- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Georgetown took a giant stride toward San Antonio this week when Roy Hibbert announced he would return to the Hilltop for his senior season.

Sure, 6-9 forward Jeff Green has decided to stay in the NBA draft. But that was no surprise to anyone. Green was leaning toward turning pro after his junior season … before that campaign earned him Big East Player of the Year honors … and long before his sterling postseason play earned him the MVP laurels of the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament’s East Region.

Publicly, Green might have placed his odds of returning to the Hoyas at 70-30. But privately, he had made his decision long before the Hoyas took the floor in the Final Four.

Hibbert, however, had been on the NBA fence ever since that night in Atlanta, a night in which he got the best of no-brainer No. 1 pick Greg Oden in Georgetown’s 67-60 loss to the Buckeyes. Though mutual foul trouble put something of a damper on the highly anticipated matchup of 7-footers, Hibbert (19 points, six rebounds) gave better than he got, altering several of Oden’s shots while rarely suffering the same fate at the hands of the brawny Buckeye (13 points, nine rebounds).

Though Ohio State closed the books on a brilliant season for the Hoyas (30-7), Hibbert’s performance opened a lot of eyes. Entering the game, Hibbert’s lateral quickness and overall athleticism relative to NBA-caliber centers was in question. Exiting the game, Hibbert had answered those questions against the player most consider the best pivot prospect since Shaquille O’Neal.

Sure, Oden’s superior athleticism and upside was obvious. But Hibbert, just hours earlier considered an eventual NBA role player, was instantly elevated to a lottery lock.

“He’s definitely the best big man I’ve ever gone up against,” Oden said afterward. “I have a lot of respect for Big Roy.”

And when Hibbert sat on a dais beside coach John Thompson III on Wednesday and told the world he would be returning for his senior season, you can bet every other coach in the Big East groaned.

Of course, losing Green hurts the Hoyas, but it doesn’t sting nearly as much as it would have to have lost Hibbert.

How can losing the Big East Player of the Year hurt less than losing Hibbert, you ask?

Here are three reasons:

1) You can’t teach …

As versatile as Green was as a five-tool player who could pass, shoot, dribble, board and defend, 6-9 forwards are almost de facto less valuable than 7-2, 280-pound centers who can play. This isn’t meant to disparage Green, who was the unselfish backbone of Georgetown’s renaissance under Thompson, but Green’s long-term ceiling is lower than that of Hibbert.

Guess how many 6-10 or taller players who averaged double digits in scoring, six or more rebounds and two or more blocks will be returning to major-conference rosters next season?

Hibbert (12.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) … and, well … Hibbert.

That’s it. Just one.

And, as Thompson has always been quick to point out, Big Roy has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential. Green came to Georgetown with a high hoops IQ and an incredible skill set for a prepster. Of course, he improved, particularly his game away from the hoop. But few players in recent hoops history have enjoyed Hibbert’s near-stratospheric developmental arc.

The junior from Adelphi has made huge developmental leaps every season since his arrival on the Hilltop as an awkward freshman project whom Thompson and Co. had to teach how to run. Each season, his scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and shooting percentages have improved. Last year, Hibbert finished second in the nation in field goal percentage (67.1) and established a new league standard for the stat in Big East games (71.2) en route to consensus all-conference honors. He’ll undoubtedly be the preseason pick for Big East Player of the Year and an All-American. And if he continues to follow the same extreme improvement arc, he’ll almost certainly earn a spot on Georgetown’s pivot Rushmore alongside Ewing, Mutombo and Mourning.

2) Team Need

Given the current roster of returning players, Georgetown would find it much more difficult to replace Hibbert than Green. If Hibbert had left (even if Green returned), the Hoyas would likely be forced to start an extremely raw, if extremely talented, center in 6-10 rising sophomore Vernon Macklin.

While “Big Ticket” showed flashes of the game that made him a McDonald’s All-American at Hargrave Military Academy, his 9.8 minutes-per game average and single season in the system leave him less prepared to fill the void that would have been left by Hibbert than the player who will likely be asked to assume Green’s starting role: rising senior Patrick Ewing Jr. (14.5 minutes).

Throw in gifted wing man DaJuan Summers, who enjoyed an exemplary freshman season (9.2 points), and incoming McDonald’s All-American Austin Freeman (DeMatha), and the Hoyas actually have three NBA-caliber talents to share the onus of replacing Green’s myriad contributions as the team’s point-forward.

The most difficult part of replacing Green will be locating another late-game, go-to guy. The Hoyas specialized in blowout wins last season, and that shouldn’t change given the fact that Georgetown will return more firepower (eight pieces of a nine-man rotation) than any of last season’s Top-25 staples. But Green did single-handedly win three games on last-second shots for the Hoyas down the stretch (Villanova, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt).

Given the fact that such a player must be a solid ball-handler and capable of creating his own shot, next season’s top candidates for that clutch duty appear to be Summers and, more likely, rising junior Jesse “New York” Sapp (9.1 points).

3) Gameplan

As good as Green was in his three seasons, Hibbert represents a far more daunting matchup problem for opponents on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Hibbert’s ability to alter shots and provide help on dribble-drive proponents makes the paint a virtual no-fly zone for Georgetown opponents. North Carolina terror Tywon Lawson was a total non-factor in the halfcourt set off the bounce against Georgetown in the East Region final (five points, five turnovers).

And offensively, Hibbert’s 5-to-8 layups and dunks per game are far more difficult to defend as a reliable source of offense than Green’s mid-range attack. Fact is, you don’t have too many cold shooting nights from two feet.

The bottom line: As much as it smarts to lose Green, Hibbert’s return to an otherwise loaded roster preparing to welcome two more McDonald’s All-Americans in the backcourt (Freeman and St. John’s Prep gunner Chris Wright) should make the Hoyas an instant preseason favorite to reach next year’s Final Four in San Antonio.

As instrumental as Green was in Thompson’s first three seasons, it is Hibbert the coach nicknamed “Franchise.” It’s Hibbert who Thompson once boldly proclaimed would one day be one of the best players in the world. And it’s Hibbert who gives the Hoyas the better chance to win two more games next April.

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