Georgetown basketball hopes to find its rhythm against West Virginia

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 12:37 AM

With a 1-2 Big East record, the Georgetown men's basketball team isn't off to the type of start expected from a squad that steamrolled touted nonconference opponents in November and December.

But the Hoyas aren't panicking yet, either. Instead of revamping an offense that's grown somewhat stagnant and predictable, Coach John Thompson III said the message in practice this week has been to remain loyal to the system, but just do a better job of executing it.

Thompson's main point of emphasis to guards Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark ahead of Saturday's showdown with West Virginia (9-4, 1-2) has been to change their mentality when the shots aren't falling.

"When you're missing shots, as a player it's natural to say, 'Okay, I'm going to step back and bang the next one,' " Thompson said. "Chris and Jason went through a stretch where they weren't making as many shots as they had been, and it was more, 'Okay, I'm going to hit the next one' instead of, 'Let me get a different kind of shot.' "

Such new attempts can involve driving to the rim, one of Freeman's strengths and West Virginia's weaknesses, or utilizing backdoor cuts, a Wright specialty and something else the Mountaineers struggle against. In three conference games, West Virginia has yielded an average of 34.6 points in the paint, most of which have been inflicted by slicing guards.

Getting to the rim and backdoor cuts, indeed, are an important part of Georgetown's offense. But for the Hoyas to be as dominant as they were against North Carolina State, Utah State, Missouri and Memphis, each guard also must rediscover his shooting touch.

The 13th-ranked Hoyas (12-3) have been particularly off target recently from behind the arc. In fact, after making four of their first six three-point attempts against Memphis on Dec. 23, the Hoyas have knocked down only 14 of their past 58 attempts. That's a paltry 24 percent, which simply isn't good enough for a guard-dominated team that doesn't possess a reliable post presence.

Some of the reason for that low shooting percentage is that they're facing increased defensive pressure on the perimeter. After watching Freeman, Wright and Clark put on long-range exhibitions earlier this season, opponents are building game plans around shutting them down, with Monday's loss at St. John's serving as the latest example. Red Storm defenders were aggressive on the outside and quick to slide over to cut off dribble penetration. As a result, the Georgetown trio combined for 20 points on 7-of-25 shooting from the floor, marking the only time this season all three finished in single digits.

Each of them, it seems, has struggled for different reasons during the team's slump.

Freeman appeared lethargic at times in New York, occasionally loitering on the outside waiting for an open look instead of creating one. He finished 2 for 10 with a season-low six points, 13.2 below his season average. Thompson said he was so concerned about his leading scorer's lack of energy that he asked Freeman, who has diabetes, to get his blood sugar levels checked. Tests came back normal, so Thompson hopes a four-day break between games will help him re-energize after a grueling stretch.

"He was not his normal self in that game," Thompson said. "Three games in six days, with two on the road, is rough."

Wright said he believes his issues are the result of focusing too much on creating for teammates. The point guard has totaled 17 assists the past three games, but made only nine of his 30 shots, including 1 for 14 from three-point range, in that span.

"I think I'm being a little passive on the offensive end, passing up some shots just to try to get other people involved, get other people easy shots," he said. And, "I haven't been hitting shots. It's frustrating."

Clark, meantime, needs to regain confidence in his shot. Since posting back-to-back 15-point performances against Temple and Appalachian State last month, he's scored in double figures only once the past five games and appears to be hesitating, even when open. On Thursday, Clark and Henry Sims were still on the court long after their teammates had left.

"Good shooters keep shooting," Clark said. "I just need to get more shots up before practice and after practice." Asked if those shots are falling, Clark cracked a big grin and said, "A little bit."

As the Hoyas wrapped practice Thursday, the collective mood at McDonough Arena was upbeat. The reason for that optimism seems to stem from the belief that the struggles are mostly self-inflicted.

"Much of it is how we're doing things," Thompson said. "So I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater or reinvent the wheel."

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