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Backcourt to the Future: 2011 Men’s Season Preview
In case you haven’t heard, Greg Monroe is gone.
The latest in the long lineage of dominant Georgetown big men jumped ship for the NBA, taking his 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists per game with him.
Now, the program that boasted the likes of Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning has no dominant center waiting in the wings to replace Monroe as he replaced Roy Hibbert. In all likelihood, for the first time in head coach John Thompson III’s tenure, the Hoyas will not have a future first-round draft pick anchoring the frontcourt.
“It’s going to be much different,” Thompson said. “It’s no secret that our backcourt is the heart and soul of what we’re going to do this year.”
At the center of that backcourt are senior guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. But it’s unfair to suggest that the two are in any way Monroe’s replacements, because both have proven that they are bona fide stars in their own right. Freeman was even voted Big East Preseason Player of the Year by league coaches.
Whether it was Wright posting a line of 27-6-6 against Syracuse or Freeman’s game-saving 28-point second half against Connecticut, both showed last season that they could carry the Hoyas on their back. This season, the tandem will have to do it more often, and without a lightning rod like Monroe attracting the attention of the defense. They relish the opportunity.
“It’s the first year we really don’t have the dominant big man that we usually have,” Wright said. “So it’s going to be something that—as guards—we’re really excited about and we’re really going to take advantage of.”
Considering how closely intertwined their careers have been, it seems appropriate that the two will share joint custody of the Hoyas’ title hopes in their final collegiate season. Having both grown up in Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the duo has been playing with (and against) each other since long before they came to the Hilltop. But even with all that shared history, their coach thinks that they’re only now realizing their potential.
“In spite of how long they’ve known each other, I think this last year, this last summer, they’re getting to a point where they truly go at each other and push each other, and understand that they’re making each other better,” Thompson said.
Wright and Freeman do seem to be the perfect complementary players. Wright’s the point guard, a slasher who scores the most on daredevil drives to the basket. Freeman is more of a pure scorer, gifted at finding his own shot but deadly when he’s set up beyond the arc. And with the connection they’ve built over the years, they always seem to know where to find each other on the court.
The pair will need to be even more in synch this year because expectations are running high for a squad that returns everyone but Monroe and adds a talented freshman class. The Hoyas were picked to finish fourth in the always-competitive Big East and came in 20th in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Of course, after three seasons, Wright and Freeman are well aware of Georgetown’s standard of success.
“You have to win, and then it will be a successful year,” Wright said. “So I’m just going out there trying to lead my group. It’s my team, Austin’s team, and we just got to carry this team as well as possible.”
Fortunately, Wright and Freeman will have more support this year than they have had in a long time. In the backcourt, the Hoyas return junior Jason Clark, who started every game last season, and sophomore Vee Sanford, who showed promise in limited minutes. On top of that, Georgetown also has a highly-touted addition in freshman Markel Starks.
No one will be surprised when the Hoyas front a much smaller lineup this season. But the frontcourt is hardly an afterthought—this is still Georgetown, after all.
“We’ve got a lot of firepower at the guard positions, there’s no lie about that,” senior forward Julian Vaughn said. “We [the forwards] definitely have to hold down the court. I definitely feel like we have to maintain that physical presence down low, defensive rebound, block shots, anything like that.”
Still, even Thompson acknowledges that the biggest question about this team is how the frontcourt will come together. While Vaughn figures to start at center, behind him is a collection of inexperienced or underachieving veterans and some promising but unproven newcomers.
Only time will tell if junior Henry Sims will ever deliver on the promise he showed coming out of high school, or if freshmen Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba have what it takes to compete in the Big East right away. Thompson has the luxury of options. After finishing last season with only nine scholarship players, this year the Hoyas’ bench is loaded with potential.
“We’re much deeper,” Thompson said. “We have to continue to get better at all those spots, but I think there’s a comfort level with more people.”
The expanded roster won’t be given much time to shake itself out, however. Once again, Georgetown plays one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, beginning with a Friday night grudge match against defending Colonial Athletic Association champion Old Dominion, who embarrassed the Hoyas in McDonough Gymnasium (again) last December. Things only get tougher with foes such as No. 15 Missouri and No. 19 Memphis blocking the road to conference play.
Thompson plans to use his team’s newfound versatility to his advantage throughout the seemingly endless slog of the regular season. He is not willing to reveal who opponents will be seeing at the opening tip, and he says they won’t always know what to expect.
“It’s [the media’s] job and it’s the fans job to figure out who the starters are [going to be],” Thompson said. “I don’t think it’s going to matter. I think that with each game, with the different strengths among the personnel that we have, the best group for Game A might not be the best group for Game B.”
From this week’s season opener to Senior Day against Syracuse and beyond, it’s likely that there will be no shortage of rotation adjustments and starting lineup changes. The constants will be the few seasoned veterans on this squad, and none will need to be steadier than Freeman and Wright. The trajectory of this team’s season—a path back to historic heights or to another disappointing flameout—will be largely determined by their play in the backcourt.
The latter is all too familiar to the seniors, who have yet to play beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament after joining a team fresh off a Final Four appearance. They know that the Georgetown greats are defined not by regular season titles and victories over rivals like Duke, but by postseason success. And though they may not be as tall as some of the legends that came before them, their aim is just as high.
“We have an approach this year, me and Austin, that this is our last year so we want to take advantage of it,” Wright said. “We still have a chance to leave our own legacy here. We don’t want to live in the clouds of people that came before us or people that come after us. We want to be remembered as a special group.”