Resilient Hoyas have learned from last year's debacle; more notes
Unlike when it missed NCAAs last season, chemistry not an issue for G'town
KU freshman Xavier Henry has hit a wall, averaging just 7.9 ppg in Big 12 play
I've got a lot of mid-major love in the bottom half of my AP Top 25 ballot
When I spoke with Georgetown coach John Thompson III late Sunday afternoon, I asked if he would give me the details on what he told his players after they lost at home to South Florida last Wednesday. Was he somber? Was he angry? What did he say? "Take me inside that locker room," I said.
Thompson demurred. "Uh, I'm not going to take you in there," he said. "Let's just say it wasn't exactly somber. I was pretty animated. We had spent all week preparing them to be ready emotionally, but they came out flat."
Thompson's non-answer was revealing nonetheless. The reason I had asked about what he said in that locker room, as opposed to what he said following the Hoyas' big wins over Duke and Villanova, was because I wondered why this team has so far avoided the fate of last year's squad. Last season, the Hoyas also started out with much promise, jumping out 10-1 and reaching the No. 9 ranking in the AP poll following a win at No. 2 UConn. But those Hoyas dropped their next two games, later endured a brutal five-game losing streak, and the bottom fell out. The end result was a desultory 16-13 campaign in which Georgetown missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
When I asked Thompson to compare this team to last year's, he demurred again -- but still gave another revealing non-answer. "It's natural for people to want to compare and contrast to last year, but the composition of this team is different, the energy is different, the understanding is significantly different," he said. "Chemistry, or a lack thereof, is not even a part of the equation. It's just not."
It's understandable that Thompson would not want to say so explicitly, but chemistry is indeed the biggest difference. Last year's group never jelled between the youngsters and upperclassmen Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers. These Hoyas (17-5, 7-4 in the Big East) have so far played unselfish, team-oriented basketball, and that has enabled them to bounce back from losses. They fell by five points at Villanova on Jan. 17, but knocked off Pittsburgh on the road three days later. They followed their 17-point drubbing at Syracuse by blowing past Duke. They stubbed their toe against South Florida, but responded by throttling 'Nova in their next outing.
Saturday's 103-90 win over the Wildcats was especially impressive because junior guard Chris Wright, who leads the Hoyas in assists and is their third-leading scorer, fouled out with 5:16 remaining and Villanova cutting away at Georgetown's lead. That should have been a big problem for a team lacking depth (four starters have been playing 32-plus minutes in Big East games), but the Hoyas held on, largely behind sophomore guard Jason Clark's career-high 24 points. At this point in the season, resilience is as important a quality as talent, and the Hoyas have an ample supply of both.
To be fair, last year's team was also much younger than this one. Clark and 6-foot-11 center Greg Monroe were freshmen, and even though Wright was a sophomore, he was essentially a freshman because he missed most of the previous season with an injury. Each of the returnees has matured in a significant way. Thompson says junior guard Austin Freeman "has made a big jump this year understanding just how hard college basketball is. He's made that commitment to being a very good player." Wright has evolved in his understanding of when to look for his own shot and when to set up his teammates. And Monroe, who returned to school even though he would have been a first-round draft pick, has learned not to be so deferential to his teammates, that he can still be unselfish while scoring a lot of points.
The good chemistry is also a direct result of Thompson's having to play his starters so many minutes. It's a lot easier to pass up an open shot if you know you're going to be in the game for a long time. "Those guys have been preparing for the minutes they're playing from the first day we got back to school this year," Thompson said. "The four of them have a big responsibility and they know it."
Not surprisingly, Thompson also did not want to compare this team to another team he has had at Georgetown, the Roy Hibbert-Jeff Green-Patrick Ewing Jr.-led group that reached the 2007 Final Four. "We were big, long and deep up front that year. We're playing much differently now," he said. When I asked if this group was as good as that team was in early February, he said, "Nope, not yet. But this team has much more room for growth than that team did in early February."
That is indeed good news, but that growth will only come if the Hoyas continue to heed the lessons of 2009. That means not just reacting well to losses, but also to wins. That means not coming out flat on Wednesday night, when the Hoyas will face a Providence team that will be amped up to knock them off their pedestal. "Hopefully we've learned some lessons," Thompson said. "Everyone knows how we felt last Wednesday night and Thursday morning [after the South Florida loss]. You have to have a short memory in this league. Sometimes the best way to grow is to be hurt."
Other Hoop Thoughts
I gotta say I'm pretty surprised at the limited contribution freshman swingman Xavier Henry is making at Kansas these days. After beginning the season with 11 straight double-figure scoring games (including two games where he scored 27 and 31 points), Henry scored in single digits for the fifth consecutive game in the Jayhawks' win over Nebraska, and he is averaging just 7.9 points in conference play. Kansas can win the national title without Henry being a dominant player, but it will be hard for the Jayhawks to win it with him being a non-factor.
If Coach K asked my advice (which he does all the time), I would tell him to force-feed freshmen Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee a lot more minutes, even if it means losing a few games as they learn the ropes. Those two need to learn to play through mistakes, and the Blue Devils will need their help to reach the Final Four.
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