The Georgetown Hoyas beat the lowly Howard Bison 85-72 in a sleepy Sunday afternoon affair that lacked the passion or fight that one might expect after a humiliating end to Georgetown's performance in the Maui Invitational earlier this week.
The Hoyas started red-hot, running up a 17-0 lead on the Bison thanks to an aggressive press that forced several early turnovers, which Georgetown converted into easy baskets. But from there, Howard was more than Georgetown's equal, beating the Hoyas for the rest of the half and even the game. Ultimately, Georgetown's early run was just enough to avoid any real risk of a colossal upset. With the win, the Hoyas' record improves to 3-4 on the season, which is Georgetown's worst start since John Thompson Jr.'s first season 44 years ago.
In beating but not pummeling one of the worst teams in the country, the Hoyas suffered from the same infirmities that have caused each of this season's embarrassing losses. Georgetown could not stop the Howard guards, allowing Bison lead man James Miller to go off for 30 points. On offense, nearly one-quarter of the Hoyas' possessions ended in one of Georgetown's 18 turnovers. After the aggressive first few minutes, Georgetown also ceded the energy advantage to the visitors, allowing 13 opposing offensive rebounds and countless blow-bys and uncontested looks in the paint.
All that said, there were two reasons Georgetown didn't lose today. The first is that Howard is terrible. The Bison entered the game ranked No. 312 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, having lost all four of their games thus far by at least 16 points apiece. Howard has lost handily whether the opponent hails from a major conference (Michigan, Marquette) or from a lesser league (IUPUI, Gardner Webb). Howard also was without its leading scorer, James Daniel, who led the nation in scoring last season but has not played yet this year, which is hard to believe given how Miller went off in today's game. Taking into account the fact that the Bison were short-handed and bad, even a subpar performance from Georgetown could result in a double-digit victory, albeit one that was Georgetown's narrowest margin of victory over Howard. (To wit: Georgetown didn't cover the 19-point line and dropped in KenPom's rankings, from 60 to 64, after the loss.)
The second reason that the Hoyas still pulled out a victory Saturday is that they had a few bright lights. One was power forward Akoy Agau, who scored 14 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and handed out 5 assists in an energetic, feisty performance that has become typical for the junior transfer. Another was Rodney Pryor, who poured in 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting (including 5 three-pointers). Juniors LJ Peak and Tre Campbell each notched double figures as well, scoring 14 and 12 points, respectively. Finally, Marcus Derrickson saw his first run after sitting out four games with a sore knee, overcoming some shaky early shooting to finish with 8 points and 6 much-needed rebounds.
After the game, coach John Thompson III acknowledged that the result was less than perfect, calling Georgetown a "work in progress." In some respects, he's right: Georgetown has played just 7 games, not even one-quarter of the season. The Hoyas have plenty of time to improve, and have yet to be fully healthy. They have time to improve.
Perhaps the Hoyas will improve as the season goes on. They're incorporating four new players, including three new starters: Pryor, Jagan Mosley, and now Agau. Mosley and Jonathan Mulmore see most duty on the opponent's primary ball-handlers, and they may get up to speed as the season wears on. The team has missed Hayes, and then Derrickson, and now Isaac Copeland, who sat out after sustaining a cut to the face in Georgetown's loss to Oklahoma State on Wednesday.
But, at the risk of nit-picking, Georgetown's play today and over the season so far raises the question of whether the Hoyas are a work in progress or just a work without progress. Georgetown turns the ball over too often, as it has for several seasons. The Hoyas have substituted one problem for another on defense--last year, they held their own on the glass and held opponents' shooting percentages low but fouled too often and couldn't force turnovers, while this year, they force turnovers and have improved their fouling problems somewhat but are have allowed opponents to shoot nearly 52 percent from two-point range and grab nearly 39 percent of their own misses, one of the worst marks in the country.
Regardless of the symptoms, the problem is the same: Georgetown plays a disorganized, unprincipled defense that struggles to contain ball-handlers at the point of attack, over-helps when the initial defender is beat, and then finds itself scattered then it needs to contest a shot or grab a rebound. These problems have been repeated one season after the other without meaningful improvement.
Count me skeptical that there will be progress. We've seen the same problems repeat themselves, game after game and season after season, as opponents, personnel, and schemes change. Regardless, we'll see more on Wednesday, when Georgetown hosts Coppin State, another bottom-feeder that the Hoyas should, and maybe even will, rout.