Picking Splinters: Mapping the Hoya Ahead

About this time last season the Georgetown Hoyas scored an improbable win over the UConn Huskies. About a month later, the Hoyas began a downward spiral that didn’t strike bottom until a first-round ouster in the N.I.T.

What made the collapse so painful was the immense potential last year’s Hoyas team possessed, beating two Final Four teams (Villanova, UConn) one Elite Eight roster (Syracuse) and another that reached the Sweet 16 (Memphis).

That potential returned in force this season, but the last year’s scars are still fresh. Even ardent supporters flinch at the possibility it could happen again. So let’s take a look at how the Hoyas can avoid repeating recent history.

Two major factors contributed to Georgetown’s undoing last season – rebounding and turnovers.

There were times last season when the Hoyas were flat out allergic to the basketball. Against Pittsburgh, the Hoyas were outrebounded 43-17. In fact, the Panthers had more offensive rebounds (18) than Georgetown had total boards. If you give even a mediocre team a plethora of second chances, you’re going to get lit up like a Nationals relief pitcher. In a regular-season loss against St. John’s, Georgetown allowed 13 offensive rebounds, which helped offset 19 Red Storm turnovers. When the teams matched up again in the Big East Tournament, the Hoyas ceded 12 more offensive caroms. Even the Marquette Golden Eagles, whose average height made Lilliputians look like Gheorghe Muresan, outrebounded the boys in Blue and Gray.

On the season, opponents snared an offensive rebound 36.2 percent of the time after a miss. That placed the Hoyas 292nd out of 344 Division I teams in that category. It’s flat out tough to win games when you’re giving the opposition an opportunity for an extra shot every third time down the court.

This season GU has trimmed that figure to 29.3, the 50th best mark in the nation. Considering the Hoyas average roughly 65 possessions per game, that’s 4.5 fewer second chances for the opposition. Cutting those points out of the box score helps a lot.

If only they could make the same progress with turnovers. Georgetown lost the ball on 21.6 percent of possessions last season. This was particularly problematic in that possessions are more valuable to slow-paced teams like the Hoyas. A turnover when you’re averaging 100 possessions per game, like North Carolina, doesn’t matter as much. When you have 35 percent fewer possessions, each missed opportunity is a bigger deal.

It’s here that the Hoyas still have more work to do. This season, GU’s turnover rate has increased to 22.4 percent. The Hoyas have faced two teams ranked in the top 25 for steal percentage, matchups with which you’d expect them to struggle. They did. Georgetown dropped both contests, to Marquette and Old Dominion, combining for 31 turnovers in the two games.

Flash to this past Saturday’s game against UConn. The Huskies forced the Hoyas into eight first-half turnovers and raced out to a 19-point lead. Georgetown committed just two in the second half. As you likely know, the second half brought a¬†slightly more favorable result.

Ball control will likely be a key in the days ahead, with a pair of games against Villanova (the first of which comes Sunday) and Syracuse. The Orange have suddenly become a roster of ball hawks, ranking second in the nation in steal percentage.

Now here’s what I think are the two difference-making factors that will lead Georgetown back to the NCAA Tournament: Patience and versatility. This season, even in the two losses, GU has shown discipline in their offensive sets, working the ball for the highest percentage shot possible. That is the key of John Thompson III’s offense. Without it, Georgetown loses the strategic advantage it road to the Final Four in 2007.

Also last season, after Greg Monroe’s breakout game against UConn, it felt like the rest of the team deferred to either the talented center or junior forward DaJuan Summers. The result? Monroe seemed unwilling to accept that burden and Summers wasn’t quite capable of stepping up in the clutch. This season, every member of the Georgetown starting five could lead the team to victory on any given night. In fact, every starter has had at least one game as the team’s leading scorer.

The remaining schedule is no cakewalk, with only five games I’d be willing to put in the “should win” column. But there are fewer troubling signs warning of an impending slide. And right now, I’ll lift a half-full glass to the Hoyas’ 12-2 start.