Monday February 8th, 2010

When I spoke with Georgetown coach John Thompson III late Sunday afternoon, I asked if he would give me the details on what he told his players after they lost at home to South Florida last Wednesday. Was he somber? Was he angry? What did he say? "Take me inside that locker room," I said.

Thompson demurred. "Uh, I'm not going to take you in there," he said. "Let's just say it wasn't exactly somber. I was pretty animated. We had spent all week preparing them to be ready emotionally, but they came out flat."

Thompson's non-answer was revealing nonetheless. The reason I had asked about what he said in that locker room, as opposed to what he said following the Hoyas' big wins over Duke and Villanova, was because I wondered why this team has so far avoided the fate of last year's squad. Last season, the Hoyas also started out with much promise, jumping out 10-1 and reaching the No. 9 ranking in the AP poll following a win at No. 2 UConn. But those Hoyas dropped their next two games, later endured a brutal five-game losing streak, and the bottom fell out. The end result was a desultory 16-13 campaign in which Georgetown missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.

When I asked Thompson to compare this team to last year's, he demurred again -- but still gave another revealing non-answer. "It's natural for people to want to compare and contrast to last year, but the composition of this team is different, the energy is different, the understanding is significantly different," he said. "Chemistry, or a lack thereof, is not even a part of the equation. It's just not."

It's understandable that Thompson would not want to say so explicitly, but chemistry is indeed the biggest difference. Last year's group never jelled between the youngsters and upperclassmen Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers. These Hoyas (17-5, 7-4 in the Big East) have so far played unselfish, team-oriented basketball, and that has enabled them to bounce back from losses. They fell by five points at Villanova on Jan. 17, but knocked off Pittsburgh on the road three days later. They followed their 17-point drubbing at Syracuse by blowing past Duke. They stubbed their toe against South Florida, but responded by throttling 'Nova in their next outing.

Saturday's 103-90 win over the Wildcats was especially impressive because junior guard Chris Wright, who leads the Hoyas in assists and is their third-leading scorer, fouled out with 5:16 remaining and Villanova cutting away at Georgetown's lead. That should have been a big problem for a team lacking depth (four starters have been playing 32-plus minutes in Big East games), but the Hoyas held on, largely behind sophomore guard Jason Clark's career-high 24 points. At this point in the season, resilience is as important a quality as talent, and the Hoyas have an ample supply of both.

To be fair, last year's team was also much younger than this one. Clark and 6-foot-11 center Greg Monroe were freshmen, and even though Wright was a sophomore, he was essentially a freshman because he missed most of the previous season with an injury. Each of the returnees has matured in a significant way. Thompson says junior guard Austin Freeman "has made a big jump this year understanding just how hard college basketball is. He's made that commitment to being a very good player." Wright has evolved in his understanding of when to look for his own shot and when to set up his teammates. And Monroe, who returned to school even though he would have been a first-round draft pick, has learned not to be so deferential to his teammates, that he can still be unselfish while scoring a lot of points.

The good chemistry is also a direct result of Thompson's having to play his starters so many minutes. It's a lot easier to pass up an open shot if you know you're going to be in the game for a long time. "Those guys have been preparing for the minutes they're playing from the first day we got back to school this year," Thompson said. "The four of them have a big responsibility and they know it."

Not surprisingly, Thompson also did not want to compare this team to another team he has had at Georgetown, the Roy Hibbert-Jeff Green-Patrick Ewing Jr.-led group that reached the 2007 Final Four. "We were big, long and deep up front that year. We're playing much differently now," he said. When I asked if this group was as good as that team was in early February, he said, "Nope, not yet. But this team has much more room for growth than that team did in early February."

That is indeed good news, but that growth will only come if the Hoyas continue to heed the lessons of 2009. That means not just reacting well to losses, but also to wins. That means not coming out flat on Wednesday night, when the Hoyas will face a Providence team that will be amped up to knock them off their pedestal. "Hopefully we've learned some lessons," Thompson said. "Everyone knows how we felt last Wednesday night and Thursday morning [after the South Florida loss]. You have to have a short memory in this league. Sometimes the best way to grow is to be hurt."

• I gotta say I'm pretty surprised at the limited contribution freshman swingman Xavier Henry is making at Kansas these days. After beginning the season with 11 straight double-figure scoring games (including two games where he scored 27 and 31 points), Henry scored in single digits for the fifth consecutive game in the Jayhawks' win over Nebraska, and he is averaging just 7.9 points in conference play. Kansas can win the national title without Henry being a dominant player, but it will be hard for the Jayhawks to win it with him being a non-factor.

