Beware the sweet stroke of the Georgia peach.
College basketball is already well aware of Georgetown’s talented inside-outside tandem of Mike Sweetney and Kevin Braswell, the duo who led the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 of last season’s NCAA tournament. But as No. 14 Georgetown prepares for its season opener tomorrow against Marymount, coach Craig Esherick and Co. are looking for a third consistent scorer to aid the team’s march back to hoops madness.
Don’t be surprised if that offensive X-factor comes in the XL form of shooting guard Gerald Riley, a 6-foot-6 sophomore from Milledgeville, Ga.
Last season Sweetney and Braswell had a committee of experienced extras to help ease the team’s scoring load. But regular contributors Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, Demetrius Hunter, Anthony Perry and Lee Scruggs are gone, and Esherick is anxiously waiting to see who will emerge to fill that productivity vacuum.
“I think it’s important for Gerald, Courtland [Freeman], Victor [Samnick] and Wesley [Wilson] to take some of the scoring weight off of Mike and Kevin,” said Esherick, ticking off the veteran candidates on his roster. “That’s Michael Jordan’s problem right now he’s got all the weight on him. I think all four of those [Georgetown] guys are capable of providing that help on any given night. And I don’t care which one of them it is. Of the four of them, Gerald obviously is the best shooter and the best ball-handler.”
Translation: Riley is the logical leader in the coach’s poll.
Esherick vividly remembers the day he offered Riley a scholarship. He was in San Diego at a tournament in July 1999, and Riley’s AAU team was scheduled to play Tyson Chandler’s AAU team. Chandler, of course, now plays with the Chicago Bulls after skipping college and becoming the second selection in last year’s NBA lottery.
“Tyson was surrounded by very good players and Gerald just scorched them,” said Esherick. “He scored 48 points against them, and the majority came on 3-pointers. I was sold on him right there. I knew after seeing the kid shoot that well that he was somebody that we could use instantly.”
Said Riley, grinning in a rare moment of both verbal and emotional effusion: “Yes, sir, I remember that game, because I was on. I remember Tyson was guarding me a couple of times and that was a thrill. But mostly, I remember everything I was throwing up was just falling.”
Esherick used his long-standing relationship with Baldwin County High School coach James Lunsford to help sign Riley, who was listed by ESPN as one of the top-10 prep swingmen in the nation and also had offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Arkansas. And just as Esherick had surmised, Riley immediately earned a starting slot on last season’s deep, experienced squad.
For the first part of the season, Riley bombed and slashed like a budding star, keeping pace with fellow blue-chip freshman Sweetney. The young pair actually led the team in scoring when 6-0 Georgetown headed to Freedom Hall to play Louisville in a nationally televised game.
“We all knew about Braswell and the big guy [Boumtje Boumtje] and Perry, because he burned us up there [the season before] with a game-winning shot,” said then-Louisville coach Denny Crum before the game. “But then I get the scouting report on Georgetown, and I see their two leading scorers are both freshmen.
“Riley’s getting like 13 points a game, and I’ve never heard of him. So, I throw on the tapes, and there’s this long kid with a very smooth shot raining them in from all over. You know the only defense for a 6-6 jump-shooter, don’t you? It’s called a slump.”
Unfortunately for Riley, that’s exactly what he lapsed into midway through the season. After averaging 10.3 points on 41.4 percent shooting during the Hoyas’ run to a 16-0 start, Riley seemed to hit the freshman wall in late January. Though Esherick kept him in the starting lineup and his minutes never significantly waned, Riley averaged just 3.8 points and shot just 27.5 percent over Georgetown’s final 17 games.
“Coming in from high school to the Big East, one of the toughest conferences to play in, I think it wore on me a little bit,” said Riley, who stayed at Georgetown over the summer and worked out with Braswell, Wilson and Sweetney to prepare his body for the rigors of the long season. “I worked real hard on my game and my conditioning this summer. I’m in good shape, I’m stronger, and I worked on my ball-handling and my shot for like two hours every day. Hopefully, I won’t wear down like that again.”
Questions concerning Riley’s durability won’t be answered for several months. But the old sweet stroke has made an appearance at both of Georgetown’s preseason games. Riley matched Sweetney with a team-leading 31 points in the Hoyas’ two blowouts, connecting on nine of 17 shots (52.9 percent).
If Riley continues to rip the nets at that clip, he’s going punish teams that attempt to stifle Sweetney with sagging zones.
“Someone 6-6 who can shoot the ball from the outside is very valuable because he’s almost always open against a zone,” said Esherick, who is hesitant to put too much pressure on his sophomore gunner. “Anybody shooting the ball well from the outside with an inside game like ours causes problems for the other team.
“There were games last year where we shot the ball horribly and were still competitive. We shot 30 percent against Maryland [in a 76-66 Sweet 16 loss]. We took too many 3-pointers, and we took them too quickly, but we still stayed in that game. If we shoot the ball better, different story. In the games where we shot the ball consistently from outside, we were very, very difficult to beat.”
Riley, more than any other Hoya, gives Georgetown that deep-threat dimension. And more than any other Hoya, the rangy sophomore is eager to start the season. Not only does Riley want to put last year’s fade behind him, he wants his shot finely tuned for Georgetown’s second game, when the Hoyas face Georgia on Monday in Springfield, Mass., in the Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic.
“That’s big game for me, because a lot of people from back home will be watching that one,” said Riley. “Yeah, I’m definitely ready to get this season started.”