BROOKLYN – This game was supposed to be about Shabazz Muhammad and UCLA. With the nation’s most talented freshman finally getting declared eligible by the NCAA this past Friday, Monday night’s game against Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic was supposed to be his debutante ball.
We’ve all seen the mixtapes. We’ve all watched the youtube highlights. Monday was supposed to be the real thing.
And then Georgetown showed up. If this was UCLA’s debutante ball, than Georgetown was the girl that took home the Bruin’s date.
The Hoyas got a career-high 23 points from Markel Starks in a 78-70 win over the No. 11 Bruins, moving to 3-0 on the season. Starks may have led the team in scoring, but Otto Porter was the star in his first full game of the season. He finished with 18 points, 11 boards, five blocks, five assists and three steals.
“Otto’s first full game, if you look at the stat sheet, is a full game,” Thompson said, “and there is a whole bunch of other stuff that he did that doesn’t show up on this stat sheet. We’re a better team with him on the court, so it was good to have him back out there.”
This was a long way from the best game that UCLA will put together this season, but that shouldn’t diminish just how impressive Georgetown was. The Hoyas used a 12-0 run to open the second half, sparked by a pair of threes from sophomore Greg Whittington and capped with a dunk in transition from Mikael Hopkins, and systematically picked apart the UCLA defense for the duration of the game. The Bruins were able to get within four on a couple of occasions, but Georgetown had an answer for every Bruin run.
The best player on the floor for Georgetown in this game was Starks, the Hoyas’ junior point guard in his second season as a starter. His stat line was impressive enough — 23 points on 9-14 shooting, 2-4 from beyond the arc, four steals, two assists — but it was his leadership and patience running the team that made the difference.
“Starks had a great game tonight,” Howland said. “He had 23, and that was as many points as he scored in the last six games last season. He’s made a big jump and that really hurt us.”
When you think of Georgetown, the first thing that comes to mind is their front court. John Thompson III has developed a reputation for producing versatile, play-making big men that he runs his offense through: Greg Monroe, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Henry Sims. What people don’t realize, however, is that those same Hoya teams are at their best when they are stocked with veteran back court players, the Austin Freemans and Chris Wrights and Jonathon Wallaces of the world.
Starks is the next in line in that role, and if tonight was any indication, he may be ready for the limelight.
“We’ve had guys that go into the season as unknowns, and guys that when their opportunities come, they’re ready,” Thompson said after the game. “This is an unselfish group, and they trust each other. Tonight was a night where Markel got in a little rhythm, and his teammates did a good job of finding him.”
As good as Starks was, the difference in this game came with about seven minutes left in the first half. UCLA was on a 22-10 run over a ten minute stretch, erasing Georgetown’s 10-2 start, and on the verge of taking control of the game. That’s when JT III switched to a 2-3 zone, and completely changed the course of the game.
“When they went zone in the last seven minutes of the second half, we were tentative and didn’t get it inside,” Howland said. UCLA ended up down two at halftime, setting up Georgetown’s 12-0 spurt to start the second half.
Georgetown is not a traditionally ‘big’ team. Mikael Hopkins and Nate Lubick are a long way from Cody Zeller and Thomas Robinson. Where the Hoyas have size, however, is on the wings. They start Greg Whittington and Otto Porter, who are both 6-foot-8 with insanely long wingspans, at the two and the three. They have Stephen Domingo and Jabril Trawick, who are both 6-foot-5 and athletic, coming off the bench. When the Hoyas settle back into that zone, that length makes them tough to score on.
It’s tough to judge a team based off of a single performance, especially when that performance comes less than a week after the Hoyas struggled to beat Atlantic 10 bottom-feeder Duquesne at home.
But it’s also difficult to ignore this one simple fact: Georgetown just smacked a UCLA team that could have as many as four or five first round picks.
That’s quite a statement to make.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.