A Good Run, But Plenty Still To Learn

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports -

AT­LANTA oth­ing is harder than achiev­ing a feat that ex­ceeds, even if only slightly, our own ex­pec­ta­tions. For an ath­lete, a ca­reer is a con­tin­ual process of im­prov­ing skills and adding ex­pe­ri­ence so that those pri­vately held, al­most se­cret ex­pec­ta­tions can rise dra­mat­i­cally over the years. But oc­ca­sion­ally, in an ironic and bit­ter pun­ish­ment for over­achieve­ment, a de­serv­ing team finds it­self on a stage one level be­yond its own imag­in­ings. Then, a pre­dictable but painful fate awaits them.

Call it a slight case of stage fright, just enough to be fa­tal. Call it death by dozens of tiny big-game pres­sure nicks and cuts. But the next day an aw­ful hang­over ar­rives. That’s when a team, like the Ge­orge­town Hoyas af­ter their 67-60 loss here to No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the NCAA semi­fi­nals, re­al­izes that, if it had played as it usu­ally does, it would prob­a­bly be ap­pear­ing in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game on Mon­day night.

A sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence be­fell Mary­land six years ago, also in the

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semi­fi­nals. The Ter­rap­ins built a 22-point first-half lead over Duke. The Ter­rap­ins were about to be in the cham­pi­onship fight. And they just weren’t ready. Hair was pulled over a cou­ple of mean­ing­less foul calls, mo­men­tum was lost, then a huge lead was blown. And Mary­land went home. One year later, with es­sen­tially the same team and coach, but a dif­fer­ent state of mind, an el­e­vated set of ex­pec­ta­tions and higher self-im­posed de­mands, Mary­land re­turned with the im­pe­ri­ous poise of cham­pi­ons and claimed a ti­tle.

For those who were court­side then and now, the feel­ing was eerily sim­i­lar, even if the de­tails were very dif­fer­ent. Mary­land found a huge op­por­tu­nity sit­ting squarely be­fore it be­cause of its own fine play. On this Satur­day night, Ge­orge­town found the door to sud­den and un­ex­pected great­ness thrown open be­fore it af­ter less than three min­utes of play. Ohio State’s 7-foot all-Amer­i­can cen­ter Greg Oden got his sec­ond foul and had to sit out the last 17 min­utes of the first half. As if that weren’t enough, eight min­utes into the sec­ond half Oden picked up his third foul and headed back to the prison of the pine again. What a gift.

If Oden had played all night, maybe GU would have lost any­way. Af­ter all, Oden had 13 points and nine re­bounds. But he didn’t play all night. In most of the night’s de­ci­sive junc­tures he was barely around. The 19-year-old only played 20 min­utes. That’s what will hurt. Ohio State may be ranked No. 1, but they played with only half a bat­tle­ship.

The Hoyas sim­ply didn’t take ad­van­tage. Why? Per­haps it was be­cause, like so many other teams be­fore them, they weren’t quite ready. In some part of their bas­ket­ball per­son­al­ity, they weren’t fully formed, just as Mary­land still had to grow from con­tenders in ’01 to cham­pi­ons in ’02. Re­mem­ber, just three years ago, when Coach John Thompson III ar­rived, the Hoyas were a los­ing team and a Big East tail-en­der. Last sea­son, they cel­e­brated might­ily af­ter reach­ing the Sweet 16.

And last week, J.T. III cut down the nets af­ter reach­ing the Fi­nal Four. Cut down the nets. That’s usu­ally what you do af­ter you’ve got­ten what you re­ally wanted. So, you sa­vor the ex­pe­ri­ence. But you also tip off your sense of your own lim­i­ta­tions.

“The last month ev­ery­thing has hap­pened so fast. It’s just been one big plea­sure af­ter an­other,” said John Thompson Jr., who built the Hoyas champs of ’84. “First, they won the [Big East], which wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pected. Then they won the tour­na­ment. Then they reach the Fi­nal Four. It’s been like a fan­tasy wheel for me.”

“I’m ex­tremely proud of this team, even though we are all very dis­ap­pointed at tonight’s per­for­mance,” said JT III. “There are al­ways a mil­lion things you wish you could go back and pick apart. But we com­peted. We fought and scrapped when we were be­hind. And we lost to a very, very good team.”

