- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

Georgetown’s success hinges on one potentially guardgantuan concern. When the eighth-ranked Hoyas open the school’s 100th basketball season tomorrow against Hartford, they’ll do so with perhaps the strongest frontcourt in the history of Big Man U … and perhaps one of the program’s weakest backcourts.

Gone are Ashanti Cook, Brandon Bowman and D.J. Owens, a perimeter trio which accounted for more than 40 percent of the teams scoring (29.4 points a game), assists and minutes, half of the team’s steals and nearly 60 percent of the team’s 3-pointers.

Returning to the backcourt are reliable third-year starting point man Jonathan Wallace (7.9 points, 3.2 assists), last season’s seventh man Jessie Sapp (2.8 points) and two converted forwards with virtually no meaningful playing experience (Marc Egerson and Tyler Crawford). The only new backcourt addition is Jeremiah Rivers, an underwhelming freshman recruit who was hampered by a gimpy foot in the preseason.

Given the guard-centric nature of the college game, that’s a recipe for insomnia for third-year Georgetown coach John Thompson III.

“I’m not desperate, but it’s a major concern,” Thompson said at Big East Media Day of his thin, unproven backcourt. “A lot of times you go into the year and you know how you’re going to try to skin the cat. And on our perimeter this year, we’re going to have to figure that out. Losing Brandon, Ashanti and D.J., we lost most of our perimeter shooting. We lost most of our perimeter passing. And we lost our two best perimeter defenders. So, a lot of the expectations coming into this year are based on the strength of our frontcourt. And that’s understandable, because our frontcourt is among the best in the country. But with the exception of Jon, there’s going to a lot of inexperience in the backcourt. And that’s what we have to figure out.”

While replacing the departing numbers seems like a daunting task, perhaps the first step in figuring out the magnitude of Georgetown’s backcourt issue involves looking back at the three players no longer in the mix.

Of the Cook, Bowman and Owens trio, only Cook was a guard in the conventional ball-handling sense. Bowman personified erratic throughout his career on the Hilltop. His dribbling, shooting, scoring, intensity and impact were always unpredictable, making his departure the least painful of the three.

The 6-foot-7 Owens was nearly as enigmatic as a performer. At his best, Owens was the team’s best 3-point, backdoor cut master and shutdown defender. But Owens rarely performed at his peak, hitting double digits in the scoring column just four times in the team’s last 16 games. And Owens was rarely asked to handle the ball, doing most of his damage as a spot-up shooter and wing cutter.

Cook, however, was the only pure guard of the three, and his ability to run the team, shoot, dribble-drive, pass and defend will be sorely missed. The task of replacing Cook’s baseline-to-baseline duties will fall primarily to Sapp, a 6-3 sophomore who was the team’s top recruit last season.

“It’s pretty big shoes to fill with Ashanti gone. There’s a lot of doubters, but we’re just working hard to get better every day,” Sapp said earlier this week. “Last year, there was a little discomfort [scoring], because I was making sure to get the ball up and the offense set and doing whatever we needed to win. Coming out of high school [at the National Christian Academy in Ft. Washington], everybody basically knew I could score. So, I just wanted to show everybody last year that I could do other things. I could get rebounds. I can be the hustle man. Do the little things to help us win. I know my role is going to expand this season.”

Sapp won’t be in tomorrow’s starting lineup after missing substantial preseason time with an injury, but expect the rugged sophomore with the improved shot to quickly become Wallace’s principal running mate this season.

After Wallace and Sapp, don’t be surprised if none of the aforementioned guards earns extensive minutes. That’s because Thompson isn’t interested in conforming to the traditional five-position formula which insists upon a guard-guard-forward-forward-center lineup. And with a threesome of forwards as skilled as Patrick Ewing Jr., DaJuan Summers and particularly preseason All-Big East selection Jeff Green, he doesn’t need to be.

Frankly, Green’s status as the game’s premier point forward makes him Georgetown’s best third option on the perimeter.

“I don’t think Georgetown has major backcourt issues, because you have to defend Jeff Green as a guard,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said of Georgetown’s perceived backcourt weakness. “You go back and look at tapes of last year, and at the end of the game, when they’re trying to put it away, Green is at the point. He’s a better passer on the perimeter than all but a handful of guards in this league. It all comes down to versatility. Jeff Green can handle the ball. He can pass. He can shoot it. He sees the floor. I think he’s going to be even more outstanding this season. He’s a big-time player.”

At 6-9, 235 pounds, Green (11.9 points, 6.5 rebounds) is a true matchup nightmare on the perimeter. He finished tops on the team in assists last season (3.3), is a capable 3-point shooter (29 last season) and is ready and willing to step outside, knowing his versatility is the key to his NBA marketability.

“This summer during Kenner League I actually played a lot of guard to try to get used to that position,” said Green, who focused heavily on his ball-handling and shooting in the offseason. “I could be put back there, and hopefully I’ll do well. If they need help, I can play the point, no problem.”

Green would have seen more time on the perimeter during his first two seasons, but Georgetown’s personnel pushed him inside. But with the continued emergence of all-league center Roy Hibbert (11.6 points, 6.9 rebounds) in the pivot and the sudden infusion of talented big bodies like Indiana transfer Ewing (6-8, 238 pounds) and top-30 recruits Vernon Macklin (6-9, 227) and Summers (6-8, 241), Green now has the luxury of moving outside.

“Yeah, it could [make me more attractive to the NBA],” Green said. “It would be good if I could go back there. As long as I don’t turn the ball over, it would be fun. … Now that we have Vernon Macklin, who’s down there helping Roy out, and DaJuan Summers and Pat, who can also play down inside, I’ve got more freedom. So, I’ve been working on my shot, my ball-handling and my perimeter game a lot.”

Green’s likely shift outside doesn’t solve all of Georgetown’s perimeter concerns. The evolving team will still have to prove its proficiency from behind the 3-point arc, because the Hoyas are guaranteed to see a steady diet of sagging zone defenses. But given the team’s two seasons of drastically outstripping expectations under Thompson, those who belittle Georgetown’s backcourt do so at their own risk.

“A lot of people say we’re not going to be as good of a 3-point shooting team as last year, but I beg to differ,” Wallace said. “I’ve heard a lot of comments like that going around this preseason and to a degree it drives you a little more. … We’re a confident group of guys in the backcourt who know what our capabilities are and stuff like that really doesn’t faze us that much.”

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