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Redshirt freshman Nikita Mescheriakov

Growing up in Belarus, redshirt freshman forward Nikita Mescheriakov knew very little about Georgetown. He knew it was situated across town from George Washington University, where his brother suited up for the Colonials, but beyond that, his knowledge of American college basketball was limited to the Atlantic 10.

Once he arrived in the United States prior to the 2006-07 season to play for St. John’s Catholic Prep in Frederick, Md., and he started seeing Head Coach John Thompson III at his high school games, that quickly changed.

Indeed, out of all the members of this year’s Hoyas squad, Mescheriakov’s story is perhaps most unlikely. Less than three years after first moving to this country, he has emerged as a starter for a Georgetown team (15-12, 6-10 Big East) that just might play its way into the NCAA tournament down the stretch. The Hoyas return to action tonight at 7:30 p.m. on the road against St. John’s (14-15, 5-11).

Following in the footsteps of his brother Yegor, who played at The George Washington University from 1995 to 1999, Mescheriakov arrived in the States prior to the 2006-07 season, eager for a year of seasoning and an opportunity to catch the attention of college coaches.

He arrived with just two years of English-language instruction.

escheriakov was solid for St. John’s, where he averaged 14 points and four rebounds. Before long, he started to see Thompson in the stands.

What did Thompson see in Mescheriakov, who was hardly a known commodity at the time?

“What he’s doing now,” Thompson said yesterday. “He plays hard, he played hard then. He puts the ball in the basket, which he hasn’t done as well this year as he will. He is a much better shooter than he’s shown this year. I think that just comes with his comfort level. I think that he sees the open man. He can make passes.”

Upon arriving on the Hilltop, Mescheriakov quickly had teammates raving about his jump shot. Before the 2007-08 season, Jessie Sapp called Mescheriakov’s outside stroke “automatic.”

But after heading westward, things went south for Mescheriakov before his freshman season could even begin. The NCAA ruled Mescheriakov ineligible for 10 games because of a brief, unpaid stint with a professional team back in Europe.

Though he became eligible at the end of December, Mescheriakov ended up sitting out the rest of the year, working in practice to become more prepared for the physical nature of the Big East and to improve his confidence.

escheriakov entered his sophomore season seemingly without a role, taking the court against some of Georgetown’s weaker opponents but riding the pine against Tennessee, UConn and Pittsburgh, among others.

“Its always difficult to sit on the bench,” Mescheriakov said yesterday. “I just wasn’t ready at that time, just mentally wasn’t ready. As soon as I got mentally ready I showed it to coach and he said alright, I can play.”

That opportunity came against Syracuse on Jan. 14, with the Hoyas leading by three with 9:16 left in the first half.

escheriakov capitalized immediately, drilling three-pointers on consecutive possessions. His two big buckets helped to start a 14-0 run, as Georgetown ran away to an 88-74 victory.

“Nikita comes in and he’s been a little bit of a deer in the headlights and all of a sudden – he’s been shooting the ball really well, he had a couple of good practices – so I said let’s just throw him in there, and he bangs two shots in a row,” Thompson said after the game.

escheriakov sat out the next game at Duke and then played sparingly against West Virginia and Seton Hall. But then on Jan. 28 at Cincinnati he logged 25 energetic minutes, starting a string of six straight games in which he played at least 20 minutes.

And then on Feb. 14, a month after his breakout performance, once again against Syracuse, Mescheriakov replaced Sapp in the starting five.

“He gives us a little more length out there, and with the first unit it gives us a chance to get Austin [Freeman] in the backcourt at the start,” Thompson said the next weekend. “And he, Nikita, worked his way up because he plays hard, because he makes the hustle plays, because he gives you 100 percent every night. If there is a ball on the floor, I know he’s going to be one of the ones to get down there. He has his limitations, but he’s throwing his body in there and if he keeps doing that he can play for this team.”

escheriakov had his best game of the season this past Saturday at Villanova. He scored 11 points on two three-point plays, a two-point jumper and a second-half three-pointer that extended Georgetown’s lead to eight.

While shooting may be Mescheriakov’s greatest natural talent, it has been, as Thompson said, the sophomore’s nose for the ball that has earned him time on the court. For a team that has at times seemed slow to every rebound and lackadaisical in pursuit of each loose ball, Mescheriakov has been a pleasant exception. As clumsy as he sometimes appears, he is almost always in the vicinity of the basketball.

“Nikita brings a lot of energy and he’s very aggressive on both ends of the floor,” sophomore guard Chris Wright said.

Of course, Mescheriakov’s hustle does not always translate into results. In 71 minutes against Rutgers, Cincinnati and Syracuse, he collected a total of two rebounds. Then after five against lowly South Florida, he failed to grab a single board against either Marquette or Louisville.

And defensively, while Mescheriakov’s effort is beyond reproach, his aggressiveness and average foot speed often translate into foul trouble. He has had three or more fouls in each of the 10 games in which he has played 11 or more minutes, fouling out three times.

“His foul trouble is a non-issue,” Thompson said. “He plays extremely hard. When you play hard, aggressive defense, you pick up fouls and I wish a few other people got in foul trouble more often, to tell you the truth. But that is not a negative. He has been extremely aggressive and his aggressiveness has paid off dividends for us.”

escheriakov and his teammates agree: He will only improve as he grows more comfortable in the rugged Big East. Indeed, it is not ability, or lack thereof, that has made his first season uneven, it is confidence that can make all the difference.

“I guess it’s more about getting better mentally,” he said. “Like, I’m improving my skills, but it’s more about improving mentally, continuing to get better there.”

Said Wright: “He is a very good shooter. I think that’s one thing that hasn’t really shown yet. Once he gets more comfortable and he’s into a little rhythm, he’ll probably be knocking down more shots and be more adept to just knowing the ins and outs of the conference and where you can attack. It’s a growing process and he’s just starting out there in the starting role and once he gets more comfortable, he’ll really produce.”

escheriakov has another chance to show it tonight against the Red Storm. Georgetown must win to remain in the NCAA tournament at-large berth conversation. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.

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