Georgetown Hoyas' rise is a credit to their attention to defensive improvement

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 12:56 AM

Grumbling among Georgetown fans would have been understandable. Some level of frustration was probably appropriate.

A 1-4 start in Big East play will do that, especially after the Hoyas raised expectations this season with an 11-1 record against a strong nonconference schedule. It seemed only fair to ask, "Would this be like the 2008-09 collapse all over again?"

The answer has come during an eight-game conference winning streak that Coach John Thompson III should list among his top professional achievements. Thompson's ability to get the No. 9 Hoyas, who face No. 13 Connecticut on Wednesday night, refocused on defense during seven days between games in late January resulted in college's basketball biggest in-season turnaround. He knew what needed to be done and made it happen.

That's called coaching.

Georgetown appeared so lost at times in early January that even seven months in the classroom seemed like too little time.

Pick an area of basketball - Georgetown failed in it during the rough stretch that included three straight losses. Turnovers, lack of rebounding, missed free throws - it was all there for Thompson to consider.

With a tight deadline, Thompson could have made a few adjustments and hoped for the best. Instead, he went all the way back to the foundation: defense.

The Hoyas did many things well during their fast start, but defense made the difference. Georgetown has the nation's second-best field goal percentage, but it was at its best displaying toughness when opponents had the ball.

Whether closing out Missouri during an overtime victory in November or pulling away from Memphis in the second half in December, Georgetown led with its defense.

That's what the Hoyas had to rediscover. That's what Thompson had to get through to them during those seven days spent only practicing in January, or it could have all fallen apart as it did two seasons ago.

His approach was basic: Thompson drilled players in man-to-man principles. See the man. See the ball. Go get the ball.

When things go badly, many coaches get caught up in "'Well, let's devise this scheme; let's devise that scheme,' " Thompson said Tuesday. "At the end of the day, it's man-on-man. If you're in front of me, I'm guarding you; I have to stop you."

No need for overanalyzing and reevaluating every facet of the program. There was no time for that, anyway.

A quick fix was possible, though, if Thompson could persuade players to be quick to the ball again. Even if they continued to miss too many shots or too many balls caromed just out of their reach, the Hoyas' defense could provide consistency.

During the streak, six opponents have failed to make even 41 percent of their field goal attempts. None have shot 46 percent or better.

The Hoyas needed that at home against Louisville and surprising St. John's. At Villanova and Syracuse, they couldn't have lived without it. The Hoyas always had the ability. Thompson just had to remind them after a bad bump.

"It's not about any systems or schemes," Thompson said. "It's about just tightening up your belt strap and guarding someone."

Of course, it helped that Georgetown's standout guards - top scorer Austin Freeman, point guard Chris Wright and Jason Clark - emerged from slumps, and the offense has suddenly functioned well again.

The reemergence of Freeman has been the biggest catalyst offensively.

The senior struggled shooting while opponents intensified their efforts to guard Georgetown on the perimeter. Over the past month, no one in the nation's premier conference has performed at a higher level than Freeman.

"He's playing as well as anyone right now," Thompson said.

In the Hoyas' signature win to this point (69-66 at Villanova on Jan. 29), Freeman scored 10 of their final 12 points as part of his smooth 30-point, six-assist performance. Guard play is the most important factor in success in college basketball, and the Hoyas have a great one in Freeman. Wright and Clark join him to form an effective trio on both ends of the court, and their willingness to first reinvest in defense helped make the current winning run possible.

Thompson would have preferred to direct a similarly effective turnaround two seasons ago. After starting 9-1 during the 2008-09 season, the Hoyas fell apart and finished 16-15. This season's close-knit group, however, is not burdened by chemistry problems, which helped to derail the previous squad.

The Hoyas' fast improvement comes at a good time for the program as well as Thompson.

There's no question Thompson has succeeded at Georgetown. Four NCAA tournament berths (a fifth is now all but ensured), two Sweet 16 appearances and one Final Four add up favorably no matter who's keeping score.

But Georgetown has been fairly quiet in the postseason since making its Final Four run in 2007. Although the Hoyas have appeared in two of the last three Big East tournament championship games, they suffered second- and first-round losses in their past two NCAA tournament appearances - and missed it entirely after the '09 collapse.

Georgetown ran into Stephen Curry when he was carrying Davidson to a region final in 2007-08. There's no shame in that. Last season, though, the third-seeded Hoyas lost to 14th-seeded Ohio in their opener.

So after the poor conference start this season, there were reasons to wonder a little bit about the program. Now Georgetown has a legitimate shot at a No. 1 seed. A lot would have to break right for the Hoyas, but they appear to be in the mix.

And the credit for that goes to the guy in charge, who got back to basics when others might have panicked.

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