Basketball around the Beltway: Hoyas on road to redemption

WASHINGTON — In his decade-plus guiding the Georgetown men’s basketball team, coach John Thompson III has seen plenty of highs — the 2007 Final Four, the 2013 regular season Big East title — and lows, like getting upset in the NCAA Tournament by the likes of Ohio and Florida Gulf Coast.

But nothing like last season’s winter of discontent: a 15-18 campaign marked by early-season losses to Radford and Monmouth and punctuated by a six-game losing streak to end the regular season. That the Hoyas more than held their own against eventual national champ Villanova for more than a half in the Big East Quarterfinals offered little consolation; the longest offseason since JT3 arrived on campus was underway.

How do you deal with (and bounce back from) the nightmare that was last winter?

“We’re not going to keep picking that scab,” Thompson said. “But we’re not going to forget about it and throw it away. It’s almost like a book sitting in the corner of my desk — it’s there and you can learn from it, but we’re not going to keep rehashing last year.”

While he wouldn’t specify which tweaks and changes to how his approach will change, there are two new members on Thompson’s coaching staff. Anthony Solomon comes over from Notre Dame, while Akbar Waheed joins the program after assisting at Hofstra.

One thing is unquestioned: the Hoyas are going to return to success by stopping teams.

“I think our defense really let us down last year as much as anything,” Thompson acknowledged. “And when we’ve had good teams we’ve been very good defensive teams. Last year we were not a good defensive team … and we fouled too much.”

Defensive denial this winter will begin with junior guard L.J. Peak who, despite not piling up steals on the stat sheet, remains the team’s best on-ball defender.

“L.J. stays in front of his man,” Thompson said. “It’s not glamorous defense … but his man doesn’t get by him and most of the time his man is going to take tough, contested shots.”

Last winter the Hoyas were in the middle of the Big East pack defensively (sixth in points allowed) and were vulnerable outside, ranking eighth at defending the three.

Turnover margin (ninth in a 10-team league) was also a concern, and while coach Thompson hopes to pick up the offensive pace this winter, he won’t do so just for pace’s sake. Junior Tre Campbell hopes to be a part of the turnaround in that category.

“I want to be more of a floor general … looking for my guys, not just looking for my shots,” the guard said.

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera’s graduation means the Hoyas’ offense will have a completely different look, as the guard led the team in scoring and assists last winter. Peak and fellow junior Isaac Copeland will be looked to finish more this season, while 6-foot-5 senior transfer Rodney Pryor (18 points and 8 rebounds per game at Robert Morris in 2015-16) will be a catalyst on both ends of the floor.

“He’s one of our leaders on the team even though he’s only been here a short amount of time,” sophomore center Jessie Govan said of Pryor. “He’s been through a lot of situations in college. He knows what it takes to win.”

Junior College transfer Jonathan Mulmore averaged 26 points per game at Alleghany last year and will also be in the mix.

The other major pickup by the Hoyas in the offseason was actually an internal one, as center Bradley Hayes was given a fifth year of eligibility. It was obvious down the stretch that Georgetown missed their big man (the team was 0-6 minus the 7-footer), and he’ll be a boost on and off the floor this year.

“BJ has a Big East championship,” Thompson said. “So he understands (what it takes to win). He’s someone that cares, also. Just having his voice (in the locker room) is big. Besides his size — I don’t think we’re going to play against too many people who are as big as he is. So that’s an asset that we have.”

Hayes blossomed last fall after playing just 134 minutes over his first three years on campus, scoring 8.7 points per game while leading the team in rebounding with 6.7 boards per contest.

The schedule features the usual Big East battles — defending National Champ Villanova begins this year in the top 5, while Xavier’s rated in the Top 10 of both polls and Butler also receives votes. Sprinkled in the mix are former league rivals UConn and Syracuse, while the Maui Classic will serve as an early barometer to how different these Hoyas will be from last year’s team. And then there’s that early-season showdown with Maryland. But one year removed from losing at home to Radford, don’t ignore opening foe USC Upstate.

“Every team we play is going to be good,” said Govan. “Every team has a chance to beat us … so we want to make sure we come out on our P’s and Q’s and not let up and have mental mistakes.”

The book on the desk that is the 2015-16 Georgetown men’s basketball season sits there to be read, but not over-obsessed about. As the Hoyas begin their road to redemption more than a few players on this team have used last year’s finish as fuel for their fire.

“As a team we want to prove everyone wrong,” said Hayes. “I want to prove everyone wrong and the fact that they think we’re a 15-18 team. That’s not Georgetown basketball at all. And we’re going to show them that.”

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