NCAA BK

Talented Porter ultimate team player

Georgetown Hoyas forward Otto Porter
Otto Porter adds 18 points and six rebounds in the win over Cincinnati.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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Otto Porter Jr. did not play a particularly great game on Thursday.

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This is not at all to say that the Big East Player of the Year played poorly during top-seeded Georgetown’s 62-43 smothering of Cincinnati in the Hoyas' first Big East tournament game.

Otto Porter does pretty much anything he’s asked — run the fast break, play physical in the paint, harass the opponent with defense that’s as tenacious on the perimeter as it is under the basket, shoot the three at a 44-percent clip on the year, and make his free throws, which he did on all 11 attempts on Thursday.

But one thing Porter does not do is have a bad game — only twice this season has he scored in the single digits when he’s played full games.

What Porter did to Cincinnati is what he’s done solidly the past two months, as he’s led the Hoyas to 15 wins in their last 17 games, catapulted them from unranked in January to No. 5 in the nation in March, and put them in a legitimate position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Simply put, the 6-foot-8 sophomore made everyone on his team better.

"We’re all on the scouting report,” said Georgetown guard Markel Starks, the team’s second-leading scorer, in response a question on Porter’s greatness.

It’s true, so let’s instead start with how Porter’s teammates played on Thursday, because that’s what the quiet, humble Porter would rather focus on anyway.

Starks scored 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting and dished three assists. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown’s linebacker-sized freshman guard, dropped 13 points. Sophomore guard Jabril Trawick pestered Cincinnati with remarkable defense all afternoon, swiping three steals and challenging outside shots in the second half so that Cincinnati only made one 3-pointer after halftime.

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Then there was Porter.

His stats weren’t eye-popping, not the type of stats that scream National Player of the Year candidate, which he most definitely is. He scored a game-high 18 points,  pulled down six rebounds, hit all his free throws, and had only one turnover — a sloppy moment at the beginning of the second half which was his only mental error all game.

But not appearing on the stat sheet was the top reason why Porter’s subtly dominating presence has turned Georgetown from a pretty good Big East team two months ago to the Big East’s biggest beast leading into March Madness.

“Otto obviously has played very well during this stretch,” said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. “He’s done a very good job — on nights like tonight, where they were just keying on him — of helping his teammates get shots.”

The best part of this year’s POY race is summed up by that quote. Look at all the players whose names are in the running. Porter, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Michigan’s Trey Burke — even Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. The one thing each of these young men have in common is that they’re not ball hogs. They’re not old-school Kobe, putting up 30 shots a game. They’re new-school LeBron, whose unselfishness combine with their mere presence on the court to elevate their team to the next level.

Porter’s season can be divided into thirds. The first third was when he was a talented all-around player who wasn’t taking charge of his team. At the low point of Georgetown’s season, the 73-45 loss to Pitt on Jan. 8 that dropped the Hoyas out of the rankings, Porter was averaging less than 13 points a game. Then the team’s second-highest scorer, Greg Whittington, was declared ineligible. He hasn’t played since the Pitt blowout.

Since then — where Part II of Porter’s season began — Porter’s averaged an extra six points per game, and has improved his shooting. It’s not that Porter became a different player in that period.

It’s just that Porter became more Porter.

“He’s adjusted his game a little bit,” Starks said. “It’s just that we had Greg Whittington, another guy, 6-foot-9, runs like a gazelle, he’s giving you 12 or 13 points a night. It’s almost like, you lose Greg, Otto is doing all of this — but he hasn’t done anything different. We’ve just put him in more scoring positions. He’s put himself in more scoring positions. And he draws a lot of attention.”

In Part II, instead of just the all-around, do-it-all player, Porter became a dominant scorer who could take over a game. (See: 33 points on 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range in Georgetown’s 57-46 road win over Syracuse in January.) In the 17 games since Wittington got hurt, Porter has scored below 17 points only four times.

The final act of his season is now, when his opponents’ game plans pretty much read like this: Stop Otto Porter, and let the rest take care of itself.

“We know that they’re going to key in on me,” Porter said after Thursday’s win. “Everybody knows that. It’s just a matter of the other guy stepping up, and they have been . . . It’s more of being aware of what you’re doing, just being the leader on the team, stepping up and bringing the guys with you to step up.”

This is how the best basketball is played. It’s what Duke's Mike Krzyzewski refers to as five players acting as one. Right now, with Porter as their quarterback, that’s how Georgetown is playing. They’re smothering teams on defense, with the nation’s third-most efficient defense according to KenPom.com, behind stifling juggernauts Louisville and Georgetown. They’re moving the ball around on offense. They’re playing like a confident No. 1 seed.

The hidden ingredient of Porter’s success, and therefore Georgetown’s, is how he learned basketball. He grew up in the rural bootheel of Missouri. He didn’t get into the AAU circuit that’s the pipeline for most big-time college players — the player showcases that are often blamed for the selfish brand of basketball that too often dominates college hoops. Instead, he learned the fundamentals from his father and basketball-loving family.

“It’s totally different from growing up and playing in nowadays’ game,” Porter said. “I grew up learning the game old-school, not so much flashy, not so much athleticism, but just knowing the basics of the game. And it helps a lot.”

Georgetown will need more of that help this week and then in the tourney. On Friday, it’ll face Syracuse, a final hurrah for one of the finest rivalries in college sports. Saturday’s Big East final could see Georgetown taking on second-seeded Louisville in a Big East defensive slugfest.

Next week Georgetown very well could be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, and they would have a very large target on its back.

This team’s success should be a lesson all of college basketball should pay attention to: A success that came not on the back of its star player, but instead, with the star player as the main cog in a well-oiled machine.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Cincinnati, Georgetown, Markel Starks

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