After a nearly eight-month offseason that bookended the program’s worst record in 43 years, the Georgetown men’s basketball team opens its season Saturday at home, where it will debut its new talent against the South Carolina Upstate Spartans.
Entering his 13th season coaching the Blue and Gray, Head Coach John Thompson III has a different mindset considering last season’s opening loss to the Radford Highlanders at the Big South conference.
“It’s not a question of, ‘Oh, remember last year how we started off? Let’s not do it again.’ We have a different group,” Thompson said, referring to the team’s unexpected loss in the season opener last year. “We’re in Upstate mode right now. That’s not just coach speak. The team, they know. And Upstate, they’re a veteran team. They have a local kid coming home. What they have is a presence inside.”
The Spartan force in the paint that Thompson and the Hoyas face Saturday is a one-two punch that Upstate Head Coach Eddie Payne uses to wear down opponents’ interior defenses.
“Seven-foot kid, big strong kid, can score over both hands. He draws so much attention,” Thompson said in reference to senior center Michael Buchanan, the team’s leader and primary offensive threat. “You can’t move him. You watch him, he can really score.”
Buchanan averaged 11.6 points per game on an efficient 57.1 percent shooting last season while pulling down six rebounds per game. His frontcourt partner, who Payne employs when Buchanan subs out, is sophomore center Phillip Whittington.
“I don’t want to say the exact opposite, but he’s a 6-foot-9 pogo stick,” Thompson said of Whittington’s presence and athletic ability alongside Buchanan. “Those two are offensively a presence inside you have to pay attention to.”
The Hoyas look to counter the Spartans’ post players with their renewed commitment to stopping opposing offenses, a much-needed improvement over last year’s 80th-ranked defense.
“There are a whole lot of nuances,” Thompson said with regard to the team’s bolstered defense. “If you have the communication and you have the effort, that covers for everything else. And then you get into whatever tactics, whatever schemes you have. But our communication has been a little bit better.”
In addition to becoming more schematically and technically sound, the Hoyas have refocused their mentality on this one game. Exactly like last season, the opener directly precedes a matchup against crosstown rival Maryland, ranked No. 25 in this year’s Preseason AP Poll and ranked No. 3 at this time last year.
With a nationally televised, local rivalry game following a home matchup against a small conference school, the team looked past Radford last season and was blindsided by the buzzer-beating, double-overtime loss.
This year, however, junior Isaac Copeland stresses that the entire team has bought into a game-by-game mentality.
“Obviously, you can’t take any team for granted seeing last year’s game,” Copeland said with regard to the Radford game. “We just learn to attack every game like it’s the Dukes and North Carolinas of the country.”
In focusing on treating every team as if it were a marquee matchup, the Hoyas are anticipating the energy that mid-major schools often bring in games against power conference programs.
“I know for myself, being the leader at Robert Morris, when we were going into those games, we wanted to go out and compete,” graduate student and transfer guard Rodney Pryor said of the big-game mentality he had for his four years as a Colonial. “Now being at Georgetown and being a bigger team, we want to go out and outdo their energy. Sometimes when you play mid-majors, your energy isn’t as high as it needs to be, so you’re making errors that you normally wouldn’t make.”
The Hoyas look to start this season with a statement win in front of a home crowd that saw an unexpected decline in average attendance from 2014-15’s NCAA Tournament season. Moreover, Thompson plans to unveil a more spread-out scoring distribution in light of the departure of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (COL ’16).
“In many ways, we were predictable,” Thompson said in reference to the team with Smith-Rivera position as its primary scorer. “I don’t think we are going to be predictable this year.”
The road to an NCAA Tournament bid and Big East title begins this Saturday at the Verizon Center. Tipoff is set for 12 p.m., and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 2.
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