By Mike Wise
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 11:58 PM
Even before the smattering of boos at halftime, John Thompson III had a major quandary on his hands at Georgetown.
How does a veteran team that started 8-0 against the toughest nonconference schedule in the country, a team that vaulted to No. 9 in the national rankings, freefall this quickly?
Really, how did the Hoyas morph from a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a mere two weeks ago into . . . this - the out-of-sync eyesore nearly blown off its home floor Wednesday night by No. 5 Pittsburgh?
"Yes, it's a concern," Thompson III said after falling to 1-4 in the Big East. "Make a few shots it solves everything. Get a few rebounds, get a few stops; it's a simple game - make shots and guard your guy."
It is a simple game. But this Hoyas confidence drain is a puzzling mystery on the Hilltop.
Georgetown didn't lose Greg Monroe to the NBA yesterday.
This isn't Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Julian Vaughn's first Big East rodeo.
Eight of the 10 players who got off the bench for J.T. III, in fact, were also on the team last season, when the Hoyas drummed the two teams in last April's championship game, Duke and Butler. Heck, many of those same eight players got minutes in a pulsating comeback victory at Missouri last month.
Freeman said it best: "Well, I feel this team, when we're clicking, we can be one of the best teams in the country."
And when they're not, you get these Hoyas, who fell apart against the Panthers. You get a team perfectly happy to travel to Rutgers and Seton Hall because Georgetown is in no frame of mind to beat Connecticut, Syracuse or a mentally tough Pitt team that repelled a mini-rally in the second half to win going away.
A team that averaged 80-plus points before Big East play started has been held to fewer than 60 points in four of the last five games. With Monroe gone, there is no one to fill his shoes at Big Man U.
These Hoyas go as their guards go.
And when one of the most enigmatic of them all, Freeman, appears to have worse body language than a guy whose freshman girlfriend dumped him after three years, and the other, Wright, is in need of a GPS every time he darts toward the hoop, well, that's not a very connected back-court tandem.
Freeman hit a meaningless three-pointer with a little more than a minute left and the Verizon Center crowd, which featured a healthy number of Pittsburgh fans, applauded with everything but sarcasm, as if to say, "Now you decide to make that shot."
Yes, Vaughn was outmuscled, as most of the Hoyas' big men will be most of the Big East season. We can play the "They're Not Tough Enough For The Big East" game forever.
As to what's really ailing the Hoyas, here's a theory:
No other team in the Big East plays the hybrid of the Princeton offense run by Georgetown, which means they all prepare extra hard for it.
So, when a senior-laden team like Pittsburgh prepares for the Hoyas, Jamie Dixon looks at his players and essentially says, "You remember the guy who beat you six times on a back cut your sophomore year? He's still there and they're still running the same thing."
Dixon, the Panthers' coach, admitted as much afterward Wednesday night, saying he was "impressed with how quick our guys pick up their stuff.
"I tell you, from Monday our first day they really jumped into what they were doing, understood and picked it up."
Bottom line, Big East teams spend a good amount of preparation on defending that offense. Missouri, Old Dominion, Memphis, Wofford and North Carolina State - some of the Hoyas' nonconference victories that vaulted them to No. 9 in the nation - simply don't have the time to break down a patterned offense.
The knee-jerk cynic on the Hilltop might wonder when J.T. III is going to drop the Pete Carill influence and go back to what his father did so well: Press, helter-skelter-style, and let the talent show itself on offense. That means if Wright can take his man, one-on-one, run some isolation sets for him.
The perceptive Georgetown fan, though, might feel differently: it depends who's running that offense. Phil Jackson's triangle looked great when Michael Jordan was initiating it; Smush Parker? Not so much.
Monroe was a gifted passer in the post, one of the best interior passers in recent memory for a kid his size. When the ball goes in the post now, the movement essentially stops.
Either way, J.T. III isn't buying that the Big East has figured him out.
"If they had a meticulous film session, God bless them, it showed out on the court," he said of Pittsburgh. But he also implied that the Hoyas' inability to get to possibly a fourth or fifth option before jacking up an ill-advised three-pointer or just barreling toward the rim without a plan in mind had as much to do with the offensive breakdown as anything.
Whatever Georgetown's reasons for this poor Big East start - confidence, style, size, chipping paint off the rim or all of the above - the Hoyas have 13 games left to get their act together.
If not, if this keeps up, this would mark the second season in the last three that Georgetown will have gotten demonstrably worse than better at the end of a season.
There were obvious chemistry problems two years ago. Last year's Big East tournament run notwithstanding, that's not a good sign.
Thirteen games to go in the career of Freeman, Wright and Vaughn - post-Final Four recruits that are running out of time to cement their own era on the Hilltop. If they can't do it - and if J.T. III can't get them to do it - the blame cannot fall on playing in the rugged Big East alone.