• If Coach K asked my advice (which he does all the time), I would tell him to force-feed freshmen Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee a lot more minutes, even if it means losing a few games as they learn the ropes. Those two need to learn to play through mistakes, and the Blue Devils will need their help to reach the Final Four.

• I'm guessing efficiency maven Ken Pomeroy is less surprised than the rest of us that Georgetown ran roughshod over Villanova. According to Ken Pom's site, the Wildcats are ranked 63rd in the nation in defensive efficiency. They really got exposed at that end of the floor as Georgetown shot 52.6 percent.

• A lot of people assume that Kentucky is running a lot of dribble-drive motion this season, but John Calipari told me last week that the Cats only run that offense about 30 percent of the time. The reason? "Because DeMarcus [Cousins] is too good." Calipari also told me that Cousins "has come as far and as fast as any player I've coached."

• When it's February and you're a bubble team and you have a good team on your home floor, you have to win the game. Dayton (which beat Xavier), Richmond (Temple), Illinois (Michigan State), UNLV (BYU) and Oklahoma (Texas) did that last weekend. Memphis (which lost to Gonzaga) did not.

• Speaking of Memphis, sophomore swingman Wesley Witherspoon may have taken an important psychological step forward last week when he scored 29 and 26 points, respectively, against UAB and Gonzaga. If Witherspoon can maintain that dominating mentality, the Tigers could very well win that Conference USA tournament, which is being played this year in Tulsa.

• Incidentally, I don't mean to detract from what Richmond pulled off, but it's worth noting that Temple played that game without second-leading scorer Juan Fernandez, who sat out because of lingering effects from a shot he took to his head during Temple's win over Fordham on Jan. 23.

• I'm hoping against hope that Ernie Kent holds on at Oregon, but if he doesn't, I'm hearing that Mark Turgeon's name will be in the mix.

• I agree with Luke Winn that the addition of Turkish native Deniz Kilicli will help West Virginia, but I still think the Mountaineers would be better off if he were a point guard instead of a 6-9 power forward.

• I realize I've been paying a lot of attention (much of it unflattering) to Oklahoma guard Willie Warren this season, but I hope you all have had a chance to check out the Sooners' much-improved freshman point guard, Tommy Mason-Griffin. Mason-Griffin is only 5-11, but he's built like a truck and knows how to use his strength. He is also daring and sees the floor beautifully. While Warren was limited to playing 16 minutes off the bench because of an ankle injury on Saturday against Texas, Mason-Griffin had 24 points, five rebounds and four assists in the Sooners' biggest win of the season.

• Speaking of Texas, do you realize the Longhorns were 10-for-27 from the foul line in that game? Damion James was 4-for-13 by himself. And is there any player in America who has had a more up-and-down season than Jordan Hamilton? Big trouble in Texas, my friends.

• Did I miss the press release announcing the elimination of the coaches' box? Because as far as I can tell, there's not a single coach staying in it.

• William & Mary is a scary team when it's making threes, but when it's not, the Tribe have no Plan B. They shot 5-for-25 from behind the arc in their loss at Old Dominion, and they got out-rebounded by 19.

• If Georgia sophomore forward Trey Thompkins were on a better team, he'd be a household name. Thompson has been amazingly consistent during SEC play, and he dominated Vandy's frontcourt with 17 points and seven rebounds in Saturday's 14-point win over the Commodores.

• Looks like Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell didn't respond well to Bobby Gonzalez's tough love. In his first game since losing his starting spot, Hazell had two points in 32 minutes off the bench in the Hall's blowout loss at Pittsburgh.

• You think Ohio State is hurting for depth? The Buckeyes cruised by Iowa at home by 10 points on Sunday, yet four of their five starters played all 40 minutes.

• I haven't broken out my Erving Walker shot-o-meter in a while, so here goes: Florida's sophomore point guard was 1-for-8 from three-point range in the Gators' win over Mississippi State but only 1-for-2 from the foul line. On the season Walker has attempted 134 three-pointers (where he makes 37.3 percent) to 77 free throws (where he makes 80.5 percent). So much for playing to your strengths. (To Walker's credit, though, he is shooting 49.1 percent from three-point range in nine SEC games.)

• Maybe Walker should watch some video of Texas Tech guard John Roberson. He's shooting a better three-point percentage than Walker (41.0), yet Roberson took 14 free throws (making 13) to just four three-pointers in the Red Raiders' win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.

