Tournament time is when college basketball coaches discover their true friends, who they can tap for films or tapes of opponents, immediate and future. John Thompson can get sound advice with two local phone calls; Georgetown foes in a bind might dust off old Boston Celtics clips.
Substitute two Hoya Erics, Smith and Floyd, for two Celtic Joneses, K.C. and Sam, imagine Pat Ewing as shot-swatter Bill Russell and teams in the NCAA West regional have the proper feel for the Beast of the East. It's an overblown analogy, of course, but one that teams that lost to the Hoyas this season volunteer and Thompson does not mind fueling.
Mind messages are fine by him. Let the idea that Georgetown's full-court press is a basketball vacuum cleaner marinate in the heads of Wyoming and Southern Cal players this week; don't discourage the notion that the winner of their first-round collision Thursday night will not get the ball to half-court Saturday.
Georgetown is unusual because its best chances to score often come when the other team has the ball. Briefly. For one or two passes after a Hoya hoop. Then the Smiths and Floyds, Browns and Hancocks attack in waves, arms waving, flicking and kicking at the ball like some insect with court-wide tentacles.
All this with Ewing lurking just beyond the chaos, covering the front court all by himself, waiting to intercept a bad pass or to block a shot if somebody penetrates the Hoya harassers. If the press is effective, this is about the best transition possibility: a 15-foot jumper with Ewing flying in your face.
How close to unique are the skills Ewing is honing? A coach once tried to inspire his assistants to hit the recruiting road by saying: "There's a woman on every street corner in America, but shot-blockin' centers are hard to find." Thompson's got the best young one in America.
And more than a half-dozen chasers to go with him, a bench deep enough so fouls and fatigue should not be troublesome.
"The object of our defense," Thompson said yesterday, "is to GET the ball, not to cause a bad shot. We want it. We want to take it. Lots of coaches never tell their teams the object of the defense. We try to get the ball more than most teams.
"Sometimes our reputation helps. If a team knows we're good at pressing, it's likely to be nervous about it before the game. That's one reason, I think, we were so effective against St. John's; we were going into an area where our press had gotten maximum publicity.
"We'll go to a one-two-one-one zone lots of times, with Pat back. He's so quick that he can come almost to midcourt and still recover in time to get back near the basket. That means the other four guys can overplay even harder, go for the ball more."
Georgetown mixes man and zone presses. It also has what Thompson calls "hard" and "soft" pressure in each. Soft usually means the little guys cover the passing lanes and let the opposition make its own mistakes; hard is when each Hoya tries to crawl inside an opponent's jersey.
"We've gotten more confidence as the season's gone along," he added.
Although Ewing tilts the odds dramatically in Georgetown's favor, pressure defense is a gamble. Anyone quick and clever enough creates the possibility of getting him in foul trouble. If Wyoming beats Southern Cal, the Hoyas will find the tallest objects in Utah are not the trees.
Howard and American U. know all about Wyoming, having been beaten by that enormous front court (7-foot, 6-10 and 6-9) and discipline. And Fresno State, also in Georgetown's bracket, plays spectacular defense. Three of its players almost always can be seen hurtling toward the man with the ball.
One of Thompson's concerns is that most fans know very little about possible Hoya opposition in the regionals; another is that either the NCAA can't handicap its tournament, or parity at National Football League level exists in college basketball.
Last season, two of the teams seeded first in the four regions, De Paul and Oregon State, lost in the first round. In all, half the 16 teams given the first round off did not win a game. Each region had an unseeded team in its finals. Sometimes a bye means bye-bye.
To many coaches, the Hoyas have a national championship defense and an NIT set offense. Their defensive pressure compounding the lid-rattling pressure of the NCAA tournament ought to yield a final-four outcome, as long as the coach can convince his players these regional unknowns aren't St. Leo's.
He usually is very persuasive.
Also, I think that if Othell Wilson recovers from that thigh injury, Virginia will make the final four. The Cavaliers should be angry enough to stop that month-long passive streak, to attack and force the ball toward Ralph Sampson on offense and defense.
Wilson helps make that possible.
Freshmen Jim Miller and Tim Mullen played quite well in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. And even without Wilson, it was North Carolina that stopped playing first in the ACC final. If Dean Smith has that much respect for Sampson, so do I.