COLUMBUS, Ohio | There was minimal interest from major programs in Greg Whittington 24 months ago, if that.
Playing 30 minutes in an NCAA tournament game? It wasn’t on the horizon.
Emerging as the sixth man on a Big East team? No one saw that coming.
Developing into a capable college defender so rapidly after barely paying attention at that end? It was an unlikely scenario.
Whittington, though, has done it all in his first season at Georgetown, gradually establishing himself as a crucial piece of the Hoyas’ rotation entering Sunday’s round of 32 meeting with N.C. State at Nationwide Arena.
“You use the phrase ‘He’s just starting to scratch the surface?’ He hasn’t even gotten to the surface yet,” coach John Thompson III said. “We’re going to put a lot of responsibility on him as time goes on and I think he’s going to be able to answer the call.”
For now, the freshman is immensely valuable for the third-seeded Hoyas (24-8), who sit a victory away from their first regional semifinal appearance in five years.
The 6-foot-8, 212-pounder is an intriguing element in a matchup littered with size. But even in a game featuring Georgetown’s veteran point-forward (Henry Sims) and N.C. State’s explosive leading scorer (C.J. Leslie), Whittington stands out as a curious variable because of his past, present and future.
Considering the usual routine of the recruiting calendar, only so many players can go virtually unnoticed until just months before their senior season in high school. Yet Whittington went from a few low mid-major offers to the middle of a Beltway recruiting battle between the Hoyas and Maryland while averaging 23.5 points and 11.6 rebounds at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, Md.
“I guess it was a good summer and then my senior year, I showed out,” Whittington said. “I didn’t think about it too much. I just kept playing my game.”
One, it turned out, was capable of producing more than just points. And rather than a protracted adjustment to a vastly different role, Whittington adopted a defense-first approach by the early stages of Big East play.
He played at least 20 minutes in five straight games in January, and has topped that plateau in nine of Georgetown’s last 10 contests. That includes 30 minutes in the Hoyas’ Big East tournament opener against Pittsburgh and another 30 minutes in Friday’s rout of Belmont.
It’s difficult enough for coaches to nudge score-first freshmen into a defined and vital niche. But players barely familiar with the concept of defense?
“I haven’t seen it as much with someone with someone that comes in with no appreciation to embracing it as he has, and not just embracing it,” Thompson said. “Some people embrace it and they don’t even have success that he has. That’s a credit to him.”
It helps that Whittington is quick enough to guard a point guard or a wing, yet rangy enough to handle the task of dealing with an athletic power forward. That should help against the 11th-seeded Wolfpack (23-12), who are not wanting for size with a lineup featuring five starters at 6-foot-5 or taller.
It’s a different task than Friday, when Whittington was a significant link in the zone the Hoyas sent against perimeter-oriented Belmont. That scheme forced the Bruins into deeper outside shots, and Whittington helped Georgetown deny passes either into the interior or along the 3-point line.
His numbers were relatively unremarkable —- seven points, four rebounds, two blocks —- but the impact was a hint of just how far Whittington’s come in the last six months.
“I’m a way better defender,” Whittington said. “I’m starting to take better angles, starting to use my hands more and my length. The more I use my length, the more I can disrupt guys.”
Eventually, it will translate into offense again. He’s reached double figures in scoring three times since mid-February, a glimmer of just what Whittington could provide long-term for the Hoyas.
“When he really gets in his groove, he’s going to be able to light it up,” Hoyas forward Hollis Thompson said. “Look for him to get some serious buckets in the future.”
It’s not a far-fetched outcome, not for a guy who has gone from ignored to indispensable in just two years. But the present day is working out just fine, and that’s something both Whittington and the Hoyas can surely appreciate.
—- Patrick Stevens