• For all of South Florida's success of late (the Bulls had won four in a row, including home against Pitt and at Georgetown, before falling by three points at Notre Dame on Sunday), keep in mind that their second-leading scorer and best big man, Gus Gilchrist, has been out of action since early December because of an ankle injury. Gilchrist has been practicing for several weeks now and the team hopes to have him back for Saturday's game at Marquette.

• In case you missed it, check out New York Times columnist David Brooks' article last week on the virtues of college sports. Besides being a brilliant writer, Brooks is also a closet Villanova basketball fan.

• I love that Purdue's walk-on guard John Hart has averaged 17.5 minutes in four games (all wins) since his surprising star turn in the win at Illinois. And yes, his name was correctly listed in the score book each time.

• Anyone else out there noticing that Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez is the best player in the ACC?

• Maybe Mike Brey should make his Notre Dame players practice at 8 every morning. Since he did that following the Irish's loss at Rutgers, they beat Cincinnati and South Florida at home to get a game over .500 in the Big East. Though I must say it's hard to watch this team play without thinking about how much better it would be if Scott Martin didn't get hurt.

• It would be great to see Vermont make the NCAA tournament if only to give Marqus Blakely a chance to show off his dunking abilities for a national audience. Check him out on YouTube if you haven't already.

• Marshall freshman center Hassan Whiteside is a promising prospect, but he still has a looooong way to go. Whiteside was badly outplayed in his big battle against Tulsa's Jerome Jordan last week, grabbing one lone rebound (and scoring 10 points) to Jordan's 24 points and 12 rebounds.

• I keep hearing TV announcers referring to a team running a "three-guard offense" as if it's something worth mentioning. Does anyone have a two-guard offense anymore? The days of a lineup that reads guard-guard-forward-forward-center are long gone.

(Last week's rankings on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Kansas (1) 2. Kentucky (2) 3. Syracuse (4) 4. Georgetown (6) 5. Michigan State (5) 6. Villanova (3) 7. Kansas State (7) 8. Purdue (14) 9. Wisconsin (13) 10. West Virginia (10) 11. Duke (8) 12. Ohio State (11) 13. Tennessee (9) 14. Gonzaga (12) 15. Vanderbilt (15) 16. Baylor (16) 17. New Mexico (18) 18. Georgia Tech (20) 19. BYU (21) 20. UNLV (NR) 21. Butler (23) 22. Cornell (25) 23. Texas (17) 24. South Florida (NR) 25. Northern Iowa (NR)

Dropped off my ballot: Siena (19), Pittsburgh (22), Xavier (24)

Skinny: This was a week to tinker at the margins, not make wholesale changes. Georgetown was not easy to rank, but I decided to let myself be more influenced by the Hoyas' rout of Villanova than their loss to South Florida. My respect for Georgetown prompted me to enter the Bulls on to my ballot for the first time this season. Otherwise, I decided not to punish Michigan State for its two losses. Both came on the road, and the Spartans aren't the same team without Kalin Lucas.

I took a closer look at Purdue this week because I have been ranking them several spots lower than my fellow pollsters. Upon closer inspection, the other voters knew better (for once). The Boilermakers have won five straight since that three-game losing streak, but the best win came at home by three points over Wisconsin, and they certainly didn't look like world-beaters at Indiana. Still, there really is no good reason to rank Purdue behind Tennessee, which the Boilers beat on a neutral court, or West Virginia, which Purdue blitzed by 15 points on New Year's Day. The benefactor of Purdue's mini-bump was Wisconsin, which beat Ohio State at home and Northwestern on the road (Purdue lost both those games) and split with Purdue home-and-home. I love those stinkin' Badgers.

I've got a lot of mid-major love in the bottom half of my ballot, though you'll notice that I don't have a single team from the Atlantic 10 in my top 25. (That league is having a good season, but this talk about them getting six teams into the tournament is a little overboard.) I could have had another mid-major team in there in Siena, but I couldn't come up with a good reason to keep ranking the Saints ahead of Northern Iowa, considering they lost at UNI by 17 points in December.

I usually don't like to punish a team for losing on the road to a better squad, but Pitt's 19-point thrashing at West Virginia was so decisive that I figured it was time to drop the Panthers, who have lost four of their last six, and give someone else a chance. The list of teams I also considered includes Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Ole Miss, UAB, Dayton, Temple and Richmond. Frankly it's hard to get excited about any of them right now.

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