It was exactly this point in the college basketball season, one year ago, that a 2-0 Georgetown squad hit the road to take on a top-15 team with a storied sporting legacy.
That Hoyas squad fell to No. 14 Kansas, 67-63, in the first round of the Maui Invitational, but came away from the battle with confidence that helped it string together 11 consecutive victories afterward.
Regardless of the outcome of Monday’s meeting with No. 13 UCLA, this year’s Georgetown team hopes for a comparable boost from its first major test, particularly after its scheduled season opener against Florida was canceled midway through the proceedings because of hazardous conditions on the flight deck of the USS Bataan.
“We kind of shaped our team a little bit after that Kansas game,” junior Nate Lubick recalls. “We’re going to win the [UCLA] game. We didn’t win that Kansas game, which would have been a huge step for our season. But it ended up being okay.”
Georgetown won’t have long to reflect on the outcome either way. The Hoyas return to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Tuesday to face either No. 1 Indiana (3-0) or Georgia (1-2) on the final day of the Legends Classic.
While parallels with last November’s Kansas game are easy to draw, Coach John Thompson III points out that this season’s Georgetown team isn’t as far along in its development at this stage as last season’s was. The reasons are many.
For starters, the Hoyas tuned up for their 2011-12 campaign with a 10-day tour of China that included four exhibitions. The brawl that marred one of those contests only drew the players closer, forging a bond that helped account for a 24-9 record that surpassed preseason expectations.
That team also entered its Nov. 21, 2011, test against Kansas on the heels of back-to-back blowouts, drubbing Savannah State by 29 points to open the season and following with a 41-point rout of UNC Greensboro. Much of the credit belonged to its two seniors, do-it-all guard Jason Clark and center Henry Sims, who knew the offense cold and provided the balance and experience the Hoyas needed after losing Chris Wright and Austin Freeman to graduation.
The Georgetown team that travels to New York on Monday has no seniors on its roster. Not only did it lose last season’s top three scorers, but it has lacked its most prolific returning player, sophomore forward Otto Porter Jr., for all but six minutes.
The 6-8 Porter, who led the team in rebounding as a freshman, practiced for the first time Friday after suffering a mild concussion in the season opener against Duquesne and is expected to play Monday. Aided by the three-point heroics of freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown beat Duquesne, 61-55. But its next game, against winless Liberty, revealed uncharacteristic weaknesses on defense, with Georgetown letting a 23-point lead get slashed to single digits under a barrage of poorly guarded three-point shots.
“We’re still young,” junior guard Markel Starks said. “At times we all struggle with offense and knowing where to be. Sometimes we get a little discombobulated, thinking somebody should be here, somebody should be there. We’re still growing.”
Georgetown will have to grow plenty on defense, too, to counter UCLA’s weapons. The Bruins boast an imposing, productive offense and scored 63 first-half points en route to a 100-70 victory over James Madison last week. And Monday, they’ll gain the services of their top freshman recruit, 6-6 Shabazz Muhammad, who was reinstated by the NCAA after being held out the first three games of the season for having violated amateur rules.
“It’s an obstacle we’ve got to go through,” Starks conceded of the back-to-back challenge in store. “Honestly, I think it will prepare us later for the Big East. We’ve got to go through it, and that’s a good thing.”