There are all sorts of reasons why the 2011-12 Georgetown Hoyas could be a special team. Look around the nation, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that has put together as impressive a start as they have. Georgetown already boasts one win over a top 10 Memphis team on a neutral court, and on Thursday, thanks to Hollis Thompson's heroics, they now boast a road win against Alabama, one of the strongest home-court teams in the country.
So why am I still harboring a degree of concern? Let's be honest: the Hoyas have been here before.
In 2008-09, the Hoyas raced out to a 10-1 start, including wins over a Tyreke Evans-led Memphis squad that won 33 games and a Connecticut squad that made the Final Four. They finished 5-15 down the stretch, 7-11 in the Big East and missed the NCAA Tournament. In 2009-10, they started 11-1, including wins over a Butler team that made the NCAA title game and a Sweet 16 Washington squad. They finished 10-8 in the Big East and got blown out by Ohio in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Hoyas started 11-1, including a win over Missouri in Kansas City and a blowout win over Memphis on the road. They then lost four of five in the Big East, won several in a row, then dropped their last five in a row in losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
That's a three-year trend of fast starts, followed by mediocre finishes in the Big East and early exists in postseason play. That's a trend that scares me.
Why does this seem to always happen with the Hoyas? My theory is pretty simple. In non-conference play, teams struggle with the Hoyas' unique offensive system. No other power-conference team runs the Princeton offense quite like the Hoyas. Each player on the team has different tendencies than most opponents of the Alabamas, Missouris and Memphises of the world have. With little time to prepare and less instinctual memory of playing those unique tendencies, non-conference squads allow the Hoyas' offense to hum and struggle to attack Georgetown's defense.
When conference play rolls around, though, all that changes. Players like Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh has played against the Hoyas for four years. Coaches like Jim Calhoun have schemed against Georgetown for even longer. The Hoyas' players are different, but the system is the same. When it's working, it can look unstoppable. But when it's not, which happens a lot against teams that have experience playing against it, everything grinds to a halt because John Thompson III is so married to it. It's both a blessing and a curse.
It's also the fundamental problem the Hoyas always need to answer. On the one hand, the ability to plug interchangeable parts into the idiosyncratic style is why the Hoyas under Thompson almost never have disappointing seasons (with 2008-09 being the obvious exception). Roy Hibbert turns into Greg Monroe, who turns into Henry Sims. Jonathan Wallace turns into Chris Wright, who turns into Markel Starks. Austin Freeman turns into Jason Clark. The players change, but the roles stay the same, so the Hoyas keep succeeding on the aggregate. On the other hand, once a team solves the mystery of "the system," there's only so much the Hoyas can do to adjust. And when one of the parts gets injured, like Wright last season? Forget about it.
How can this year's Hoyas team overcome this fundamental problem when others haven't? If it happens, it'll be powered by their defense. The Hoyas stifled Alabama thanks to a devastating zone defense that features more length than they've ever had in the past. Freshmen Otto Porter and Greg Whittington in particular have added a new defensive dimension, and Thompson has done a great job taking advantage of these new tools. If Georgetown's defense can keep this up, they'll be a force all season.
But even so, questions remain. Can Clark be this prolific against defenders who know how much he loves stepping behind screens and shooting threes? Can the Hoyas really complete as many backdoor cuts for layups as they did against Alabama? Will teams finally realize that you can trap the ball-handler using the man guarding Nate Lubick, because Lubick won't hurt you offensively? Can Starks experience more success this year in the conference after struggling so much last season? These are all things that concern me as the Hoyas inch closer to conference play.
As fans and observers, we can find reasons to believe why this year's Hoyas squad should be different than the ones of the past. The bottom line, though, is that the Hoyas have to prove it on the court. Until they do, I'm always going to have a degree of skepticism for all the good things that happen with the Hoyas in December.
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