From his courtside seat at the capital centre on the night of Feb. 20, Red Auerbach needed only a few minutes to figure out that something was very wrong with the home team. From that moment until the conclusion of Georgetown's game against Big East rival Pittsburgh, anyone sitting near him got a private session of Red on Roundball.
A little background is in order. Auerbach, who lives in Washington, D.C., often sees the Hoyas play. In 1964 he signed John Thompson—then a center out of Providence and now the Georgetown coach—to play for him in Boston, and now, as the Celtics' whiskered appraiser of college talent, Auerbach considers Thompson's splendiferous big men, 6'10" junior Alonzo Mourning and 7'2" senior Dikembe Mutombo, to be worth regular viewings. But no detail of the game escapes his eye. "It's up to the guards to get the big guys the ball at the right time and in the right place," he said as a Hoya entry pass floated lazily into the post. "See? They're lobbing the ball in. It takes too long to get there. By the time it does, the defense has adjusted."
Georgetown's perimeter starters, freshmen all, offended Auerbach's purist sensibilities on other counts. They passed the ball among themselves too slowly and haphazardly. They rarely looked at the basket to feign interest in launching a shot, thus giving comfort to the sagging defense that the Panthers, like every other Hoya opponent this season, deployed to keep Mourning and Mutombo penned up. When the guards did shoot—well, forget "
Hoya saxa," Georgetown's hoary cheer. Anyone know how to say "What bricks!" in Greek and Latin?
Again and again Auerbach returned to his first point, the one about the crisp entry pass. Without a good pass into the post, a gifted offensive big man—not to mention two—is largely wasted. Using game notes as scratch paper, he marked two X's and connected them with a straight line. Then he drew a parabola between the two X's. Whip that ball in, Red's doodling seemed to say. Don't lollygag it!
In the last minutes of the game, Mourning and Mutombo finally received a few passes that enabled them to make bold and successful moves to the basket. But by then Georgetown was well on the way to its third straight defeat. As the clock ticked down on the Hoyas' 78-65 loss, Auerbach put away his notes and shook his head disapprovingly. " Georgetown," he said, "can do everything but score."
After the game, Thompson and Auerbach conferred. The next day in practice, acting on Auerbach's suggestion, Thompson told Mourning and Mutombo to choose sides for one long, loose pickup game. Thompson watched silently as his players tried to shoot their cares away. The Auerbach magic apparently worked well enough: Against Connecticut last Saturday, Georgetown shot 40% from the field, which passes for accurate for the Hoyas these days, en route to a 71-57 victory at the Capital Centre. "This win does more for our psyche than anything," Thompson said.
Yet the Hoyas, once college basketball's best ugly team, are now, on disconcertingly frequent occasions, just ugly. They still play defense with spirit and pride, to considerable good effect. Indeed, by stingily holding opponents to 36.9% field goal shooting, at week's end they were on a pace to break their own single-season NCAA record for field goal-percentage defense (37.1%), which they set last season. However, when you're starting two probable NBA lottery picks up front, no one wants to hear how you're missing the senior leadership of Mark Tillmon and Dwayne Bryant. Or that you began conference play with only two healthy, experienced players, Mutombo and junior Ronny Thompson, the coach's son. People want you to shut up, score and win.
This is not to say that Georgetown can't get its shots. Collapsing zones routinely concede open jumpers from 17 feet and beyond. It's just that if you take away the two big men, the six other Hoya regulars—-Thompson, freshmen Joey Brown, Robert Churchwell, Charles Harrison and Lamont Morgan, plus junior college transfer Brian Kelly—are shooting an anemic 36%. Seen in this light, the Hoyas' defensive field goal-percentage becomes less an achievement than a necessity for these guys to be even an on-the- NCAA-tournament-bubble team—which, with only 12 Division I wins going into Monday night's game against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, is all they are.
"In 19 years at Georgetown I've participated in my funeral many times," Thompson said after the Pitt debacle. "Somehow we have refused to have the dirt thrown on us. I love these kids. We just have to work ourselves through this. This is not the time for me to tear them apart."
As if he felt he could teach his teammates by example, Mourning went outside the key against Connecticut to drill two three-pointers himself. He knew that wasn't much of a long-term solution. "Three-pointers aren't one of the things I want to concentrate on," said Mourning. "But it's like they don't respect us at all."