March magnet for 15-0 Hoyas

Basketball: Once-mighty Georgetown is No. 12 and driving, but coach Craig Esherick doesn't want anyone to forget the final destination.

January 15, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The motivation for the Georgetown University basketball team hangs on a wall in the bathroom of a locker room at McDonough Gym.

Over the urinals.

The placement of last season's National Invitation Tournament banner is as strategic as the message that this season's Hoyas take from the memento. It's a reminder of where Georgetown doesn't want to be come March, the tournament in which the Hoyas have played in each of the past three years.

"I want to take it down now," junior point guard Kevin Braswell said last week. "But Coach [Craig] Esherick said we can't do it until we get into the NCAAs."

Barring an unforeseen collapse, Georgetown seems destined to be a part of March Madness for the first time since the 1996-97 season. The 12th-ranked Hoyas are 15-0 going into tonight's game at No. 5 Seton Hall, the team's best start in 16 years.

The shadow over Esherick, who took over as head coach when John Thompson suddenly announced his mid-season resignation a little more than two years ago, is fading. Esherick, 44, is not sure the shadow will ever go away completely - or should it.

"You can probably find people who still think he's the coach," said Esherick, who played for Thompson in the late 1970s and, after getting his law degree from the school, was his top assistant for 17 seasons. "But that recognition will help people find out that I'm coaching here."

Having a low-profile coach is not the only difference between the current program and the one that was the Beast of the Big East during the 1980s. The country's best high school big men don't flock here anymore, as Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning once did. The nation's media don't talk about Hoya Paranoia.

It wouldn't matter much if the Hoyas were the same, barely-above-.500 team Esherick inherited. Along with top-ranked Stanford, Georgetown remains the only unbeaten Division I team in the country. The Hoyas are suddenly fun to watch and, again, are tough to play.

"I think they're very good," said Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker, whose young and erratic Pirates were beaten by Georgetown, 78-66, at MCI Center on Jan. 6. "The best thing I can say about them is that they're a very hungry team. That's a great thing to have."

So is depth. The Hoyas are perhaps the deepest team in the conference, and one of the deepest in the nation. The first five players off the bench have all started at one time during their careers, including leading scorer Anthony Perry.

But the biggest difference between this year's team and the past two - which finished 15-16 and 19-15, respectively - has been the play of Braswell.

The former Lake Clifton standout has gone from thinking he is the next Allen Iverson to playing like the next Gene Smith, the defensive-minded point guard on the 1984 national-championship team. After averaging more than 14 points and 13 shots his first two years, Braswell is scoring 9.4 on nine shots a game.

"I think I understand the game better," said Braswell, whose assist-to-turnover ratio (105-48) has improved greatly over his first two seasons (320-245). "I understand the role of the point guard. I used to try to score a lot. That's what I thought I had to bring to the team.

"Now, I realize there are different things I can do."

What Braswell realizes is that the Hoyas have a lot of ways to score.

They have an inside presence with Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, the 7-foot senior from Cameroon who has worked his way to become one of the top big men in the Big East, as well as 260-pound sophomore Mike Sweetney and 6-11 sophomore Wesley Wilson.

They have perimeter scorers in Perry, who, after shooting 28.7 percent from three-point range last season, is 21-for-47 this season, and silky shooting, 6-11 senior Lee Scruggs. They have slashers in senior guard Nathaniel Burton, sophomore guard Demetrius Hunter and freshman swingman Gerald Riley.

And, unlike past Georgetown teams, these Hoyas don't rely on one player. No Reggie Williams or Mourning or Iverson.

Not that Esherick would mind having that kind of blue-chip player. Though he said Boumtje Boumtje and Scruggs have the potential to become first-round NBA draft picks, playing on national television in March is the best way to lure the kind of talent Thompson once had.

Esherick is trying to bring the Hoyas back to that level. He has received a commitment from Harvey Thomas, a 6-8 forward considered among the top 10 high school players in the country.

Another win tonight over Seton Hall would push the Hoyas closer to the best start in school history (18-0 in 1984-85, the last time Georgetown made the Final Four), as well as toward what seems like a certain NCAA bid. But on bad days at practice, Esherick is quick to remind his team where it hasn't been.

"After one practice, I said to them, `Everybody who's played in the NCAAs aside from coaches, please stand up,' " recalled Esherick. "Nobody can stand up. We have to stay hungry. If we win 15 games, but lose the rest, that's not going to get us into the NCAA tournament."

Esherick would also like to see his team play better on the road, where they went 2-8 last season. The Hoyas have won at Freedom Hall against a struggling Louisville team and in Houston against a team that bares no resemblance to the Phi Slamma Jamma group that Georgetown beat for the NCAA title in 1984.

But then, there are some who would say that the Hoyas are a shell of their former selves, as well. But the former Beast of the Big East seems to be awakening from its slumber.

"People are rediscovering us in some way," Esherick said. "But I don't think Georgetown ever went away."

Yet the Hoyas are clearly back. In the national rankings. In the national spotlight. And, perhaps, in the NCAA tournament come March. But there are plenty of games left and plenty of trips to the bathroom in the team's locker room at McDonough Gym to find the proper motivation.

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