Out on the perimeter, that's where the nerves start to fray and fail. If you're a finesse player in the big time of college basketball, two nightmares haunt you: laying bricks and getting stripped.
Which is worse, missing wide-open jump shots as the crowd sarcastically mutters, "Clank," or having the ball stolen from you at midcourt as everybody snickers at your nakedness?
In other words, who had it rougher at Capital Centre last night, the Georgetown Hoyas, who couldn't hit the ocean from the beach for a whole half, or the St. John's Redmen, who kept leaving something behind -- the ball?
Normally, the Hoyas are considered the best outside-shooting team in the college game.
Last night, their three deadeyes, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Michael Jackson, had a bad case of paralysis from analysis.
With the game on the line, they looked as if they'd do anything rather than shoot.
Because Georgetown never cured its terminal case of the jump-shot jitters, its eight-game winning streak is now history. Twice in the last two minutes of St. John's 60-58 victory, Georgetown's stars passed the buck until a freshman (Johnathan Edwards) ended up taking the crucial shots. Finally, with his team down by a bucket with 20 seconds to play, Wingate ignored the type of jumper he normally fires with glee and faked his way into traffic, where he fumbled away the ball.
Just as the Hoyas are normally marksmen, so the Redmen usually protect the ball like an heirloom. Except for North Carolina, what college team is so mistake-proof? This evening, St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca was holding his face in both expressive hands, moaning, "The mistakes, did you see the mistakes? The worst all year."
St. John's finally remembered how to hold on to the ball under pressure -- particularly senior guard Ron Rowan. Practically undressed in public during the first half, Rowan composed himself and finished with 17 points. "It wasn't an Oscar performance," said Carnesecca of Rowan, "but maybe an Emmy."
"You don't expect to see a player get his composure back the way Rowan did," said Georgetown's Michael Jackson. "That tells you about the level of coaching on their team. They must have talked to him at halftime."
"Artistically, this is not one you'd put at the Prado," said Carnesecca. "But it was exciting for the fans. . . . When you play a game like this and win, you just want to get out of the building and on the bus. I don't want to play another 10 minutes.
"I could sum this one up in a word. Suerte. That's Spanish for luck."
Carnesecca wouldn't have been in such high spirits if Rowan, a raw-boned transfer from Notre Dame with a modified punk hairdo, hadn't calmed himself down at the half. Before intermission, Rowan was the Hoyas' designated victim as they pressed the visitors to distraction.
"We talked all week about how we were going to make some mistakes against a team as quick as Georgetown. Just don't make two or three mistakes in a row," said Rowan's back-court mate, Mark Jackson. "But we forgot. At halftime, we talked about it again."
That sea of St. John's errors should have been enough for Georgetown to salt this game away early. "If they shoot any kind of percentage (in the first half), we're down 10 or 15," admitted Carnesecca.
Georgetown has lived by the jump shot all season -- and lived well (19-4) -- but this was the game when they died by the 18-footer. "We didn't make some of the shots we usually make," said Coach John Thompson. "When I saw we were cold, I ended up telling them to try to penetrate into the gaps before shooting. . . . But I almost wish David (Wingate) had taken that last shot from outside. He was trying to get inside when he lost it."
Because he couldn't trust his offensive players, Thompson had both Wingate and Jackson on the bench during crucial stretches of the late game. That's when the Hoyas' offense really came to a halt. "St. John's went to a zone at a good time," said Thompson. "We had some people in the game that I wouldn't have wanted to have in there against a zone."
That's probably Thompson's generous way of tipping his hat to Carnesecca for a coaching victory.
"I'm not ready to close the curtain on this season," said Thompson, bemusedly. "There's not going to be any 'For Sale' sign on the gym door. We're not putting 'The End' on the curtain."
February is the time of year when coaches search for that last small piece of conceptual fine-tuning that could turn a very good team into a great one.
As this tight and exciting game showed, both Georgetown and St. John's are among the best dozen or so teams in the country. However, both have an obvious flaw. The Hoyas need a power forward; the Redmen need at least one quality reserve.
To that end, Georgetown may have made significant progress last evening. What the Hoyas long for is a 6-foot-8, 225-pound gentleman who can throw down a hook slam-dunk off a fast break that brings 16,093 people to their feet or else spin in the low post, palm the ball as he jumps and and flip a soft little eight-foot bank shot off the glass over Walter Berry's head.
A 25-year-old sophomore named Ronnie Highsmith did both those things last evening, as well as block a couple of shots, snatch a half-dozen mean rebounds and play face-up defense on The Truth without being badly burned.
Highsmith played 30 minutes, in large part because center Ralph Dalton, who fouled out with 5:50 to play, was in foul trouble.
However, necessity can be the father of retention. This guy may have to stay in the lineup before long. Highsmith -- twice all-Army and not prone to being intimidated -- showed a seemly disrespect for St. John's.
Earlier this season, he threw down a couple of crucial late-game slam dunks against Syracuse in a Hoyas win at Capital Centre.
On nights when the sleek and graceful gentlemen of the back court leave their shooting touch back at the dorm, it is helpful to employ a large and ferocious individual whose idea of the perfect jump shot is to rise far above the basket, then attempt to hurl the ball directly down through the hoop and imbed it in the floor.