Men’s Preview: Hoyas get physical

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John Thompson III had never been in this position before. Standing in Waco, Texas, the head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team watched his players surrender a ten-point lead to Baylor University, losing in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. The hallmark of Thompson’s Georgetown teams had been their ability to thrive in the clutch, but “clutch” was the last word someone would have used to describe the  any of the Hoyas that day.
After limping to a 16-15 record, and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, it’s time for the Hoyas to start moving on—though the specter of last season lingers.

“It’s not like we’re going to put our head in the sand and we’re never going to mention [last season],” Thompson said. “But at the same time it’s not like we’re going to come in here, slam the door and beat [the players] up with it. They hurt just like I did.”

The extended offseason gave the Hoyas plenty of time to lick their wounds. But even as a new season begins, the scars left by last year’s campaign remain in plain sight.

“It’s the first time I ever lost in my life, lost a lot of games,” junior point guard Chris Wright said. “It’s not good to lose, that’s one thing I learned. It’s a humbling experience … you just have to learn to stay even, not get too high when things are going well.”

That seemed to be a problem last season. Georgetown peaked with its late December victory over the previously undefeated No. 2 University of Connecticut Huskies. The win preceded a plummet in the second half of the season with the Hoyas losing 14 of their last 20 games.

Anyone who saw the Hoyas convincingly beat the Huskies struggled to reconcile that team with the one that went on to finish 12th in the Big East. Critics pointed to the team’s inexperience, chemistry issues, and a general lack of killer instinct to explain the epic collapse.

But no one theorized that the problem was a lack of talent. On paper, last year’s squad was at least an NCAA tournament team, boasting three McDonald’s All-Americans—including Big East Rookie of the Year Greg Monroe and current Detroit Piston DaJuan Summers. Although this year’s team has lost Summers, part-time starter Jessie Sapp to graduation, and role player Omar Wattad, who transferred to UT Chattanooga, the Hoyas return more than enough talent to succeed. And with Georgetown ranked 20th in preseason AP poll, success is the expectation.

“As a program, because of the people who have been here, we have a foundation set such that you can go through a year like last year and the sky is not falling in,” Thompson said. “That being said, this group hopefully has learned the lessons, and hopefully the steps that were taken last year will put us in a position for this year’s group not to have the same ending.”

The most intriguing new addition to the Hoyas is forward Hollis Thompson, who graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at Georgetown in January. He spent the whole semester practicing with the team, making him uniquely prepared to contribute his sweet shooting touch to the team right away.

With no seniors on the roster, the responsibility of making sure the Hoyas remember the lessons  of last season falls to the team’s most experienced players—the backcourt tandem of juniors Wright and Austin Freeman. They lead a formidable group of guards, supported by sophomore Jason Clark and freshman Vee Sanford.

“Coach just expects more from me and Chris this year,” Freeman said. “He wants us to talk to the freshmen, to talk to everybody else, just to encourage everybody to do well. And talk to everybody, tell them how they can help our program. Pretty much just set everything straight for everybody this year.”

The duo is leading by example. In the offseason they and their teammates rededicated themselves to strength and conditioning, attempting to address a critique from last season. In particular, Freeman—who appeared last year to be carrying some extra weight—slimmed down—he’s claimed to have dropped 12 pounds.

While some Hoyas have streamlined, others spent their summer bulking up in the weight room. Last year, Georgetown seemed to struggle with the physicality of the Big East, especially inside, as rebounding woes plagued the team all season. The Hoyas learned that they cannot win when they can be pushed around.

“It’s one thing coach has been stressing, saying we’ve got to get a little more physical inside on the boards this year,” Monroe said. “I think everyone’s been working hard and trying to get a little bit more physical.”

Monroe will have to be the team’s interior anchor. The sophomore center is Georgetown’s best player, and likely would have been a top ten pick in the NBA draft had he declared. Instead, he realized he still had room to improve, and returned to lead the Hoya frontcourt once more.

Monroe will not be without assistance down low. Running mates sophomore Henry Sims and junior Julian Vaughn should both assume a larger role this season, drawing on a year’s experience in Georgetown’s system. The Hoya big men will look to control the boards, but they also will be able to leverage their athleticism to impact the game.

“All of our big men are not just solely big men—we all can get up and down the floor, we all can dribble and shoot,” Sims said. “So that just works better when we have two other big men that are just [typical] big men guarding us.”

Junior Nikita Mescheriakov also returns up front, with newcomer Jerelle Benimon, a prolific rebounder in high school, providing additional depth.

The freshmen won’t be getting an easy introduction to the team, because in what’s becoming a tradition, Georgetown has scheduled a very challenging initial non-conference schedule. Early in the season, the Hoyas are taking on Temple and American, two NCAA tournament teams, before playing No. 11 Butler and No. 14 University of Washington back-to-back in December.

“It’s a big risk. No doubt about that,” Coach Thompson said of the scheduling. “[But] we’ve got to get tested early so we can figure it out and so we can see who we are.”

Trial by fire is the only feasible option for the Hoyas, who are playing in a league with five teams ranked in the preseason top 25. The continued quality of the Big East means that Georgetown can’t afford the luxury of easing into its conference schedule.

No matter who they play, the Hoyas are anxious to begin the new season. Until tip-off at Tulane on November 13, this team will be defined by its performance last season. Only by playing games can Georgetown show how far it has come.

“We’re still young, but we have collectively, across the board this year more experience,” Thompson said. “And there’s no substitute for experience.”

If anything, that’s what last season taught Georgetown.  The Hoyas just hope they have learned enough for a shot at for a new experience: the NCAA tournament.

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