There comes a time in almost every Georgetown game when the opponent's passes begin getting dropped, when the players become too tired to get their hands up on defense and turnovers begin coming one after another. At that point, Georgetown's defensive press has gained full control and the opponent has given up without wanting to.
When the subject is Georgetown defense, you have to start with the pressure, or for short, the press. It cripples. Sometimes you can see opposing players stop and take a deep breath after just getting the ball over midcourt. For the next two weeks, game by game if Georgetown continues to advance through the NCAA tournament, coaches will study that pressure on film. You can see the pressure on film, but you can't feel it.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson says this Hoyas team probably doesn't play defense quite as well as last year's championship team. Even so, Georgetown is still the best defensive team in the nation, allowing opponents to make only 39.9 percent of their shots. The press is largely responsible.
Tennessee State Coach Ed Meyers, who has coached for and against Georgetown, said, "The team playing Georgetown, by the end of the game, is like a punch-drunk boxer in the 15th round. There's nothing left. You've spent everything you've got just trying to get upcourt.
"You make a bad pass or travel with the ball . . . it doesn't even have to be a turnover. It can be a bad shot, or you're too tired to rebound. Look at the second shots Georgetown got against St. John's last week. They didn't even have to jump, the St. John's kids were so tired.
"The consistency of it is incredible," Meyers, a former GU assistant, continued. "You don't know when it's going to strike, how they're going to strike or for how long. I hear these announcers on television, 'And Georgetown's in such-and-such a defensive press now.' And before the guy can finish, John's got them in something else. I wouldn't know what he was in myself if I hadn't worked there."
Thompson's philosophy of the press is not necessarily to create turnovers directly, but in his words, "to wear opponents down."
Coach Gary Williams of Boston College, another one of the few teams in the country which relies so heavily on pressing, said, "When people measure the effectiveness of a press, they sometimes do it by the number of steals. But Georgetown's philosphy is to tire you out. By the second half, maybe you're too tired to take that 20-foot jump shot."
Or maybe a team is too tired to even figure out how to attack Georgetown's defense.
"There are different variations," Thompson said. "But basically we use a man-to-man press and a zone press. But in both those, you have different wrinkles, such as whether you pick it up full court, or three-quarter court; whether to key on certain people, or shade to others.
"With Chris Mullin (of St. John's) for example, we play the ball because he throws the inbounds pass, and we don't want him to be able to get the return pass. Against Pearl (Dwayne Washington of Syracuse) we have to play him from getting the inbounds pass. Because of his exceptional ballhandling skills, he's capable of dribbling through double teams and breaking the press himself."
Not too many players in the country, however, are capable of doing that. Even at the beginning of the game, Georgetown's press disrupts.
"They make you play at their pace," Williams said. "You have to move the ball pretty quickly just to get it up the court. Then it's hard to pull it back out and play at your pace."
Williams talked about one of the presses Georgetown often uses, a 1-2-1-1 zone, with 7-foot Patrick Ewing the one in back. And there's also a man-to-man press where Georgetown will put all four men in front of the opposition's four men, or "face guarding," as Williams calls it. If the ball is successfully thrown inbounds, Georgetown can go back into its 1-2-1-1. In some situations, a long pass over the face guarders could theoretically lead to one player getting downcourt, where he would confront Ewing. "And that," Meyers said, "is a zero percent scoring chance."
All this is so effective for several reasons, including the fact that Thompson has been using various pressure defenses for years, certainly long before Ewing arrived on campus. Also, Georgetown has the quick, agile athletes who can execute it. David Wingate has 57 steals, Reggie Williams and Michael Jackson each has 45. Even Ewing has 35 steals this season, a phenomenal number when one considers that Memphis State 7-footer William Bedford has 11 steals this season and Southern Methodist 7-footer Jon Koncak has 13.
A primary point is that the entire team is aggressively applying pressure as Thompson wants him to. "First of all," Williams said, "the press establishes an aggressive defense for your team. It's a way to make sure your team starts at a certain level of defense every single game. If you're not hustling and diving, you're exposed immediately. You can hide guys sitting back in a zone, but not in full-court pressure. Each player makes the commitment to be the best defensive player he can be."
Most teams can't even simulate Georgetown's level of defensive pressure in practice. "Your second team can't even duplicate what Georgetown will do," he said. "It's the best press I've seen since the 1960s UCLA teams."
Meyers was asked what coaches could do in the next few days to prepare for Georgetown, if they could change anything to combat the Hoyas' oppressive press. "It's like the $64,000 question," Meyers said. "Either you know the answer or you don't. Change now, and Georgetown will tear you apart."