What's better, worse, different, and the same about the Hoyas' recent surge
Your Georgetown Hoyas are enjoying a mid-week break after rattling off four straight wins and six in seven games. The overriding narrative of those games has been the Hoyas' success during the academic ineligibility of sophomore forward Greg Whittington, the team's second-leading scorer and perhaps best defender. Tuesday, John Thompson III acknowledged that there's "a small, small chance" Whittington will return this season, confirming expectations that the Hoyas are more likely to play out the season without Whittington ("WoW" for short) than with him.
So what's been going on WoW? And is the recent upswing because of Whittington's absence, despite it, or unrelated? Let's see.
What's Changed: It's Not Just Whittington
Whittington's absence and Georgetown's rise in the Big East standings are related in time, but are they just coincidental? Figuring out causes when eight or more young men play a fluid game five at a time is a messy business, but it's safe to say that there are some other forces at play here.
One change is the competition. Georgetown was at its worst right before Whittington became ineligible, against Marquette and Pittsburgh. Those happen to be two of the best three (or, depending on your favored rating, four) conference foes the Hoyas have faced so far. Since then, Georgetown has played Louisville, Notre Dame, and a bunch of lower-rated teams. While the wins over the Cardinals and Fighting Irish undoubtedly are impressive, the rest of the schedule just as certainly has made the transition to life WoW easier. Of course, schedule doesn't explain everything, as the Hoyas that lost by 28 to Pitt should not have won six of seven even against this easier recent slate.
Another factor, though not so much a change, is the sample size. We really have no idea whether the recent seven-game stretch is a better indicator of the Hoyas' level than the 13 games that began the season. Georgetown has at least ten games remaining, more if they advance in the conference tournament or qualify for post-season play. In other words, there's plenty of time to revert to familiar struggles that preceded Whittington's absence.
A third factor consists of other changes in the rotation. Here are the changes in minutes per game without Whittington:
|Player||Mins. WW||Mins. WoW||Difference|
|D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera||17.9 mpg||28.3 mpg||+10.4 mpg|
|Aaron Bowen||2.8 mpg*||11.6 mpg||+8.7 mpg|
|Jabril Trawick||21.2 mpg||28.4 mpg||+7.2 mpg|
||30.4 mpg||36.9 mpg||+6.5 mpg|
||4.6 mpg*||8.7 mpg||+4.1 mpg|
||31.3 mpg*||33.3 mpg||+2.0 mpg|
||28.7 mpg||29.9 mpg||+1.2 mpg|
||21.2 mpg||18.3 mpg||-2.9 mpg|
(Note: "per game" throughout this post means per Georgetown game, rather "per game in which the player played." This choice affects the numbers for Ayegba, Bowen, and, to a far lesser extent, Porter. Also, rounding may produce some numbers that don't add up.)
Skipping first to the lower half of the list, a remarkable stat jumps out. Despite needing to replace Whittington's 35 minutes per game in an already thin rotation, JTIII has opted to decrease the minutes of Hopkins, his starting center. Instead, JTIII has given those minutes (and then some) to Ayegba. That trend, also pointed out here and here, probably has produced some of the changes described below. Once the inefficient hub of the inefficient Hoya offense, Hopkins is playing less; even when he's on the court, he's handling the ball less.
These are the shifts that occur in any rotation during the year, particularly as younger players prove themselves ready for greater responsibility, or play themselves out of the rotation. (See, e.g., Stephen Domingo.) Smith-Rivera is a freshman and, while he might not have taken Whittington's minutes if Whittington were eligible, it's reasonable to assume that JTIII would find more minutes for him somewhere.
But the main point from the table above is a bit more mundane: Whittington has been replaced by Smith-Rivera, Bowen, Trawick and Starks, which makes perfect sense. Whittington was the team's de facto shooting guard, and would slide to small forward in certain lineups. Subbing three guards and a wing for a guard-by-necessity was the most logical move.
What's Better: Shooting and Defending the Shot
So what's been better about the Hoyas these past seven games? They can broadly be summarized as follows: better shooting, better defense, Porter's continued brilliance, more opportunities for Smith-Rivera, and a general uptick across the board.
Scoring. The Hoyas have jumped from a respectable 63.5 points per game with Whittington to 65.2 points per game without him. Georgetown had four sub-50 point games in their thirteen games with Whittington, and none since.
You'll hear from some media about the Hoyas' increased pace, an issue we'll get into later on. But even discounting pace, Georgetown has scored better without Whittington on a per-possession basis, from almost exactly 1 point per possession to 1.04 PPP WoW. That's before adjusting for Georgetown's competition, which has been more difficult in the last seven games than in the season at large.
