Ask yourself: How many people had Duke as a preseason national title favorite last year? Outside of Durham, N.C., close to zero. The Blue Devils were ranked 9th and 8th, respectively, in the preseason AP and ESPN/coaches polls. They were considered a dangerous team, but not on the level of Kansas and Kentucky.
Over the course of the schedule, however, the realization hit that Duke possessed most of the pieces you’d want for a national title run: Experienced guards, quality shooters, versatile forwards, solid defense, good coaching and NBA-caliber talent in the right spots. Throw in a healthy “Us against the world” mentality (because they’re Duke) and a favorable NCAA Tournament bracket, and the Evil Empire was back on top of the game.
Looking at this year’s crop of challengers for Duke’s crown, I see Georgetown as a standout contender. While I generally hate to compare my Hoyas to the Blue Devils, the similarities are too numerous to ignore, and add up to a strong push for the 2011 national championship.
Start with experience. Point guard Chris Wright (three-year starter) and two-guard Austin Freeman (four-year starter) are seniors, as is go-to big man Julian Vaughn. Junior Jason Clark is the fourth returning starter in the Hoyas’ three-guard lineup.
More importantly, Georgetown has talent within that experience. Athletically, Wright is a clearance-rack version of Derrick Rose, averaging 15.2 points, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals last year in coach John Thompson III‘s regimented Princeton-style system. That included a 34-point game against Harvard, a 28-point line in the NCAA Tournament against Ohio, and respective 27-point efforts against Syracuse and Pitt. Freeman, a physical Eric Gordon clone, put up 16.5 points while hitting 44% beyond the arc. Freeman can explode for buckets as well, notching 11 games of 20-plus points last season despite going most of the year unaware that he had diabetes. With his health situation being monitored this year plus an improved diet, Freeman will contend for Big East Player of the Year. Vaughn, who’s in his second year as a starter for the Hoyas after transferring from Florida State, didn’t get a lot of scoring chances due to the presence of Greg Monroe. But observers at the D.C. Kenner League this summer say he’s commanding the ball in the post and has improved his skills around the basket.
The younger set is good, too. Clark can win games with his outside shooting (42% 3PA) or defense (1.4 spg); Sophomore Hollis Thompson can be G’town’s X-factor similar to Duke’s Kyle Singler, a 6-7 forward who can shoot from the outside (43% 3PA) and guard the other team’s best wing scorer; Junior big man Henry Sims, 6-foot-11, was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school who will get more minutes this year; Sophomore guard Vee Sanford has potential to be another lock-down defender; and freshman power forward Nate Lubick and point guard Markel Starks were four-star prep players.
Like Duke in ’09-10, who were written off by some after losing NBA Lottery pick Gerald Henderson, Georgetown is being low-balled in some Big East preseason rankings after losing Monroe to the League. And while Monroe’s passing and scoring out of the high post was integral to the Hoyas’ operation, his loss is surmountable between Vaughn, Sims and Lubick. And as Duke showed on its way to the national title, you don’t need superstars in the frontcourt, as long as you’ve got solid players who will rebound and defend the rim.
The Hoyas also won’t have to look far for motivation. Duke had its usual legion of haters last year, plus the memory of a Sweet Sixteen smacking at the hands of Villanova in ’09 to push them throughout the summer and their championship season. Georgetown is coming off an embarrassing first-round exit at the hands of 14th-seed Ohio, on top of the critics who expect them to suffer without Monroe and are beginning to question whether Thompson III is cut out to lead an elite Big East program.
Anybody coming out of this conference will be battle-tested. Syracuse, Villanova, Pitt, UConn, Louisville and Marquette will make sure of that. And with the sheer size and prominence of the Big East, any team emerging from the conference will see a variety of styles throughout the season, from Syracuse’s suffocating zone D to Providence’s chuck-and-duck to West Virginia’s physicality to UConn’s athleticism; will face great coaches on a weekly basis, from Huggins to Boeheim to Pitino to Calhoun; and will routinely see NBA Draft-caliber talent in high-pressure games on big stages.
Georgetown is my pick to emerge from that scrum. Their leaders are experienced and productive, their younger players are talented and smart, their coach is tested and motivated, and the chip on their shoulder is real. Sounds a lot like the reigning national champions, and a lot like a recipe to build the next national champion.