When Jason Clark did not make any of the Big East preseason all-conference teams in October, the Georgetown senior promised to use the snub as a source of motivation.
He spent the past four months making good on that vow, and on Sunday was recognized for his effort when he was named to the Big East’s all-conference first team. Twenty-four hours later, the guard received the conference’s sportsmanship award.
“It makes me proud,” Clark said of the accolades. “I overcame a lot of stuff to get to this point. I appreciate it and I’m honored to be on that list.”
“But,” he added in the same breath, “there’s still a lot more work to do.”
That work begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where Clark and fifth-seeded Georgetown open the Big East tournament against 13th-seeded Pittsburgh. The Panthers defeated the Hoyas, 72-60, on Jan. 28 at Petersen Events Center. Pittsburgh (17-15) earned a 73-59 win over 12th-seeded St. John’s in the tournament’s first round on Tuesday.
Each of Clark’s previous three trips to the tournament yielded mixed results. After being eliminated in the first round his freshman season by St. John’s, he helped the Hoyas reach the final against West Virginia as a sophomore. Last season, Kemba Walker and eventual national champion Connecticut dismissed the Hoyas in their opening game.
Clark played a supporting role in those visits to Broadway. But this time he’ll be the headliner while competing on his favorite stage.
“It’s the atmosphere, being in an historic building,” he said of the venerable arena. “A lot of great players have gone through there and did great things there. I like the bright lights.”
Clark’s season, though, began in the shadows. Left off the any of the preseason teams, the senior has proved the omission to be a glaring one.
He averaged a team-best 14.3 points and anchored a defense that ranked third against three-point shooting (35.1 percent) and fourth overall (38.8 percent). With 23 more points, the three-year starter will surpass Jeff Green for 20th on Georgetown’s all-time scoring list.
“He’s worked extremely hard,” Coach John Thompson III said. “For four years, he’s always been in the background. For four years, he’s been extremely selfless in terms of wanting or seeking attention.”
Which, in many ways, explains Clark’s other honor. He rarely argues with officials, never showboats and rarely, if ever, exchanges words with competitors.
“I’m not with all the trash-talking and that other stuff,” he said. “The game gets emotional sometimes. But I respect a lot of the players around the league and they respect me.”
That respect will only deepen if Clark is able to lead the 13th-ranked Georgetown to its first tournament title since 2007.
To get there, however, the Hoyas must first go through Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and potentially Syracuse — teams that accounted for three of their seven regular season defeats.
In fact, it could be argued that the Panthers are the one team Clark and the Hoyas didn’t want the face in their first game, because it was Nasir Robinson and Pittsburgh who picked apart Georgetown’s vaunted defense en route to the victory earlier this season.
Miscommunication left gaping holes that Robinson and fellow forwards Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna exploited for wide-open shots around the rim. Robinson shot 9 for 9 from the floor and the Panthers connected on 52.1 percent of their field goals.
“I feel like there were 15 to 20 baskets that were layups or dunks,” Thompson said. “We have to protect the rim and the paint a lot [better].”
The Hoyas also missed five of their 12 free throws in that game, underscoring the team’s season-long struggles at the line. Thompson has attempted to correct the problems in practice and on the sideline. For more than a month, in fact, Thompson has knelt near the scorer’s table and looked away as his players attempted free throws.
“I’m trying to help them out,” Thompson joked. “Part of the year, I’m standing up. Part of the year, I’m kneeling down. Now I’m not looking. I’m trying to do my part.”
So far it’s been a pretty satisfying week for Clark. Now, there’s just one way it can get any better.
“I’m going up there with the mind-set that this is my last go around,” he said. “I don’t want to lose.”