- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Georgetown Hoyas look ready to take their shot at a Big East title encore.

As No. 7 Georgetown (10-1) opens conference play today at Rutgers, it comes off an impressive “preseason,” as coach John Thompson III calls it.

First, Georgetown is ahead of last year’s learning curve. Though the Hoyas have played a softer schedule this season, the team’s only loss in 11 games came against an opponent — at No. 2 Memphis — superior to any of the three teams responsible for last season’s three pre-Big East defeats (Old Dominion, Oregon, at Duke).

The Hoyas are a much improved defensive team, leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (35.2).

They also have four players shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Among ranked teams, Georgetown’s starters rank second in field goal percentage (to Washington State) and 3-point percentage (to Vanderbilt).

However, Georgetown’s 85-71 loss to Memphis cast a spotlight on all three of the team’s primary issues entering conference play: rebounding, Roy Hibbert’s regression and cultivating a closer.

Collecting 19 offensive rebounds en route to defeating the Hoyas, Memphis once again highlighted the only consistent weakness in the Thompson era: the Hoyas’ inability to keep opposing teams off the glass.

Part of that could be because of Georgetown’s heavy reliance on a zone defense; theoretically, defensive rebounding is slightly more difficult in zone sets because defenders don’t have such an obvious box-out assignment.

“It’s a little more of a challenge in a zone because your guy isn’t naturally right there on your hip,” said Georgetown sophomore DaJuan Summers, who averages 12.5 points and 6.0 rebounds and could be the long-term key to the Hoyas’ rebounding hopes.

In spite of his size, Hibbert’s marginal athleticism has kept him from developing into a dominant rebounder.

Patrick Ewing Jr., whom the staff hoped would develop into the team’s blue-collar board-master, never blossomed in that role in his 10 starts to open the season and averages 3.6 rebounds.

That leaves Summers, whose rebounding onus increased with Thompson’s recent replacement of Ewing in the starting lineup with the smaller, more offensively polished Freeman.

Summers now effectively becomes the team’s starting power forward, and the sharp-shooting Freeman takes his spot on the wing. The move could be the best thing for the long-term growth of Summers’ game, but it will require a slight change in attitude, style and responsibility for the finesse-minded scorer.

In Georgetown’s last game, the first with the new-look starting five, Summers responded with a team-leading nine rebounds in the Hoyas’ rout of Fordham.

Georgetown’s second and third concerns heading into the Big East are closely related.

Hibbert has found the lane a far more congested place this season without Jeff Green sharing the defensive focus of opposing frontcourts. With his point and rebounding production down from 12.9 and 6.9 last season to 12.1 and 6.2, Hibbert still hasn’t adjusted to the parade of sagging zones and double-team traffic.

In the one game in which the Hoyas didn’t face a sagging zone, Hibbert looked reticent to attack Memphis forward Joey Dorsey in spite of his 5-inch height advantage, finishing with a season-low six points and no free throw attempts.

The combination of Freeman’s insertion into the starting lineup and the beginning of Big East play (where the Hoyas will see more man-to-man) should help Hibbert break out of his funk. But he might never be comfortable with, or capable of, handling the team’s go-to closer role.

Much like last season, the Hoyas have played just one single-digit game thus far, routing virtually every opponent. But as Green proved last season, there will be a handful of games, particularly in March, when games will depend on one or two halfcourt possessions.

Similarly, there was a five-minute drought while Memphis pulled away early in the second half, when Georgetown’s lack of a settling, go-to influence was obvious.

While senior point guard Jon Wallace serves as a calming influence with his patient, savvy presence, he lacks the size, quickness and ability to make his own shot to be the team’s takeover closer.

Expect Summers, Freeman and junior slasher Jessie Sapp to audition for that role during the Big East regular season. Heading into the postseason, Georgetown needs to have little doubt where the ball is going with a game on the line.

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