The sky is not falling, and the Georgetown Hoyas aren't nearly as bad as Syracuse made them look on Monday night.
After opening the game with a blistering 14-0 run (including three three-pointers by Austin Freeman and another triple from Jason Clark), the Syracuse zone clamped down on the Hoyas and ground the G'town offense to a halt.
'Cuse outscored the Hoyas by 31 points after Georgetown's opening salvo, dominating them offensively and defensively en route to a 73-56 win.
Syracuse proved one thing: they're for real. Wes Johnson is dirty. Their zone is dirtier. And to see them in the Final Four wouldn't be the least bit surprising.
But while a 17-point loss rightfully raises some red flags for the Hoyas, all is not lost for this young Georgetown team.
First, it's worth noting that historically, John Thompson III's Hoyas haven't fared too well on the road in Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The rare exception ironically came last season, when the 16-15 Hoyas pushed the Orange to overtime before falling 98-94. (The Final Four-bound Hoyas lost 72-58 to the Orange on the road in 06-07; the 07-08 Big East regular season champs lost 77-70 after a three-point barrage by the Hoyas' Jonathan Wallace narrowed the lead in the final minute.)
History aside, all sports teams are allowed one-game "blips", where some outside factor affects their performance on-court. As crazy as Pitt's Peterson Center may be, this year's Hoyas hadn't been in an environment like the Carrier Dome yet, and the youngest Hoyas seemed to be the most rattled in-game.
While it's not time to jump ship yet, the 'Cuse game did highlight three issues for the Hoyas to monitor going forward. If they can address these questions, the sky's the limit for this year's team. (ESPN seems to agree. Even after Monday night's loss, ESPN's Pat Forde lists Georgetown as "One of 10 Who Can Win It All.")
To me, this is the biggest issue going forward for this team if they've got their sights set high this season.
How will the Hoyas respond to pressure situations? And how do they deal with opposing teams pressuring them on the court?
In the Hoyas' offensive lulls this year (at Syracuse, the last ten minutes of the first half against Villanova and UConn), one thing has remained constant: the other team has cranked up the pressure and the Hoyas have been left flailing.
Against 'Nova and UConn, the Hoyas started out running their offense, but fizzled out in the latter portion of the first half. In both games, the Hoyas came back to tie the game in the second half (and they went on to beat UConn, thanks to Austin Freeman's 28 second-half points)...but they can't be expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat and make a 15-point deficit disappear every game.
The 'Cuse game appears to be a condensed version of the plot of the UConn/Nova games, but with the Hoya comeback about as M.I.A. as Chris Wright's three-point shooting was on Monday night. Hoyas come out running offense efficiently (apparently too efficiently), other team turns up pressure, Hoyas wilt. (Thank you, Greg Monroe's six turnovers.)
Problem is...the further these Hoyas get in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, the higher the likelihood that they run into a high-pressure defense. Syracuse could very well be in the Final Four, John Calipari's Kentucky squad has adapted Cal's always-pestering defense, and Tom Izzo's defensively scrappy Michigan State could be a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 opponent in waiting.
Getting these young Hoyas up to speed on pressure situations that require veteran nerves is a must for JTIII and the rest of the Georgetown coaching staff.
Lack of Bench Scoring
As of last week, Georgetown had the third lowest-scoring bench in Division I, getting only 7.6 points per game from non-starters.
The bench stepped up with an encouraging 16 points against Rutgers...but it may have been fool's gold, as the Hoyas were in the midst of a 25-point blowout in which bench players collectively played 62 minutes.
Why was the Rutgers' game fool's gold? Because the Hoya bench got shut out against Syracuse. That's right. A bagel in the box score. Zero points from non-starters.
I don't care if "bench scoring is an overrated statistic"...the Hoyas need something from their reserves. Monroe, Wright, and Freeman may be great players, but if the San Antonio Spurs taught us anything this past decade, it's that even three great players need solid role playing teammates.
And I'm not here to discount the production that JTIII's harvesting out of Jerrelle Benimon, the 6-foot-7 freshman who may already be the best rebounder JTIII has coached at Georgetown. (If not best, definitely toughest.)
But the fact is, teams like Kentucky, who will likely be dancing in the NCAA's until the very last weekend, have NBA lottery picks on their bench. (See: Eric Bledsoe.) While a guy like Bledsoe is all but capable of shooting the Wildcats out of a game (see: Tuesday night against South Carolina), he's also capable of picking up the slack if future No.1 pick John Wall isn't playing up to snuff.
The Hoyas must start getting more production out of their bench; and I'm looking at you, Hollis Thompson, first and foremost. (Thompson, a freshman, enrolled at Georgetown this past spring, which gave him a six-month jump-start on learning the Hoyas' complicated Princeton offense.)
And one huge reason why the Hoyas need this depth, as proved this past Monday...
Greg Monroe's Foul Trouble
In 10 non-conference games this season, Greg Monroe never exceeded three fouls in a single game.
In nine Big East games this season, Monroe has only had two games with less than three fouls (two against St. John's, one against Rutgers).
While Monroe's getting great practice with the Rasheed Wallace/Allen Iverson incredulous "What foul, ref??" face, his foul trouble certainly isn't helping the depth-less Hoyas win games.
Against Syracuse, Monroe fouled out with 6:24 left in the game, with the Orange up by 14 points. The Hoyas couldn't knock the deficit down any further for the rest of the game, and that was no coincidence with Monroe on the bench.
The fact is, JTIII's Princeton offense is built around having a big-man facilitator in the game to create matchup havoc. As much as I've grown to love him this year, Julian Vaughn is not that guy.
Monroe needs to stay in the game for the Hoyas to have a real chance to knock off some of the bigger names in college basketball this year. Much like Jeff Green was the cog that kept the Georgetown machine running to the Final Four three years ago, Monroe needs to serve as the glue that keeps the team together.
His 21/14/6 line against Rutgers evidences what he can do when he's allowed to go to work. (To imagine any Hoya putting up those kinds of numbers under Thompson two years ago would have been ludicrous.)
He just needs to make sure he stays in the game to show what he can do.