PHILADELPHIA — You’ll hear a lot over the next few weeks about college basketball’s elite teams and the high-profile coaches who lead them. Disregard much of it. In the NCAA tournament, the game’s stars are most important.
The buzzer-beaters and upsets are great theater. The so-called Cinderella teams pull at our heartstrings. Heck, rooting for the little guy is just plain fun. But there’s nothing like watching extraordinarily talented players rise to the occasion. We’ve seen it happen often.
Until the tournament starts, you’re never sure quite who has what it takes to reach a higher level. Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr., is on this season’s short list of potential candidates. In the Hoyas’ regular season games that had tournament-type feels, the do-it-all sophomore usually had his best moments.
In late January, Porter’s 17-point, 12-rebound performance lifted Georgetown to a 53-51 victory over Louisville, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The victory was part of an impressive 11-game Big East winning streak that has defined the Hoyas’ season to this point. Then there were Porter’s back-to-back road gems in late February.
His 33-point masterpiece in Georgetown’s final Big East game at Syracuse is the main reason the Orange’s home-court winning streak ended at 38 games. Of the 22 points Porter scored at Connecticut, none were more important than his clutch, driving layup with just 9.5 seconds remaining in the second overtime. With a share of the Big East title at stake for Georgetown in its regular season finale, Porter’s efficient 10-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist outing was the foundation for a blowout victory over Syracuse.
For Porter, it’s about winning by whatever means necessary.
“What I do is kind of different,” the Big East player of the year said. “I try to switch it up every game. I’m constantly changing the way I play. . . . Teams are always trying to do different things to me [defensively], so I just try to stay ahead of them.
“I never go in thinking that I have to [score a certain amount of points]. It’s not like I try to [pile up stats]. The only thing I try to do every game is help us win. That’s always all that matters to me. It should be all that matters to everybody, especially right now.”
Across the country, there are others at Porter’s level in both ability and focus.
Michigan’s Trey Burke is the country’s best guard, NBA people say. Louisville guard Russ Smith is fearless. Smith is out front as the Cardinals have rolled into the tournament on a 10-game winning streak.
What they all aspire to now is clear: To be better than they ever have been. It’s about leading by having the top performances of their careers. That’s what Danny Manning did in carrying an otherwise mediocre Kansas team to the 1988 title. During the 2003 tournament, Carmelo Anthony accomplished the championship feat as a high-scoring Syracuse freshman.
And a trophy isn’t the only measure of a star’s tournament success. Remember Stephen Curry’s stretch of four 30-plus-point games during Davidson’s stunning run to the 2008 region finals (the Hoyas definitely do)? Or how about that triple-double by some guard named Dwyane Wade in a victory over Kentucky that sent Marquette to the 2003 Final Four?
From what we’ve seen, Burke, Oladipo, Larkin, Porter and Smith — and too many others to mention in this space — possess the skills to become tournament standouts. There are no questions about their toughness, either.
But a single-elimination tournament is a unique test: The intensity of every possession, the palpitating endings when outcomes are undecided late, the great expectations placed on the highest-seeded teams — it all makes for a most a nerve-wracking experience. As a freshman last season, Porter found out quickly.
Seeded third in the Midwest Region, Georgetown was upset in its second game by 11th-seeded North Carolina State. Porter had nine points and eight rebounds, “and it was definitely a learning experience,” Porter said. “You don’t what to expect until you’re in that position.”
Being Georgetown’s star now won’t make Porter’s job easier. He insists he won’t put extra pressure on himself (“It’s about what we do as a team,” he says). But Porter is a bright young man. He knows how this goes.
Georgetown is seeded second in the South Region. Teams on that line are supposed to stick around for a while. If Georgetown fails to at least advance to the round of 16, Coach John Thompson III will come under the microscope first. Porter figures to be a close second.
Also, Porter struggled in the Hoyas’ overtime loss to Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, missing 9 of 13 field goal attempts. A victory here Friday night over 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast could re-establish the Hoyas’ momentum.
At some point in the tournament, though, the Hoyas will look to Porter to provide something special.
“We all have our roles,” Porter said. “I know what I’m expected to do.”
Soon enough, we’ll know whether Porter is cut out to work on the biggest stage. Don’t be surprised if he just kills in his role.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.