Georgetown had stormed into New York vowing to atone for the unsightly crimes against the game it committed last season when Iverson matched every assist with a turnover and a Connecticut player described the Hoya offense as "a one-man fast break." Harrington, then a junior, struggled for much of the season; he never seemed able to dance to the tune Iverson called. But the two got to know each other better on and off the court over the summer as teammates on the USA Basketball squad that competed in the World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan.
When practice opened this fall, Georgetown coach John Thompson seemed to have resurrected the marauding spirit of the teams that lorded over college basketball through the mid-1980s. The Hoyas convened their first Midnight Madness (though in typically contrarian fashion, Thompson held it six days after practice opened), and workouts became so spirited that players needed a total of 27 stitches in the first month of practice. "We're going to return to the days of yesteryear," Thompson said after the Hoyas whupped Colgate 106-57 in their opener, using an attack that seemed like a race to the basket on every possession. "We're going to play a lot of people, press and try to get the game as ragged as it can become. We're taking patience and leaving him home."
But there's an inherent contradiction in making a game "as ragged as it can become" and having the kind of order that frontcourt players like Harrington and Jerome Williams, and shooters like Jerry Nichols and Joseph Touomou, need to get reliably involved. Thompson says that Iverson "is inviting Othella to the party this year," but in last Friday's final, Georgetown's offense consisted of little more than Iverson and freshman running mate Victor Page repeatedly dashing hellbent for the hoop. The Hoyas' half-court offense made for an indecorous and ineffectual spectacle to rival the budget battle back home in Washington.
Arizona exposed Georgetown's fundamental flaw by cool counterexample. "We're a team here," said Geary, who was Iverson's counselor at a Nike camp two years ago. "We're not a one-man dribbling exhibition." But the Wildcats also showed up the Hoyas with efficient execution. They doubled up on Iverson when he came off screens. "Late in the game he got tired, and his teammates weren't helping him," Simon would later say. "Maybe he was wasting some oxygen running his mouth with Reggie." The Cats also broke the Hoya press with surgical passes up the floor, leaving Georgetown in much the same quandary as the 1988 U.S. Olympic team Thompson coached to a disappointing bronze medal finish: When the team's furious defense provided few chances to score, there was little else to fall back on offensively.
Mention to Geary that the teams the Wildcats beat in the Preseason NIT are all young ones, and you do so at your peril. Geary thinks that observation is encoded with the dreaded disrespect. "Don't be telling me all those excuses," he said. "They'll say Georgetown's young, Coach Thompson had a cold, that their mascot wasn't loud enough. This ain't no fluke. We got down and got dirtier than they did."
Indeed, the Wildcats, representatives of the supposedly pantywaist Pac-10, beat the bloody Big East's tone-setting team, in that league's flagship arena, with gnomelike conference officials Jim Burr and Tim Higgins refereeing the game. Arizona did everything a team isn't supposed to be able to do until the end of the season, and here it was, only the beginning of the season.
With Arizona, alas, much hangs on a prefix. This after all was the Preseason NIT, and it's in postseason play that Arizona has had much trouble, dropping first-round games in three of the past four NCAA tournaments. Geary seemed to have that in mind in his remarks following last Friday's final. "This is not the watch I want," Geary said, contemplating his freshly awarded NIT championship bauble.
The more Geary regarded the timepiece, the more convinced he became that several of his teammates had been fools to patronize Manhattan sidewalk vendors who sold them watches, which, in Geary's words, "are going to turn green and break in about 15 minutes."
Sort of what the AP preseason poll did. Which raises the question: Where should Arizona be ranked now? "Thirty-seven," Geary said. "Forty-two, 44. Who cares? We just proved rankings don't mean nothin.' "