- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

DeMatha High School’s Austin Freeman, one of the top college basketball prospects in the class of 2007, sat in front of a room full of classmates, teachers, parents and reporters in the Hyattsville school’s library last week and calmly and confidently made the most important choice of his young life.

“I narrowed it down to four schools: Georgetown, Maryland, North Carolina State and Notre Dame,” Freeman said before bowing his head for the standard hat-donning drama. “I’m going to attend Georgetown.”

Freeman’s choice represented more than simply a high-profile local commitment for coach John Thompson III and the Hoyas. When the 6-foot-4 shooting guard pulled on a blue and gray cap, it symbolized more than just the long-awaited reconciliation between the Hilltop and the area’s most storied prep program. Because of an ancient rift between Hall of Fame coaches John Thompson II and Morgan Wootten, the Hoyas hadn’t received a commitment from a DeMatha player since 1971.

Freeman’s decision provided a snapshot of the fundamental power shift that seems to be taking place between the area’s premier college basketball programs. The pendulum of local pre-eminence that has been poised for more than a decade over College Park seems to be swinging back toward the Hilltop.

The message is simple and identical, whether it comes from coaches and commentators, current players or coveted prepsters, recruiting analysts or casual fans: The Hoyas are white hot.

“Most of my peers and the guys I play ball with are talking about Georgetown,” Freeman said. “They’re a real hot program right now.”

And that positive buzz isn’t restricted to players.

“Georgetown is back,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said during the recent Big East media day at Madison Square Garden. “What John was able to accomplish with his team last season was extraordinary, and they have basically everybody back. Our goal and expectation is to win the conference. But beware the Hoyas, this season and beyond, because John’s got some serious momentum and energy going down there.”

Expectations for this season’s Georgetown squad, which returns all six players who started games during last season’s 19-13 campaign, differ considerably depending upon the source. Calhoun picked the Hoyas to finish second in the new-look, 16-team leviathan that is the Big East.

Collectively, the league’s coaches picked the Hoyas to finish sixth behind Villanova, Connecticut, Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia. And though the Hoyas were tabbed 18th and 20th by publications Lindy’s and the Sporting News respectively, they were not ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll.

“I certainly understand why people would question us,” said senior forward Brandon Bowman, who led the Hoyas in scoring (15.1 points) last season. “Yeah, we were better than people expected last year. And there’s been some recruiting success. But in our opinion, we still haven’t done much. We still haven’t made the NCAAs since I’ve been here. We lost our last five conference games last year. The excitement’s nice, but we can do much more. It’s time for us to take the next step.”

And in some respects, until Georgetown takes that next step and returns to the NCAA tournament, it seems absurd to claim the Hoyas are threatening to swipe the local spotlight from a Maryland team that won a national title just four seasons ago.

“I think John’s doing a great job at Georgetown, but it’s far too early to put Georgetown in the same elite class with Maryland,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last week. “In the last five years, Maryland’s been to two Final Fours and won a national title. Georgetown’s only made one tournament appearance in the last five years.”

While true, such a simplification worships the past while ignoring the present signposts that often are harbingers. Last season, while Thompson was busy resurrecting a scuttled ship by leading the Hoyas to the verge of an NCAA tournament berth, the Terrapins endured their third consecutive slide in winning percentage and missed the tournament for the first time in a dozen years.

And this season, Maryland returns basically the same cast that has propelled the program in the wrong direction for three years less troublesome though talented point man John Gilchrist and top recruit Shane Clark, whom the Terps lost to Villanova in a transcript debacle.

As for those signposts, it appears that in terms of blue-chip recruiting, Georgetown and Maryland are heading in opposite directions. The Hoyas already have signed two of the top 25 prep players in the nation for next season in big men Vernon Macklin (Hargrave Military Academy, Chatham, Va.) and DaJuan Summers (Baltimore McDonough), virtually guaranteeing Georgetown a top-10 class. And decisions like Freeman’s should make Maryland fans a bit anxious, considering the school’s lack of success with recent local talent.

The Washington area has boasted or boasts 14 players ranked among the consensus top 40 in the prep classes of 2004 to 2007. Nine, including superstars like Connecticut sophomore Rudy Gay, already have signed with or committed to college programs. Georgetown has two scores among the nine with Summers and Freeman. Seven other schools, including ACC members North Carolina and Florida State, have claimed one commitment apiece from that coveted list. Maryland isn’t among them.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that Maryland has slipped as much as Georgetown has just taken it to another level,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Tim Watts said of the trend. “Thompson and the Hoyas are getting guys now that you expect to develop into potential NBA lottery picks. Almost nobody qualifies as can’t-miss, but guys like Macklin and Summers are about as close as it gets.”

Some would argue that Maryland coach Gary Williams never has targeted nor needed the nation’s bluest chippers, and it’s certainly true Williams routinely does more with less than most other coaches. But between the NBA’s new hardship policy and the prestige shift likely to accompany the bigger, better Big East, attracting those players is likely to become more important for all schools — and slightly more difficult than in the past for ACC schools.

“You can never downplay recruiting,” Louisville’s Rick Pitino said. “At age 53, recruiting is the most important thing in my basketball world. Because that’s why you win, and that’s why you don’t win. In the offseason, I live on the road. The season is the easy part. You sleep in your own bed. You get into a nice season routine. Recruiting is the greatest challenge for all of us. Put it this way: We’ll play 30 to 40 games this season, and a good chunk of them will be at home. But in the offseason, I’ll go to between 300 and 400 AAU games, and basically all of them will be on the road.”

Ask Freeman, Macklin or Summers why he chose Georgetown, and each will mention that Thompson attended virtually all of his summer games.

“[Thompson] was at almost every one,” Freeman said.

How many of Freeman’s AAU games did Williams attend?

“I think he came to maybe one,” said Freeman, who was pursued doggedly by Maryland assistants Rob Moxley and Michael Adams. “You notice when the head coach is there. It shows how much they want you — that you’re a priority.”

Williams hardly can be blamed for wanting to devote his offseason to something other than gallivanting around the country from one smelly, dim gymnasium to another simply hoping that a recruit he can’t even talk to because of an NCAA rule will checkmark his attendance. After all, Williams is a 60-year-old future Hall of Famer with an established power program and a national title on his resume. And in fact, a growing distaste for this sort of nonstop recruit pursuit was one of the parts of the business the elder Thompson found most tedious in his waning years on the Hilltop — years when an upstart firebrand from Ohio State by way of Boston College and American University began to capture the Beltway’s imagination.

Fact is, like almost everything else in life, coaching and program-building is cyclical. There’s always somebody younger, more energetic and hungrier waiting in the shadows.

“We don’t want to just be the hottest program in the city,” the 39-year-old Thompson said recently. “We want to be the hottest program in the country.”

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