Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Hoyas Must Adapt

After games like the Georgetown Hoyas’ 66-48 victory over a top-20 Notre Dame squad, it’s easy to see why many placed Georgetown in the nation’s top 10 to start the season. After games like the Georgetown Hoyas’ 56-52 loss to a struggling Villanova team, it’s easy to see why Georgetown started conference play on the outside of the top 25.

On Monday night, the Wildcats came into Verizon Center and absolutely had their way with the Hoyas’ offense. Not only did Jay Wright and Villanova solve the Princeton offense, they turned it into a liability for the Hoyas with a passive 1-2-2 full-court press. Even when the Hoyas did manage to cross half court without a turnover (they had a season-high 21 in the game), they had sacrificed valuable time on the shot clock in doing so. Frequently in the game’s final stretch, Georgetown would start their offensive series with 15 seconds on the shot clock, with the perimeter players fruitlessly looking inside for Roy Hibbert before hoisting up an off-balance jumper as the shot clock expired — exactly as the Wildcats had hoped. Hibbert finished with two points, both from the foul line, and didn’t even attempt a field goal. Jeff Green, the Hoyas’ other Wooden Award candidate, finished with seven points and five turnovers.

Unlike last season’s Elite Eight squad, the 2006-07 Wildcats are not a top team. Their best victories to this point had come against Oklahoma and Iowa, teams with five and six losses respectively as of this Tuesday. They have also had some poor losses, falling at home to Drexel in early December and DePaul last Saturday. They do flaunt one of the Big East’s top scorers in Curtis Sumpter, but Sumpter found himself in foul trouble (mostly dumb fouls of his own making) all night and fouled out with just five points. So how did this squad stifle an offense that looked so dynamic two days earlier against the Irish?

It was the press. Even the passive pressure took the Hoya backcourt out of its rhythm. And when the ball did cross half court, the Wildcats used the speed of Herndon High School product Scottie Reynolds and the wing spans of Mike Nardi and Shane Clark to disrupt the passing lanes. Not only did Villanova squelch Georgetown’s vaunted frontcourt game, but they also derailed an unheralded, but potent, three-point attack that accounted for 38-percent of the Hoyas’ points in wins over Michigan and Notre Dame. Georgetown hit just six of its 20 three-point attempts, with many of those attempts taken with a hand in the face as the shot clock expired.

Villanova pressed after every single made shot for the duration of the game. Jay Wright never changed that strategy because Georgetown never adjusted — not after the first time out, not after halftime, never. The Georgetown backcourt, which had played so well of late, looked baffled by the passive trap defense. What’s more, they ran the same tentative press break to the sidelines, not the middle, every time up the court. In the second half, Villanova anticipated the Hoyas’ moves and often stole the ball.

Why Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III, often touted as a tactical wiz for his work with the Princeton Offense, never adjusted remains a mystery. Perhaps the school’s Catholic affiliation prohibits teaching any form of evolution/adaptation? Or perhaps the loss of sophomore guard Marc Egerson (he withdrew from the university a week ago for personal reasons) was felt for the first time. With Egerson gone, the Hoyas third-best ball-handling option behind Jessie Sapp and John Wallace is freshman Jeremiah Rivers. Rather than placing the press-breaking responsibilities to a freshman, Thompson III used the normally sure-handed Green to bring the ball up the court at the point. In doing so, however, Georgetown failed to position anyone at mid-court in the zone press’s dead zone. Instead, Green would dribble up from the backcourt before passing to the guards flanking him on the sidelines … right in the kill zone of the press.

Regardless of the reason for the continued reliance on a failed strategy, Georgetown appeared reluctant to attack the press and make Villanova pay a price for its double teams. Instead, Georgetown’s ball handlers were indecisive and waited for the pressure to come to them until it was too late.

The Hoya backcourt was much maligned entering the season, but after putting disappointing home losses to Old Dominion and Oregon and an always-excusable road loss to Duke behind them, it seemed like guards Jonathan Wallace and Jesse Sapp had become more comfortable asserting themselves and running the offense. Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green likewise took a scoring initiative, dominating in the win over Notre Dame. Georgetown was again looking like the squad that traveled to the Sweet 16 last year and gave national champion Florida its best competition of the tournament. All of that momentum appeared to be tossed away on Monday night.

Top 10 teams can beat you any number of ways. Ohio State, North Carolina, Florida — those teams can win games in transition, behind the arc or on the blocks. Their strength is found in their versatility and unpredictability. With Hibbert, Green, Wallace and impressive freshman DaJuan Summers (a team-high 16 points Monday), Georgetown has the players to be one of those teams, but its players and coaches must be willing to adapt when they encounter a bump in their usual road to victory. Otherwise that road will have no chance of reaching the Final Four in Atlanta.