On Ed Spriggs' first day in Provo, a mile high in Utah's mountains, someone asked if the altitude bothered the Georgetown University basketball team, not long removed from the erstwhile swamp of our Nation's Capital.
Altitude? The Hoyas' senior cocaptain studied a moment.
"Is it different?" Spriggs said.
"If you find a difference," chimed in his coach, John Thompson, "you'll be outta here."
The Hoyas are still in here, now in the final four of the NCAA tournament, because they have achieved the rarest of contentments. When it matters most, they are their best. The tunnel vision that eliminates from mind the difference between a swamp and a mountain is symptomatic of what Arthur Ashe calls "being in the zone," that supernatural twilight zone where every move seems preordained to succeed.
"In October," said Georgetown guard Fred Brown, "we start practice striving for perfection. March is the month when you have to play."
Ashe in the zone at Wimbledon was little better than these Hoyas of March. Of Georgetown's nine straight victories, six have come this month--three in the Big East Conference tournament, three in the NCAA. Those six victories have come by an average of 16 points, none closer than eight points.
Indiana's surprising run to the NCAA championship last season started with early lopsided triumphs. Before anyone figured out that the Hoosiers were manhandling good teams, Bobby Knight handed Dean Smith his hat.
Georgetown may be up to the same trick. A familiar refrain echoed from losing locker rooms this month. As Georgetown beat Providence, St. John's and Villanova in its league tournament--as it beat Wyoming, Fresno State and Oregon State in the NCAA, these teams averaging over 20 victories agreed that, well, you know, we didn't play well tonight.
Nobody played well against UCLA for a dozen years, either.
Everybody played poorly against Indiana.
Now it's Georgetown turning good teams into silly putty.
Of Georgetown's last 15 victories in 16 games, nine have come over teams in the NCAA tournament. Those nine victories came by an average of 16 points, with only the one as close as eight.
"Champions play when they have to," Thompson said.
They play in March, and they play in the last two minutes of big games. Look at the Hoyas' work in the last two minutes of three NCAA wins. They have outscored Wyoming, Fresno and Oregon State, 22-4.
Georgetown's shooters are mediocre, both from the field and the free-throw line. When a columnist (blush) wrote that two weeks ago, a psychologist offered to help Georgetown by giving the players a one-hour course in neuro-linguistic programming. "I'd like to help them before they start the NCAA," the generous gentleman said.
Well, doc. These orphans of neuro-linguistic deprivation did all right without our help.
At Provo, Georgetown first set a West Regional record with 63.6 percent shooting. Then, with a final four spot at stake, the Hoyas set an all-time NCAA record of 74.4 percent. In two nights of heavy-duty pressure, they missed only 22 shots.
Free throws? In the last two minutes of those games, the Hoyas, barely 65 percent free throwers, made 14 straight.
"Not bad for a team that can't shoot," said all-America guard Eric Floyd, 16 for 21 those two nights. Touche.
As foolish as it sounds to say this of a team that shot 74.4 percent, Georgetown's shooting is the least of its good work.
Georgetown's defense is frightening.
Oregon State's nice sophomore center, Charlie Sitton, made several layups against Idaho. The next morning, someone brought up Patrick Ewing's name. Sitton said, "I know I'm not going to get too many layups like I did last night."
Sitton tried to be brave.
"You gotta change your game somehow," the 6-foot-8 fellow said.
The NCAA is no place to change your game. You dance with who brung you. Against Ewing, though, everyone is playing scared. Once when Oregon State's 6-7 freshman A.C. Green took a pass under the hoop, he considered his situation a second--and then got rid of the cursed ball. He knew Ewing was somewhere close.
Ewing didn't even have his hands up. All he did was breathe. That was enough for Green.
Georgetown's constant pressure ruined three good teams in the West. Wyoming all-America Bill Garnett took only five shots, making one. Fresno's leading scorer, Rod Higgins, was exhausted and useless the second half. Oregon State's all-America guard, Lester Conner, didn't get his fourth field goal until Georgetown led by 25.
Georgetown overwhelms lesser teams with depth. Thompson used nine men the first six minutes Saturday. They go on search-and-destroy missions of defense. If Eric Smith doesn't mess up a guy's mind, Fred Brown will. If Bill Martin doesn't bend a guy's body, Gene Smith will.
"We're not great outside shooters," John Thompson said. "But we compensate."
They compensate by scoring off defense and getting the ball to Ewing at rim level. With Ewing out of foul trouble, Georgetown's defense is the best in the college game. And as long as he is a threat to get the ball inside on offense, the Hoyas will score when necessary--either with a stuff by Ewing or an 18-footer by Floyd.
March isn't over yet. Stay tuned.