Basketball looks to beat Panthers in Steel City

January 26, 2012

A few months ago, it was inconceivable that the Georgetown men’s basketball team would be the heavy favorite in a matchup with conference rival Pittsburgh. And yet, as the Hoyas prep for their showdown in the Steel City this Saturday, the nation expects nothing short of a convincing win.

After entering the season ranked No. 10, the Panthers have plummeted to the bottom of the Big East and proven one of the greatest disappointments of the college basketball season. As if nonconference losses to Long Beach State and Wagner were not alarming enough, Pitt has dropped its first seven Big East games and looks set to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.

Meanwhile, the Hoyas have seized control of the same No. 10 position after entering the season overlooked and unranked. They now have the chance to take out their frustration against a program that has been a perennial Big East title contender since Head Coach Jamie Dixon took over in 2003. Consequently, Saturday’s matchup is a tale of two very different seasons, with starkly contrasting storylines.

Pitt’s disappointment begins with their superstar. Senior guard Ashton Gibbs, who poured in 22 points in the Panthers’ 72-57 win over the Hoyas last season, has lost his shot this campaign. The preseason Big East Player of the Year is shooting a dismal 38 percent from the field, including a drop of 14 percentage points from his lethal three-point shooting percentage. Gibbs is still averaging a team-best 16.4 points per game, which is only slightly down from last season, but his inability to score efficiently and create for his teammates has stagnated the Panther offense.

Meanwhile, Georgetown has been bolstered by the surprising effectiveness of its freshmen, diminishing the burden placed on the Hoyas’ few upperclassmen. Freshmen Otto Porter and Greg Whittington, often Head Coach John Thompson III’s first two players off the bench, have spearheaded this group, giving the team considerable depth and length. These two have been so crucial to the Hoyas’ success that Thompson hesitates even to call them freshmen anymore.

“At this point in the year we’re not thinking about anybody as a freshman,” Thompson said. “They’ve been through too much and played too many games. They are too important to talk about ‘freshmen’.”

Porter has served as the team’s primary forward option off the bench, pulling in a team best 6.9 rebounds. But in addition to his work on the glass, Porter has provided a composed late-game presence for the Hoyas. In last Saturday’s nail-biter against Rutgers, Porter claimed the Hoyas’ final six points to close out the narrow win. Given his calm demeanor, his success at the end of games is no surprise to his coach.

“Otto doesn’t get rattled,” Thompson said. “He just plays the game.”

Whittington was also deployed heavily against Rutgers, providing timely scoring and blanketing defense. At 6’7”, his versatility has been crucial for the Hoyas both in practice and on gameday, where his intensity and ability to guard multiple positions have forced the Hoyas to include him in the already deep rotation.

“[Whittington] definitely brings it every single day in practice. He’s competing with everybody,” senior guard Jason Clark said. “Greg is a great, great defender and a great rebounder… He knows the game well and he plays hard every single day.”

Thompson insists that, despite averaging just 3.2 points per game on 34 percent shooting, Whittington is a talented and promising offensive player.

“Greg is extremely talented,” Thompson said. “I think as time goes on you will slowly see he’s one of these players who could be good at every part of the game of basketball on both ends of the floor… I think he’s going to be a big time scorer before he leaves here.”

Though they may have been able to play under the radar thus far, the young Hoyas now face the difficulty of being a known commodity. Pitt may be down this year, but with matchups against defending national champion Connecticut and Big East favorite Syracuse over the next two weeks, Georgetown still has its toughest tests remaining. Fortunately, the upperclassmen have some vital wisdom to impart to the youngsters to help them through the obstacles ahead.

“Every Big East game is a battle,” senior center Henry Sims said. “Don’t cave into the pressure, just fight back.”

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