Georgetown's Big East rise is built on a stingy defense


The Big East-leading Hoyas have won seven games in a row thanks in large part to a suffocating defense that makes opponents' lives miserable.

It seemed like a turning point when Otto Porter picked up his fourth foul with seven and a half minutes remaining in the game. The Georgetown star had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time after Cincinnati guard JaQuon Parker recovered his own miss and banged into Porter. Parker went to the free-throw line and made his shots, shrinking what had once been a double digit Georgetown lead to a single point, pumping life back into the arena. A possession later, after Bearcat center Cheikh Mbodj swatted a Mikael Hopkins jumper, Parker scored again, putting Cincinnati ahead 51-50 with 6:54 remaining. The momentum of the game had completely shifted, at least that's how it seemed at the time.

The last seven minutes of the game were grim for Mick Cronin and company, with the Hoyas cutting off nearly all of Cincinnati's drives to the basket. The Bearcats only scored four more points for the rest of the game, while the life and energy slowly drained from the building. The oppressive weight of the Georgetown defense was just too great, and Georgetown put the game away at the free-throw line, winning 62-55.

With the win, John Thompson's Hoyas sit at the top of the Big East standings. It was Georgetown's third road victory during its current seven game winning streak, a streak during which the stout Georgetown D has flexed its muscles.

The Hoya defense is currently ranked fifth in the nation by the Ken Pomeroy adjusted defense rantings, and during conference play Porter and company have only given up 0.93 points per possession, the third lowest total in the conference. While the Hoyas have been difficult to score on all season long, things have become especially tough for opponents as of late. During Georgetown's seven game winning streak, only one opponent has scored more than a single point per possession, and in five separate games Thompson's squad has held the opponent to less than 0.90 points per trip.

Georgetown's defense makes it difficult for opponents to hit shots. During Big East play, Hoya opponents are averaging an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent, which ranks first in the conference. Thompson's team has limited opponent field goal percentage by doing a number of different things well. For Georgetown, defensive success starts by limiting opponent chances at the rim. On average across Division I basketball, 34 percent of all shot attempts are taken at the rim. On the season, Hoya opponents only get 28 percent of their attempts on these high percentage shots. This is significant, as shots at the rim go in a little less than twice as often as shots taken from anywhere else on the floor.

Thompson's team does a variety of things that limit chances from in close, but where the Hoyas really set themselves apart is in half-court defense. One way to evaluate half-court defense is by studying the results of initial shots of a possession using play-by-play data. Shots taken very early in a possession are more likely to be taken in transition, while shots taken later in a possession will generally occur against a dug in half-court defense. Against Georgetown, only 18 percent of initial shot attempts taken more than ten seconds after the start of a possession were at the rim, compared with the NCAA average of 26 percent. Making things even better, the Hoyas limit chances at the bucket without giving up an excessive number of three point attempts. 36 percent of initial shots taken more than ten seconds into a possession against Georgetown were from beyond the arc, which is only slightly higher than the D-I average of 35 percent.

Georgetown forces opponents to take 46 percent of their initial shots as two point jumpers. Even once we throw in shots taken after offensive rebounds or in transition, Hoya opponents still end up taking 38 percent of their attempts from mid-range, compared with the D-I average of 33 percent. This is significant, as across college basketball, two point jump shots only go in an average of 35 percent of the time. Against Georgetown these shots have fallen even less often, going down 31 percent of the time this year. And during the Hoya's seven game winning streak opponents have only made 26 percent of their mid-range twos.

Even when teams do manage to crack the Georgetown D and get to the basket, they still have difficultly scoring. This season Hoya opponents have made only 56 percent of their shot attempts at the rim, compared with the D-I average of 61 percent. Thompson's team, led by shot blocker Mikael Hopkins, is only somewhat better than average when it comes to blocking shots at the rim. Georgetown has blocked 12 percent of opponent attempts at the rim this season, compared with the NCAA average of 10 percent of all attempts taken at the rim that end up being blocked. A more significant portion of Georgetown's success in defending the rim is revealed by looking at opponent shooting percentages on unblocked shots from in close. When the Hoyas don't block the shot, opponents make 64 percent of their layups and dunks, which is four percentage points lower than the national average of 68 percent. During Georgetown's seven game winning streak, opponents have only made 63 percent of their unblocked attempts at the rim, while the Georgetown shot blocking percentage at the rim has actually dropped to nine percent.

During Georgetown's recent winning streak, they have undoubtedly caught a few breaks. It is not reasonable to expect that opponents will continue to only make 26 percent of their two point jump shots and 25 percent from beyond the arc, as has happened in recent weeks. Still, when watching the Hoyas play defense I am struck by two things. One is how well they play as a unit, with help defenders sitting in gaps or packing the lane to limit penetration. It is difficult to get to the rim with so many big bodies in the way, and this difficulty won't be going away any time soon. And the second striking thing is Georgetown's size. During their victory against Cincinnati, five of the eight Hoyas who entered the game were 6-6 or taller. There just isn't that much room on the court to operate against them, and there are a lot of long arms ready to challenge shots all over the court.

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