- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Slash-happy Cincinnati has the personnel to exploit Georgetown’s sole Achilles’.

During the past four games, the 21st-ranked Hoyas (13-4, 4-2 Big East) have provided impressive answers to nearly all of the team’s presumed weaknesses. But today at MCI Center, the undersized though extremely athletic Bearcats (14-6, 3-3) likely will attack what appears to be the team’s only true soft spot at either end — pedestrian penetration defense.

“We know there are a bunch of guys on that team that are very athletic,” said Georgetown senior swingman D.J. Owens, the team’s best on-ball defender. “One of the highest flyers in the country, James White, is their leading scorer [16.8 points]. We know if they have a bunch of guys that want to take it to the basket, it’s our job to take charges and try and get them out of what they want to do.”

In the last two weekends against the past and present No. 1s (Duke and Connecticut), Georgetown responded with two extraordinary defensive efforts.

Against the transition-centric, rebounding monster that is Connecticut, the Hoyas completely eliminated the Huskies’ running game and held their own on the boards. Georgetown limited Connecticut to season-lows in both fast-break points (seven) and offensive rebounds (six) in a 74-67 loss that was mostly the result of an atypically atrocious outside shooting day (8-for-27 from 3-point range).

Then last week against previously unbeaten Duke, a team whose halfcourt offense revolves exclusively around the inside-outside tandem of All-Americans Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, the Hoyas completely neutralized Williams (season-low four points) and challenged Redick to beat them single-handedly. And in spite of a wonderful effort from Redick, who scored 41 with Owens pasted to his hip, the Hoyas recorded the program’s most impressive victory in two decades by dropping the Blue Devils 87-84.

Enter Cincinnati. Today the Hoyas face a new defensive challenge from a Bearcats’ bunch powered by the explosive White, the dribble-drive prowess of freshman point guard blur Devan Downey (13.9 points, 4.1 assists) and the mismatch quickness of 6-foot-6 pivot Eric Hicks (14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks).

“Cincinnati is a very aggressive team, a team that can get around you and get to the basket,” said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who is almost certain to confront the all-drive, can’t-shoot Bearcats with a compact zone defense.

Hicks is likely to have his hands full with the Georgetown frontcourt of 7-2 Roy Hibbert and 6-9 forwards Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman, a trio that gives Thompson an array of defensive options. And the 6-7 Owens possesses the length and athleticism to check White. But Downey? The Hoyas seem to have no answers for the 5-10, 175-pound ankle-breaker who is locked in a two-man battle with Marquette’s Dominic James for Big East Rookie of the Year honors.

The Hoyas’ only significant weakness, on either end of the floor, is that all three of their small guards (Jonathan Wallace, Ashanti Cook and Jessie Sapp) lack either the quickness or technique to defend such a player straight up.

Consider Georgetown’s last game against Notre Dame: Chris Quinn repeatedly burned all three off the dribble in South Bend, fouling out Cook and absolutely abusing Sapp en route to a 26-point, 10-assist performance in a losing effort for the Irish. Only a freshman, Sapp has the quickness to potentially develop into the team’s defensive stopper.

But for now, it’s likely yet another job for “Maximum Jon.”

Nobody on the current roster maximizes his athletic abilities like Wallace. And though he’s clearly a step slower than both Cook and Sapp, the son of a hoops coach from Harvest, Ala., is also a couple of steps shrewder than just about any guard in the nation.

Offensively, Wallace would be the team’s runaway most improved player if not for the quantum leap of Hibbert, who was little more than a towering obstacle last season. In Georgetown’s last six games, against the elite meat of the Hoyas’ schedule, Wallace has posted an outstanding 2.18-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, highlighted by his combined 11 assists and one miscue against Connecticut and Duke, while shooting 47.2 percent from the field. That’s not bad for a player who was originally a walk-on. And even with the influx of high-profile talent destined for the Hilltop starting next season, he has cemented his station as the squad’s point guard of the future.

He’s the anti-Iverson. He reminds some of former GU point man Michael Jackson (1983-86), because he’s more head than handle, more fundamentals than flash, more engineer than entertainer.

That said, between this season and last, both his ball-handling and ability to get into the lane have improved exponentially. His Sean Dockery-mocking spin move against Duke was one of the individual highlights of the season. And if he can take a similar step forward on the defensive end, the Hoyas would eliminate the one soft spot threatening to put a ceiling on this postseason and beyond.

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