So who's replacing Whittington's production and then some?
|Player||Scoring WW||Scoring WoW||Difference|
|Porter||11.8 ppg||18.1 ppg||+6.3 ppg|
|Smith-Rivera||5.4 ppg||9.4 ppg||+4.0 ppg|
|Lubick||6.8 ppg||9.6 ppg||+2.7 ppg|
|Bowen||.5 ppg||3 ppg||+2.5 ppg|
|Starks||11.2 ppg||12.9 ppg||+1.6 ppg|
|Trawick||5.2 ppg||6.3 ppg||+1.1 ppg|
|Ayegba||1.2 ppg||1.3 ppg||+.1 ppg|
|Hopkins||7.4 ppg||3.6 ppg||-3.8 ppg|
Some of this comes as no surprise. We know that Porter has stepped up, though the extent to which he has done so is outstanding. It makes sense that the four players who have replaced Whittington's minutes are scoring more, collectively replacing nearly three-quarters of Whittington's 12.1 ppg. DSR, the most shot-happy of these replacements, naturally has supplemented his scoring the most. Lubick's scoring increase is a bit more surprising, and, like Porter's, becomes all the more impressive as we look at shooting statistics.
Shooting, especially from three. There are a lot of ways in which a team can score more points: forcing more turnovers or committing fewer of them; rebounding better on either end of the floor; or shooting better. In this case, Georgetown has shot better WoW, especially from three.
The Hoyas have shot nearly 6 percent better from three WoW; combined with an extra attempt per game over that stretch, Georgetown is getting a boost of nearly 4 points per game from behind the arc. The Hoyas' free-throw shooting also has been better of late. These are two areas in which Whittington was below the team average, suggesting that his absence may have something to do with the improvement. Hopkins's reduced role also likely has contributed to improved free-throw shooting (though his replacement Ayegba is no great shakes from the line, either) as well as to the smaller team improvement from two-point range.
Individual shooting improvements are harder to reduce to an orderly list, but as hinted above, Porter and Lubick deserve the most praise here. Porter already was the most efficient Hoya scorer when Whittington was in the lineup, but has continued to improve WoW. He's taking more shots and making a greater percentage of them, especially from three, where he's making 52 percent WoW. That shooting percentage, combined with an additional 1.5 attempts per game from distance, results in an extra made triple each game. He's also getting to the line more and making two more free throws per game, shooting 9% better from the line WoW. Lubick also has further refined an already efficient offensive game, shooting a scintillating 72 percent from the field WoW.
There are some causes for concern. Smith-Rivera has been jacking up more than four three-pointers per game WoW, but converting barely one; more broadly, DSR is shooting just 36 percent from the field WoW, a number that needs to increase. Starks has continued to be very good from three WoW, but has struggled inside the arc, where he's shot just 41 percent WoW. It's also concerning that both of the Hoya centers-fully one-quarter of their rotation-are at best offensive non-entities.
Passing. Georgetown's passing has improved as well, as the Hoyas have assisted on about one more basket per game than with Whittington. This is one of the more predictable improvements of replacing a forward with a guard. DSR (+2.10 apg WoW), Trawick (+1.19 apg WoW), and Starks (+.67 apg WoW) are all (a) guards who (b) have seen increased playing time during Whittington's inactivity. As a result, they are well-positioned to enjoy an uptick in assists. After the St. John's game, Lubick also credited the team with better patience in its offensive sets. Also deserving of credit is the de-emphasis of Hopkins, who wasn't exactly turning into Henry Sims 2.0 in the high post.
Defending the shot. Already an elite defensive team, Georgetown has become one of the very best in the country, ranking fifth in Ken Pomeroy's defensive ratings. The Hoyas have allowed opponents to shoot just 41.2 percent from two on the season, and 30.5 percent from three. WoW, Georgetown's defense has clamped down further, yielding just 40.7 percent from two and 25 percent from three.
This improvement is a bit surprising, given the absence of the Hoyas' defensive ace. So how do we explain it? It may be a case of hunger focusing the mind, as a Hoya squad has realized it's a bit short-handed and may be exerting even more effort on defense. As much as it helps to have lots of LENGTH! on defense, having focused, continuous effort helps as well. This is not a knock on Whittington, just a guess that lean times can produce an esprit de corps.
Another explanation is just in-season growth for a young team. The rotation features plenty of young or inexperienced players who may be improving with additional court time, both individually and within a team defensive scheme. Starks has exerted a ton of energy defending opposing star guards (which may, with his increased minutes, explain his decreased shooting percentage--he could be just tired). DSR has noticeably improved on defense, and Trawick has gone from being a good defender to neck-and-neck with Lubick for second-best among active Hoyas.
A final explanation, one advanced above for improvement generally, is that the competition simply has been worse, though Pomeroy's rankings are schedule-adjusted.
