History fancies the young Hoyas.
When Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace and Patrick Ewing Jr. collected their degrees last spring, they took with them the core that helped Georgetown coach John Thompson III resurrect a Big East powerhouse.
That departing class compiled a 100-36 record, three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, back-to-back regular-season conference titles and the program's first visit to the Final Four in more than two decades.
With only Jessie Sapp remaining from the Hilltop's version of the Fab Five - Jeff Green left for the NBA in 2007 - Big East coaches picked the Hoyas to finish seventh this season. At first glance, such a slide seems likely.
Half of Thompson's expected eight-man rotation is composed of first-year players: Florida State transfer Julian Vaughn and freshmen Greg Monroe, Jason Clark and Henry Sims. Another key cog, sophomore starting point guard Chris Wright, missed all of conference play last season with a foot injury. Factor in the strength of the Big East - four top-10 teams - and one of the most ambitious nonconference schedules in Georgetown history, and a rocky rebuilding project seems imminent.
“We've got a serious challenge on our hands,” Thompson said.
The Hoyas open Monday against Jacksonville. Later this month is the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., which could yield games against No. 6 Michigan State, No. 10 Gonzaga and No. 14 Tennessee. No. 13 Memphis visits in December, and the early Big East slate - which Thompson deemed “scary” - includes No. 2 Connecticut, No. 5 Pittsburgh and No. 9 Notre Dame.
“And I've got a young team,” Thompson said.
Young but talented. A closer look reveals a squad that starts the season in a situation similar to the 2006-07 bunch that fought its way to the Final Four. That's why Associated Press voters ranked the Hoyas No. 22 and why nobody in the program expects a drop-off.
“Nobody is giving us a chance to win the league, and I love that,” said Sapp, the team's lone scholarship senior. “Emotionally, it's much easier to perform as an underdog. Personally, I love when the target is not on our back and people think we can't do this and can't do that.
“We'll show people. We'll shock the world.”
Thompson and Co. have been here before. After the Hoyas' run to the Sweet 16 in 2005-06, Georgetown lost two multiseason starters (Brandon Bowman and Ashanti Cook) and the Big East's premier sixth man (Darrel Owens). They returned three starters (Green, Hibbert and Wallace), one key bench player (Sapp) and added a transfer (Ewing) and three freshmen (DaJuan Summers, Vernon Macklin and Jeremiah Rivers).
The numbers this season are identical. Starters Sapp (9.7 points, 3.2 assists), Summers (11.1 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Austin Freeman (9.1 points) return and are expected to be joined in the starting lineup by Wright (the key returning bench player) and Monroe, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center from Gretna, La., who spent the bulk of his prep career as the top-ranked recruit in his class.
“I love the kid,” Summers said of Monroe. “He works tremendously hard, and he has a great personality. He's very charismatic.”
Although the 2008-09 Hoyas don't feature a 7-2 center (Hibbert) or an NBA lottery pick (Green) like the 2006-07 team, neither Hibbert nor Green was close to the player each would become entering that Final Four season. Hibbert was a slow-footed project, and Green - much like Summers - was inconsistent.
From a statistical standpoint, the production the Hoyas have to replace is almost identical to what the team faced in 2006-07. From a talent prospective, the five players added to the mix this season boast far better credentials than the 2006-07 group. That bunch featured one McDonald's All-American (Macklin) and one Baltimore player of the year (Summers). This one boasts two McDonald's All-Americans (Wright and Monroe), a Baltimore player of the year (Sims), an All-Met player of the year (Clark) and Virginia's Mr. Basketball from 2007 (Vaughn).
“As far as the freshmen are concerned, I expect Greg, Jason and Henry to produce immediately,” Thompson said. “They do not have the luxury of time. They have to produce.”
In terms of style, this team is much quicker and more athletic than in recent seasons. What it loses in the halfcourt with the departures of Hibbert and Wallace, it should more than make up for with quickness and the transition explosion of Monroe and Wright.
Defensively, the learning curve could be steeper. The key concern is interior play. Georgetown ranked first in the nation in field goal percentage defense last season, largely because Hibbert's presence allowed the Hoyas to push out on the perimeter and challenge shots.
Though he is a superior athlete, Monroe lacks Hibbert's size and zeal for contact. That's a major issue given the Big East's profusion of talented pivots, including Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair. On the plus side, the Hoyas were an average rebounding team with Hibbert. But Monroe is going to need defensive help in the post from notorious “floaters” Summers, Vaughn and Sims if the Hoyas hope to contend for a third consecutive Big East regular-season crown.
In spite of Georgetown's youth, perhaps the ultimate reason for optimism is Thompson's history on the Hilltop. In each of his four seasons, Georgetown has outstripped preseason expectations.
”I don't care where they were picked to finish; Georgetown isn't going anywhere,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “I look at Coach Thompson and his program the same way I used to view his father's teams: The man can flat-out coach, and he can recruit.
”You better know Georgetown is going to be there - every year.”