No. 9 Georgetown, led by Big East player of the Year candidate Austin Freeman, heads into tonight's key matchup at No. 13 Connecticut as one of the hottest teams in the nation. After a 1-4 start in the Big East, they've won eight straight games, five of which have come against probable NCAA Tournament teams. They've won at Villanova and Syracuse, held off Louisville and Marquette and routed St. John's, all after looking like an NIT team in early January.
Naturally, as we head into the team's latest showdown, everyone is trying to figure out an explanation for the team's success. Jason Reid, the Washington Post's newest general sports columnist, suggests something simple: the Hoyas are defending better. He used quotes straight from the source -- coach John Thompson III -- to support (or provide, whichever you want) his opinion.
Whether closing out Missouri during an overtime victory in November or pulling away from Memphis in the second half in December, Georgetown led with its defense.
That's what the Hoyas had to rediscover. That's what Thompson had to get through to them during those seven days spent only practicing in January, or it could have all fallen apart as it did two seasons ago.
Reid notes that teams are shooting 41 percent from the field during this eight-game swing. So yes, they are playing better defense. If you want to break it down further, the Hoyas are allowing teams to shoot 38.6 percent in the six most recent wins (since they should have beaten Rutgers and Seton Hall regardless).
But in falling for coachspeak and a bucket full of cliches, Reid has missed far bigger reasons for Georgetown's resurgence. It's important to note that Georgetown's defense was not horrendous during their four Big East losses in early January. They held teams to just 41.2 percent shooting from the field in those games, after all. Sure, the three-point percentage wasn't great (37 percent) and they were fouling a bit much, but it's not like the Hoyas were ushering opponents right to the rim.
No, the bigger problem was offense. In the Hoyas' four losses in January, they shot 43.5 percent from the field and hit an abysmal 23.6 percent from three. They also didn't get to the line much, shooting just 13 attempts a game in the four losses. Those are three of the four factors of the game (with turnovers being the fourth), and Georgetown was doing a horrendous job at them. The defense was average, but the offense was simply dreadful.
Now? Georgetown's offense is back to its normally efficient ways. During the eight-game winning streak, the Hoyas are shooting 47.8 percent from the floor and 37.8 percent from three-point range. For the season, the Hoyas are 11th in the league in offensive efficiency and 40th in defensive efficiency (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for the competition). As usual, because of the team's slow pace, everyone thinks the Hoyas are doing it with defense, when really, they do it with offense. When the offense is off, the team is off.
So what is the primary cause of the offensive improvement? The simple answer is that Freeman is a completely different player recently. Reid makes a passing mention of this in his column, but it's impossible to underscore just how much better Freeman has been. The Hoyas' four January losses coincided with Freeman's worst shooting stretch of the season. During those four games, Freeman shot just 40 percent from the field, 30 percent from three-point range and scored just 12.5 points per game. When Freeman is doing that poorly, the Hoyas have no shot. They have talent besides Freeman, but they need their horse.
The horse has come around recently, in a big way. In the Hoyas' eight-game winning streak, Freeman has been his normal self, scoring 20.5 points per game on 50.4-percent shooting. He had 30 in the win over Villanova, 28 in the comeback win over Seton Hall and 23 in the tight win over Providence. His return to prominence is far more important than a marginal improvement defensively.
Beyond that, there's one more factor that's being massively overlooked here. Reid paints Thompson as a coach who stuck to his guns and didn't go for any massive changes, but in reality, Thompson made a lineup switch that's made a huge difference. Prior to the game against St. John's, Thompson elected to start freshman forward Nate Lubick at power forward and sit sophomore Hollis Thompson. The Hoyas haven't lost since, winning games against teams that should have beaten them.
Starting Lubick brought some much-needed balance to the first five and energized the second unit. Lubick's statistics are not as impressive as Hollis Thompson's, but he's the classic little things player. He knows his limitations, rotates the ball crisply and helps on the glass. All the while, he helps clarify the pecking order to start games. Now, Freeman, and Freeman alone, is the man the team looks to get off in its Princeton offense. Meanwhile, Hollis Thompson has become a nice anchor for the second unit, where he can shoot more often after Freeman is in rhythm. The switch provided a low-usage player to surround the higher-usage guards (Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark), which makes the Princeton flow more easily.
So in reality, it's not the defense that's fueled the Hoyas' recent run. It's tempting to suggest this, because it's Georgetown, but it's incomplete. The reality is that the Hoyas' success is due to their offense is back to its typical self, thanks to a resurgent superstar and a little lineup change from the coach who supposedly stuck to his guns.