What's Worse: Turnovers
Protecting the ball. Georgetown has committed turnovers on nearly 22 percent of possessions WoW, a figure that would rank the Hoyas in the bottom half of the conference. The increased number of miscues likely are attributable to improved competition, as the Hoyas have played five of their seven games WoW against teams that rank in the upper half of the conference in forcing turnovers. Both Porter and Smith-Rivera are committing at least 1.5 additional turnovers per game WoW which makes sense given that they are assuming larger roles than before (and, in DSR's case, handing out assists more than before). Given the Hoyas' increased efficiency on offense generally, turnovers aren't dire, but they could loom large against Georgetown's remaining turnover-forcing opponents (hint: they dress in prison jumpsuits).
Forcing turnovers. Georgetown also hasn't forced as many turnovers WoW, inducing about two fewer miscues per game. The Hoyas have never been a turnover-forcing machine under JTIII. This year has been somewhat better than years gone by, in part due to Whittington's 1.3 steals per game and general long-limbed disruption. Playing their Big East slate largely WoW, the Hoyas rank just in the middle of the conference at forcing turnovers, preferring to suffocate opponents into bad shots. And that they have done, largely mitigating the damage opposing offenses cause with their extra shots.
What Hasn't Changed
Pace. There's been a lot of talk of the Hoyas' increased pace fueling increased scoring, presumably based on fun n' gun wins at St. John's and home against Providence and Seton Hall. But taking the last seven games as a whole, Georgetown has played at a slower pace WoW, averaging .9 fewer possessions per game. Two of the recent games have come against really slow teams, Notre Dame and South Florida. But the other five opponents have all been average or faster, and, before losing Whittington, the Hoyas played plenty of other slow teams, including Pitt, American, and Tennessee. It's fair to say that Georgetown has sought more opportunities in transition, perhaps leading to more easy shots. But there certainly hasn't been a wholesale change.
Rebounding. Georgetown has been a solid defensive rebounding team all year, grabbing more than 70 percent of opponents' misses on the season. WoW, the Hoyas have risen to second in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage. It's remarkable that they've kept it up without Whittington, who grabbed nearly 6 defensive rebounds per game, tops on the team.
On the other end of the floor, let's be clear: Georgetown is not a good on the offensive glass, whether with or without Whittington. But the Hoyas has seen a mild uptick (not enough to be a "change," but an uptick just the same) in offensive rebounding of late.
In all, six different Hoyas have improved their rebounding by 1 or more board per game over the past seven games:
|Player||Difference D Reb. pg
||Difference O Reb. pg
||Difference Reb. pg
||+2.4 D Reb. pg
||+1.7 O Reb. pg||+4.1 Reb. pg|
|Porter||+2.1 D. Reb. pg
||-.3 O Reb. pg
||+1.8 Reb. pg|
|Trawick||+1.3 D Reb. pg||+.3 O Reb. pg||+1.6 Reb. pg
|Bowen||+.6 D Reb. pg||+.8 O Reb. pg||+1.4 Reb. pg|
|Ayegba||+ 1.5 D Reb. pg||-.3 O Reb. pg||+1.2 Reb. pg|
|Starks||+.9 D Reb. pg||+.2 O. Reb. pg||+1.1 Reb. pg|
|Lubick||-.2 D Reb. pg||+.8 O Reb. pg||+ .6 Reb. pg|
|Hopkins||-1.1 DReb. pg||-.6 O Reb. pg||- 1.7 Reb. pg|
It's a bit surprising to see DSR at such a lofty perch, and will be interesting to see whether he can keep up the 5.6 rebounds he's been averaging WoW. The rebounding-by-committee effort displayed elsewhere suggests that it might just be sustainable.
What Does It All Mean?
It's hard to say that any of the trends described above are attributable to Whittington's absence, though improved shooting from three-point range and improved ball movement seem like the most likely candidates. A separate question is whether the trends are sustainable. Some aspects of Georgetown's offensive improvement still feel like an extended blip, particularly Porter and Lubick's play, which is well above their already-efficient standards. But there also are some negative patterns that should improve: Starks has been off of late, especially from two, and DSR's shooting percentages seem likely to improve as he learns on the job. Still, it feels like there will be nights when Georgetown will need more scorers, whether DSR, Trawick, the occasional Aaron Bowen explosion, or all of the above. Obviously, Whittington would help in this regard by providing scoring depth and ability.
He also would help on defense, where the Hoyas have put on the clamps even tighter than before. As much as I love the energy that is visible on the court and in the press clippings, having another 6'8" athlete in the opponents' faces wouldn't hurt.
Regardless of whether Whittington returns, and whether the past seven games have been a preview of things to come or merely an enjoyable, short-term ride, they've been enjoyable just the same. We've seen perennial bench warmers pressed into service as role players, role players becoming major contributors, and the team's leaders step up to do whatever is necessary. Here's hoping we can continue to enjoy it.