Georgetown’s sprint through March and into the Sweet 16 has been built on a familiar blue-and-gray foundation: defense.
When the Hoyas (28-6) play Vanderbilt (22-11) tomorrow in a NCAA tournament regional semifinal game in East Rutherford, N.J., CBS analysts are likely to smother the Georgetown offense with praise.
They’ll applaud coach John Thompson III for bringing Pete Carril’s motion-based, Princeton offense to the Hilltop. They’ll fawn over Georgetown’s place among national leaders in offensive efficiency and field goal percentage (50.5). They’ll diagram back cuts and ball screens until their telestrators are stressed. And then perhaps they’ll mention the real key to Georgetown’s postseason success.
Thompson hasn’t just brought Carril’s offense to Georgetown. He’s brought back Daddy’s D.
“Defense is the key to everything really,” Georgetown junior forward Patrick Ewing Jr. said yesterday. “They say defense wins championships, and that’s what we’re going for.”
Sure, these aren’t exactly John Thompson Jr.’s Hoyas on the defensive end of the floor. These Hoyas don’t employ the same 94 feet of fury favored by Thompson Jr. and his press-happy squads of past decades. That wrinkle likely is scheduled for next season, when the younger Thompson adds more depth and athleticism to his backcourt.
And unlike the Hoyas of old, the current crop isn’t bound by a man-only defense. While Georgetown beat Boston College in the second round playing primarily man-to-man, the team will show looks of 2-3, 3-2 and amoeba zone — a defense that switches coverage when the ball reaches the corners — all with possible traps.
In typical Thompson III style, a nasty blend of old-school length and constant communication makes this defense special. Georgetown starts three players with large wingspans in 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, 6-9 Jeff Green and 6-8 DaJuan Summers and brings the 6-8 Ewing off the bench. The Hoyas are one of the few teams in the nation that will switch on every screen, a risky tactic for all but the most disciplined teams and trusting coaches. When everyone works together, the defense is absolutely stifling, as shown during a 71-53 victory over West Virginia on Feb. 12.
“We didn’t get any open shots,” said West Virginia coach John Beilein, who two days earlier had led his Mountaineers to an upset of No. 1 UCLA. “They switched off of every screen. We had seen that only once all year, against The Citadel, and I think there’s a little [talent] difference there. … It was just like looking at a forest of arms out there.”
Georgetown’s defense, which had struggled against 3-point shooting teams to that point, has steadily improved since, holding teams to 28.7 percent from 3 over the last eight games. And while the Hoyas’ offense has occasionally been dormant, their defense has experienced few true lapses, most notably in the first half of the Big East tournament semifinals against Notre Dame.
“I think our guys are doing a good job of helping each other and covering for each other and supporting each other, and that’s going to be key if we’re going to have success [tomorrow],” Thompson said.
Few teams in the nation rely on the 3-pointer as much as Vanderbilt. Three different Commodores have made more than 70 3-pointers, led by Southeastern Conference player of the year Derrick Byars (17.0 points) and Shan Foster (15.4 points).
“You say, ‘Oh, well, you just have to stop their 3s.’ But you can’t,” Thompson said. “They get 3s. Even when you’re playing good defense, those two can shoot over you.”
Enter Ewing. Against lineups with multiple sharpshooters and no true center (see also Notre Dame and West Virginia), the Hoyas have benched the slower Hibbert for Ewing, who can defend all five positions.
“My dad told me, ‘You’re not going to make it to the next level as a big forward, so you’ve got to develop your guard skills and be able to defend guards,’ ” Ewing said. “So I spent most of last year trying to guard Brandon [Bowman] and Jeff [Green] and Ashanti [Cook], and I feel like that experience of playing three great players has helped me this year in guarding whomever coach puts me on.”