Georgetown is 10th in this week’s men’s basketball AP Top 25. While ranking in the top 10 might not seem that impressive for a program that won the Big East in 2008 and reached the Final Four in 2007, consider that the coaches who know the Hoyas best picked them to finish 10th this season. That’s 10th in the conference, not in the nation.
In other words, coach John Thompson III and his young (six freshmen, four sophomores, a junior and two seniors) Hoyas are having a heck of a season. Georgetown is 19-5 overall, 9-4 in the Big East heading into Saturday’s contest at struggling Providence (13-13, 2-11). With four more conference games, the Big East Tournament and at least one NCAA date still to come, Thompson is on the verge of his sixth and most unlikely 20-victory season during the last seven years.
“This team heard of a lot of, ‘They’re going to be in the middle or the bottom of the conference because of the loss of Chris (Wright) and (Austin) Freeman, ‘ ” said senior center Henry Sims. “This team took it to heart and we made sure that we proved them wrong.”
While the 45-year-old son of legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. agreed that his players are working hard and doing what he asks, he wouldn’t praise his overachieving team with its finish still unknown.
“I’m having fun, but … we’re right in the middle of things, so (I’m) not going to analyze the big picture,” Thompson said the other day at McDonough Arena on campus. “Pleased, not please, we’ll figure that out in a couple of weeks. You have to stay focused on what’s in front of you.”
Thompson’s team has certainly been more focused on defense than last year’s group which was led by high-scoring former All-Met guards Freeman and Wright.
“I don’t think it’s X’s and O’s,” said senior guard Jason Clark, along with junior forward Hollis Thompson one of just two returning starters from last year’s team that went 21-11 and was upset in the NCAAs in the first round by Final Four-bound VCU. “I think it’s just effort. It’s heart. We’ve got a group of guys that’s willing to defend. When we defend, it’s fun.”
Hearing that should make Thompson smile as should the fact that opponents are shooting just .389 against the Hoyas, the third-worst percentage during his eight seasons at Georgetown.
“We’re better (defensively),” said Thompson, who’s employing much more zone this year because five of his top eight players are at least 6-foot-8. “We have more guys that can guard different positions. This team, for the most part, enjoys the notion that we’re making it difficult for the opposition to score. They embrace the whole notion of defense and getting stops. You can start talking systems, zone, man … but at the end of the day, you’ve gotta say, ‘I’ve gotta guard this guy.’ You have to have that toughness.”
These Hoyas have been tough enough to take second-ranked Syracuse to overtime on the road, to have won at No. 19 Louisville and at Alabama, to have swept Memphis, beaten No. 12 Marquette and pushed No. 4 Kansas to the limit in just their third game of the season.
“We can stick with any team in the country,” Sims said. “Our chemistry is better. Off the court, we’re all really good friends and I think that plays a lot onto the court.”
And then there was the summer trip to China. While the Hoyas’ visit became infamous for their brawl with a Chinese pro team six months ago Saturday – for which both squads soon apologized – Sims said that the time together in such a foreign environment has been a boon for Georgetown this season.
“China definitely helped us, just being together all the time,” he explained. “None of us spoke the language and very few people we met spoke English so we had to depend on each other.”
That bonding experience is paying dividends for a program that’s just 1-3 in the NCAAs since that 2007 Final Four. But will it make a difference in March?
“The one stat that is most important is field goal percentage defense,” said Thompson, whose team is ranked 21st nationally in that department. “If you make your opposition miss and then you can go get the ball (the Hoyas outrebound their foes by 5.4 per game), we’re gonna figure out how to get enough points.”
We’ll see if Thompson’s correct come tournament time.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.