Things were going swimmingly in the Georgetown locker room following a convincing win over West Virginia in the Big East semifinals. Tyler Crawford shared a laugh with John Thompson Jr. while Jon Wallace munched on some postgame peanut butter crackers. Patrick Ewing hummed an off-pitched modal melody as he watched Pittsburgh and Marquette go at it on the big screen. Then stumbled in Chris Wright, shattering the feel-good mood with an awkward skip across the carpet and a grimace on his face.

Everyone stopped and stared at the Hoyas’ freshman guard, who stood in the middle of the room, swearing under his breath in his underwear. It was Ewing who finally broke the silence.

“What happened?” Ewing asked. “Stub your toe?”

Only after Wright stamped back to his locker, scowl replaced by embarrassed smile, did harmony – and Ewing’s lack thereof – return to the room.

Given how Wright’s presence can alter the tempo of a basketball game – and how keenly his 18-game absence was felt – it’s easy to see why the sound of Wright yelping with pain caused everyone in the locker room to wince and worry. Simply put, Georgetown’s chances of a second consecutive Final Four are greatly enhanced by a healthy number four.

Wright, who returned to the lineup from an ankle injury on March 8 against Louisville but did not enter that contest, played sparingly in the Big East tournament, contributing six points, six assists and five rebounds in three games. While his stats were far from earth-shattering, his quickness and court vision helped open up the Hoyas’ attack for back-to-back 70 point outbursts, a rarity for John Thompson III’s patient Princeton offense.

“It was good to see Chris running around out there a little bit,” Thompson III said following an 82-63 quarterfinals win over Villanova. “It’s been a while since he’s been healthy. He’s been a big injury for us this year. We have missed him.”

With Wright finally cured of his mysterious “foot symptoms,” Thompson now has a remedy for what ails his team: a superb ball handler with jackrabbit quickness and lucid court vision, who can slither through a full-court press. Wallace may be the quintessential floor leader, Jessie Sapp the ultimate riverboat gambler of a guard, and Jeremiah Rivers the rottweiler of the Georgetown defense, but none of them possess the 6-foot-1, 205 pound Wright’s rare blend of quickness, vision and smarts.

“He can pass, he can shoot, he can take it to the rim, whatever his team needs,” says Villanova point guard Scottie Reynolds, who played alongside Wright on the Boo Williams AAU Summer League team in high school. “Anytime you have someone who can break the press and get it back up court, that’s a good combo weapon right there.”

But due to his injury woes, Wright has not enjoyed the same success as his classmate, fellow McDonalds all-American and D.C.-area native Austin Freeman, who has become a staple member of the starting five. Despite seeing his high school nemesis – Freeman’s DeMatha Catholic Stags defeated Wright’s St. John’s College Cadets for three consecutive WCAC titles – grab the spotlight once again, Wright says he has enjoyed schooling Freeman in NBA 2K8 (the two share a room in Copley) and being part of the team, even if it meant cheering from the sidelines.

“I love our team and our camaraderie,” says Wright, who claims he’s so happy on campus that he rarely travels home despite the relative proximity. “Everyone is down with each other. And we all want to win. We all want to be the best.”

Since his foot has been partially healed for weeks, Wright could have returned earlier in the year. Hard as it was, Wright listened to those closest to him – coaches, teammates and trainers – who advised him to delay his return until he was fully healthy. During his long sit, Wright’s teammates voiced their support.

“I told him, “I’ll hold ’em down till you get better, then we’ll hold ’em down together,” says backcourt mate Sapp. “I had his back the whole time.”

“It was obviously frustrating – I’m a competitor and I want to play,” says Wright, who also credits his parents for helping him through his long sit. “There’s no point in killing myself my freshman year and damaging my whole career.”

As the season wore on, Sapp was shocked at the things Wright saw on the floor – strengths and weaknesses seemingly invisible to every one else. After a while, the battle-tested junior was consulting the raw freshman during timeouts and in practice.

“I really listen to Chris,” says Sapp, who questions Wright about everything from shot selection to defensive tactics. “Even though I’m older and have more experience at the college level, I take from him ’cause he’s been playing longer and he really knows what he’s been talking about. I bring it to the next game so I can be a better player.”

Sapp remembers the first time he saw Wright play in an AAU tournament game over four years ago. On a court crowded with future stars like Villanova forward Donte Cunningham and Duke guard Nolan Smith, Wright – then a high school freshman – stood above everyone else. Although Sapp did not know Wright’s name, he recognized his game. It reminded him of another cat-quick, sharp-shooting point guard: Allen Iverson.

“You see him do something and you’re like, `That’s something Iverson would do,'” says Sapp. “He watches Iverson’s every move, and I think that he could potentially have the kind of career that Iverson had.”

Sure enough, when asked to identify whom he models his game after, Wright answers with “The Answer” quicker than an A.I. crossover. After committing to Georgetown, Wright lobbied DaJuan Summers to relinquish Iverson’s jersey number three, but to no avail.

“I tried to get it, but it’s DaJuan’s until he leaves,” says Wright, who chose four in honor of his brother Orlando, a guard at Bowie State. “I ain’t going to pay nothing for it.”

Wright may admire the Georgetown legend and current Denver Nuggets star, but he is content to blaze his own trail. Wright carries himself with an air of confidence rare for a first-year player, and as evidenced in the technical foul he drew against West Virginia, he is not one to back down.

“Chris isn’t cocky but he’s not a punk either,” says Ewing who, as the Hoyas’ resident expert on technical fouls, was the first to console his spunky understudy after Wright’s tussle with the Mountaineers.

“He’s a natural leader,” says Sapp. “He believes he can play on this level and he’s willing to show everyone that he can do it.”

After a winter in waiting, Chris Wright is ready for his debut on college basketball’s grandest stage – and barring a stubbed toe – his timely entrance should ensure no untimely exits for his team this March.

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