Saturday was tough for Georgetown's basketball program as news spread about Jeff Green, the former Hoya and current Boston Celtic who will undergo heart surgery next month and miss the NBA season. Georgetown coach John Thompson III spoke with Green over the weekend and was impressed with his response to the discovery of an aortic aneurysm.
"It's been a difficult week," Thompson said after the Hoyas defeated American 81-55 at Verizon Center. "Jeff is a part of who we are, and he's as upbeat as anyone can be as it relates to what's going on with him."
The Hoyas hope their play can help him stay upbeat. Georgetown is 9-1 and ranked No. 16 entering the meat of the schedule, which begins Thursday when Memphis comes to town for a rematch. The Tigers were ranked No. 8 when they lost to Georgetown 91-88 in overtime in the Maui Classic.
That victory was sandwiched by a 67-63 loss against then-No. 14 Kansas and a 57-55 road victory against then-No. 12 Alabama, and those three games put everyone on notice: These young Hoyas are not overwhelmed.
"This is a confident group," sophomore point guard Markel Starks said after his career-high 18 points led all scorers Saturday. "Moving forward, we're just going to keep getting better."
It's hard to argue with that contention. The majority of players that Thompson relies on are freshmen (top reserves Otto Porter, Greg Whittington and Jabril Trawick) and sophomores (starters Starks and Nate Lubick). They gain more experience and increase their comfort in the system with each game.
Nonconference foes such as American, Howard and NJIT don't provide the same test that No. 4 Louisville, Providence and No. 11 Marquette will present over an eight-day stretch beginning next week. But there have been signs of growth since the game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., vaulted the Hoyas into the Top 25.
Georgetown raced to a 17-0 lead against Howard on Dec. 10, then sweated as the Bison closed to two points late in the second half. Instead of calling a timeout while his team was being outscored 17-6, Thompson let play continue. He wanted his players to "figure some things out on their own," which they did, pulling away for a comfortable win.
Self-directed instruction was on display against American when the Hoyas emerged from intermission. Senior center Henry Sims sparked a huge second half by assisting on four consecutive baskets off backdoor cuts. The Eagles defended the play successfully in the first half, but Georgetown adjusted with a tip from junior guard Hollis Thompson, not JT3.
"Hollis said at halftime that the cuts were opening late," Sims said. "So I just had to keep looking and my teammates were cutting hard, so I just got them the ball."
With a basketball philosophy based on Princeton's offense, Georgetown puts a high premium on basketball IQ. If defenders go under screens, the Hoyas can counter with 3-pointers. If defenders go over screens, the Hoyas can dart through the backdoor. Sims' much-improved scoring in the low post and his deft passing from the high post gives the Hoyas a double portion of potency.
But players have to be almost twice as smart to reap the benefit.
"It's definitely very important to think the game, especially the way we play," Hollis Thompson said. "Somebody is always going to play you harder for one thing than something else, and learning to take advantage of the next thing just comes with time and playing in this system."
Hollis Thompson, Sims and fellow senior Jason Clark have the most experience and they'll be relied on for steady leadership when Big East play begins. But it's clear that the youngsters are quick learners, especially Porter, who set a career-high Saturday with 10 rebounds.
He leads the team in rebounding (6.1 per game), and only Clark and Thompson average more than his 26.7 minutes per game. Porter also is second in steals and tied for second in blocks. Fans chanted "Otto-matic" during his performance against American.
In this era of super freshmen — particularly at Kentucky — we shouldn't be surprised when a first-year player takes to the college game like another AAU contest. Porter's poise and unselfishness belie his age.
But we weren't sure how the freshmen would respond or how the other underclassmen would react to increased roles. That's why Georgetown was picked to finish 10th in the Big East.
We still don't know for certain how the Hoyas will do in the league. But they certainly look better than advertised.
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