That’s all true. But when the Hoyas pick apart the films, con­sult their mem­o­ries and let their hair down among them­selves, they may also see that they’re not quite ready yet. For ex­am­ple, Jeff Green, the Big East Player of the Year, only took five shots, which stunned some OSU play­ers. “We were pretty pleased with the way he played that game,” said Ohio State’s lead­ing scorer, Mike Con­ley Jr., who had 15 points. “He could have taken over the game any time he wanted.”

But he didn’t. “I didn’t want to force shots,” said Green. Or maybe he just wasn’t ready to take charge as he did against Van­der­bilt to stave off de­feat and reach the Elite Eight — where the Hoyas ab­so­lutely be­lieved they be­longed.

Even Coach Thompson may not have been quite ready to feel the flow of the game and re­al­ize that, since Green didn’t score un­til just 3:10 was left in the half, that per­haps he needed to de­mand that his star take charge. But he didn’t.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Yes,’ now. That’s an easy ‘Yes,’ ” said Thompson III when asked if he’d have pre­ferred Green to take more than five shots. “We put the ball in Jeff Green’s hands and he de­cided not to shoot. We live and die with his abil­ity to make de­ci­sions. I trust his in­stincts.”

Per­haps he shouldn’t have trusted them. Not in his team’s first Fi­nal Four. As a coach, maybe he should have mon­i­tored, and tried to in­flu­ence, his play­ers’ in­stincts — whether it was 7-foot-2 cen­ter Roy Hib­bert’s overly ex­cited fouls or Green’s ret­i­cence.

Fi­nally, Ge­orge­town’s only fresh­man starter, DaJuan Sum­mers, shot 1 for 10. The last time GU lost, to Syra­cuse in Fe­bru­ary, Sum­mers also shot 1 for 10. Since then, he’s been su­pe­rior. But, in a Fi­nal Four, he may also not be quite ready yet.

And even Hib­bert, who scored 19 points and got his fa­vorite shots at will in the brief min­utes he played against Oden, man­aged to get him­self into com­pletely need­less foul trou­ble of his own, lim­it­ing him­self to 24 min­utes.

“I have to make smarter de­ci­sions out there,” said Hib­bert, who got his first over-ea­ger foul 18 sec­onds — yes, 18 sec­onds — into the game. That’s be­ing over-amped, over-the-moon. And that’s a form of stage fright. “I need to be an all-around bet­ter player when it comes to know­ing when to foul and when not to.” Or, of course, maybe he wasn’t quite ready yet.

This was not a case of Ge­orge­town fail­ure so much as an in­abil­ity to muster the same form that had led them to 19 wins in their pre­vi­ous 20 games. Al­most ev­ery player, ex­cept per­haps ju­nior guard Jonathan Wal­lace, who had 19 points and only two turnovers, came up just slightly, but in­fu­ri­at­ing shy.

In 2001, when Juan Dixon and Lonny Bax­ter lost a game they prob­a­bly should have won in the NCAA semi­fi­nals, both were ju­niors. They de­cided to re­turn and try again. The re­sult will make them celebri­ties and hon­ored guests at Mary­land for the rest of their lives. How­ever, nei­ther was a big man with an NBA skill set. Nei­ther passed up big bucks to stay a Terp.

Green and Hib­bert are dif­fer­ent. Be­fore this game, ev­ery scout was sure Green had an NBA fu­ture. And af­ter watch­ing Hib­bert’s 9-for-13 per­for­mance — “he got pretty much what­ever shots he wanted [against Oden],” said Thompson — there seems lit­tle doubt where Hib­bert can ply his trade in the fu­ture ei­ther.

If they re­turn, which would im­prove both their games, then next sea­son this same sub­lime nut­ti­ness may re­turn and, once more, the Hoyas may be part of it. But they call this clam­bake “March mad­ness” for a rea­son — one the Hoyas may now grasp. Some­times you have to ex­pe­ri­ence it once, and be its vic­tim, be­fore you can re­turn, keep your san­ity and claim the prize.

BY JONATHAN NEW­TON — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ge­orge­town’s Jeff Green, the Big East player of the year, never seemed to come to grips with play­ing in the Fi­nal Four — he took just five shots.

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