COLUMBUS, OHIO — Teams often get compartmentalized by their times.
Old Georgetown: in-your-grille defense, scowls and more in-your-grille defense. Did we mention Big John’s Hoyas of Patrick and later Alonzo used to play defense?
New-millennium Hoyas: Backdoor-you-to-death, beautifully choreographed offense. Five players acting as one until a layup nestles through the nylon. Did we mention Jeff Green played in the Princeton offense?
But this Georgetown team deserves better than that simplistic description; these Hoyas proved once and for all they are a unique cross section of John Thompson III’s teams and his father’s.
JTIII went out and recruited kids he thought would not only sacrifice for one another on one end; he went after long-limbed, agile kids to rotate and cover for one another on the defensive side, too — spindly, sinewy players such as Otto Porter and Greg Whittington and Jason Clark.
That’s why the Hoyas won their first NCAA tournament game since 2008 on Friday afternoon, staving off a 14th-seeded Belmont team, 74-59, with some of the most complete, dual-threat basketball of their season — and of JTIII’s era on the Hilltop.
“With all this talk about offense I think people forget we have willful defenders, long capable defenders with length and speed,” John Thompson III said Friday afternoon, wiping large beads of sweat from his forehead in the Nationwide Arena corridor here. “Sometimes you have all those things in a person, but they don’t want to work. These guys want to work. This group has embraced the notion of having each other’s back. When they begin to trust their teammate is going to rotate and cover for them, they all become more aggressive in every facet.”
For the hoopheads, there was a game within a game between the Hoyas and the Bruins, and it was being played on the perimeter.
Belmont’s offensive stars, putting up 81 points per game, were playing a furious game of tic-tac-toe with the ball, flinging it to another teammate behind the arc as it touched their fingertips in order to give someone an unobstructed view of the rim.
Porter, Clark, Whittington, Markel Starks and Hollis Thompson, meanwhile, closed out on so many potential shooters as if they were defensive ends rushing the quarterback — their arms outstretched like pterodactyls in flight, their eyes only on the location of the ball.
How you knew Georgetown won that battle? One, Belmont’s three senior guards kept moving back farther and farther behind the arc, as if they had Dan Majerle range, launching sometimes from 25 feet. They were just 5 for 17 before making two late three-pointers after the outcome was decided, and the Bruins ended up being held to 22 points less than their season average.
And two, the Hoyas advanced — certainly not a given for Georgetown in March after losses to 14th-seeded Ohio in 2010 and 11th-seeded VCU last season.
Those sweat beads on JTIII’s forehead were signs of pure relief. If another cocksure mid-major playing up-and-down, community-center ball would have left the polished CYO club flustered and finished again, there would have been audible whispers, probably along the lines of: “Yes, he took us to the 2007 Final Four. But what kind of NCAA tournament coach has he been since then?”
“I’m slightly relieved — okay, very relieved,” he said. “All the talk about past losses and early exits . . . we can move on now.”
Indeed, now it’s about North Carolina State on Sunday, an opportunity to get out of the second round for the first time in five years. It’s about taking these Hoyas out of all their boxes — the ones labeled “offense-first” and “tournament-soft” — and letting them be who they are: a team without a bona fide NBA starter-in-waiting but perhaps the most balanced and together Hoyas unit in years.
As proof of their ability to shed labels, John Thompson Jr. spoke to his son’s team in the locker room after they had kept coming in waves at Belmont’s shooters, clogging the lane after they had forced their opponents to penetrate and kick and miss.
“Now that’s some old-school Georgetown defense right there,” Big John said amid applause and glowing faces.
“When you hear it from him, you know it means something,” Starks said. “We know if one of us is out of position someone else is going to cover. That’s our motto: have each other’s back.”
When old meets the new on the Hilltop, when menacing defense meets potent offense: It’s easy to see why Georgetown is finally moving on in March.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/wise.