's going to be good for us. In a lot of ways they are similar to Louisville because they're very intense."
The downside to scheduling so many tough opponents early, Thompson said, is finding playing time for reserves. Freshman Markel Starks, for example, played a season-high 14 minutes in Saturday's rout of UNC Asheville but might not see as much playing time against top opponents as Thompson leans heavily on upperclassmen Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark.
"It's balance, a juggling act as a coach," Thompson said. "A difficult schedule makes it harder to get bench players significant, quality minutes, guys you may need as the season goes along."
The upside is that Thompson will know where his Hoyas stand on Dec. 29, when they open their Big East schedule at Notre Dame.
"By that time," Thompson said, "we'll have a feel for what we need to do. So let's go get tested, see where we stand."