- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

It’s time to find out what battle-hardened Georgetown learned from its six-game post-Christmas odyssey.

Coach John Thompson III’s young team emerged from its stretch against five top-13 teams with all its season goals still intact. The Hoyas (12-4, 3-2 Big East) exited the gantlet with a 3-3 record, the nation’s top-rated schedule and a third consecutive Big East regular-season title still within reach.

From the highs of emphatic double-digit victories over then No. 2 Connecticut (74-63) and then No. 8 Syracuse (88-74) to the lows of the homecourt streak-snapping beatdown by then No. 2 Pittsburgh (70-54) and Saturday’s loss at then No. 3 Duke (76-67), the Hoyas remain one of the nation’s most enigmatic and inconsistent teams.

But Saturday’s disappointment in Durham, N.C., again highlighted the lone constant for the Hoyas thus far this season: When freshman big man Greg Monroe is on the floor, the Hoyas are a handful for any team in the nation. When the 6-foot-11 playmaker from New Orleans is forced to the bench, the Hoyas flounder.

The numbers are irrefutable; in nine games this season against major-conference competition, Monroe has a plus-minus rating of plus-80. That means the Hoyas outscored those nine opponents by 80 points when Monroe (13.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals) was in the agame. Senior guard Jessie Sapp boasts the second-highest plus-minus rating on the team in those games at plus-24.

In Georgetown’s four losses this season, the Hoyas are plus-2 with Monroe on the floor and minus-45 with the versatile big man on the bench. In the loss at Duke, the Hoyas were 15 points better than the Blue Devils in Monroe’s 28 minutes of playing time but were outscored by 24 points in the 12 minutes Monroe spent on the bench.

“Monroe is a very unique player. He’s their point guard,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He plays at the top, goes to the side, and if you play him in a traditional sense, big-on-big, he’s going to get a lot of open passes. His vision is terrific.

“Theirs is a read offense. It’s based on movements and reads. [Thompson] gives his guys a lot of freedom in that offense, and that’s why Monroe is so huge with that - because he has a great feel for the game and he makes good reads. What we tried to do is rush the quarterback, at least put pressure on the quarterback, so it at least took away some of his vision. He had four assists and four turnovers. He had a good game, but when he walks on the floor he can potentially have a great game.”

As the focal point on both ends for the Hoyas, Monroe has endured only one poor game thus far during his freshman campaign (minus-11 in the loss to Pittsburgh). Not only is he the key cog for an offense that functions best when funneled through the high or low post, Monroe is also the team’s best defender. He leads the Hoyas in rebounds, steals and blocks (1.8 a game), and his presence in the lane and length when hedging on perimeter screens fundamentally alter the manner in which teams attack the Hoyas.

Statistically speaking, perhaps the biggest difference between this season’s Georgetown team and last season’s league champion is defense. Last season, the Hoyas led the nation in field goal percentage defense (36.6) and the Big East in scoring defense (58.1). This season, the Hoyas rank 18th in the nation in the first category (38.1) and sixth in the Big East in the latter (61.7), at least in part because key players like junior forward DaJuan Summers and sophomore swingman Austin Freeman are marginal defenders playing out of position.

The good news for the Hoyas is the schedule softens considerably; the Hoyas likely will be favored in 10 of their final 12 regular-season games (at Marquette and at Syracuse the exceptions).

The bad news is that Duke exposed just how vulnerable the Hoyas are without Monroe on the floor, and it’s almost certain that West Virginia’s Bob Huggins was watching. The Mountaineers (13-4, 2-2 Big East) are a raw bunch on offense without a true post presence. But they do lead the league in offensive rebounding (16.2 a game), and it’s a safe bet they will attack the boards Thursday night in hopes of producing putback buckets and foul trouble for Monroe.

“We just have to find ways to fight a little bit more through the tough times,” Monroe said. “We have to bounce back.”

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