Improved Defense or McDonough Mirage?

McDonough Arena

For Georgetown, the 2020–2021 season came and went, with plenty of highs and lows. Entering the season, the Hoyas were picked to finish last, only to finish in 8th. However, the Hoyas proved the experts wrong by barnstorming through the Big East Tournament, winning not only their 8th Big East tournament, but also an unexpected NCAA bid. So, what changed? Let’s take a look at the advanced stats to see if there is reason for optimism on the defensive end heading into this season.

One major difference, because of the COVID pandemic, was that Georgetown played its home games at McDonough Arena, rather than their normal home at Capital One Arena. With the exception of a small number of out of conference games and NIT matchups, Georgetown has not played regularly at McDonough for over 30 years. After just a few games, it was evident that both the Hoyas and opponents shot poorly in McDonough. Those games included a disappointing loss to Navy after a closer than expected win versus UMBC. In those 2 games the Hoyas shot 17/58 (29%) from 3 and 18/31 (58%) from the free throw line. The Hoyas’ opponents shot a mere 15/50 (30%) from 3 and 15/24 (63%) on free throws. It seems as time went on the Hoyas got more acclimated to playing in McDonough. Opponents did not have this advantage of course as they only played there once.

According to teamrankings.com, Georgetown’s opponents shot 3’s at 29.5% in McDonough for the year while shooting 37.9% when we played on the road. In comparison, the home/away 3 point percentage of Georgetown’s opponents during the Ewing era have been: 2019/20 (34.8/38.3), 2018/19 (33.9/34) and 2017/18 (35.3/33.8). Based on these breakdowns, one can see the difference between last year, played at McDonough, and the previous three seasons, played at Capital One Arena. Coming into last year, the Hoyas’ opponents’ three point shooting in the Ewing era ranged from 33.9% to 35.3%, compared to 29.5% the season at McDonough.

For reference the Hoyas shot 34.7% at home and 38.5% on the road.

The logical question is, to what should this lower shooting percentage be attributed? In the Ewing era, a consistent deficiency has been allowing teams to take too many open three point shots. Could the three point defense have been better last year? Possibly, but Georgetown still gave up plenty of open threes.

Is McDonough the explanation for the lower shooting percentages? In looking at free throws — which obviously are not dependent on defense at all — Georgetown’s opponents shot 65.7% in McDonough compared to 72.8% when on the road. The Hoyas shot 72.8% in McDonough compared to 77.3% when on the road. These differences are pretty significant, particularly considering that free throws “should” be the same no matter what arena they are taken in. Further, given the lack of fans, one cannot attribute the differences to that factor. Instead, all the data points to shooting in McDonough being much worse than other arenas.

Another stat one may consider is shot quality and expected points based on shots taken. Shot Quality (shotquality.com) does a wonderful job of displaying this data. This site had the Hoyas expected record at 8–17. Obviously, the Hoyas did much better than that, and thus, the site ranks the Hoyas 16th in “record luck”. This could be attributable to Georgetown’s opponents shooting so poorly in McDonough. Shot Quality also measures the amount of shots taken at the rim and 3 pointers — widely accepted as the best and most efficient shots in basketball. Georgetown ranked only 277th in the country, at 62% of shots in those zones.

Did Ewing make strides last year in installing better offensive and defensive strategies? Was the Hoyas defense really improved or did McDonough hide the deficiencies? Given small sample sizes, it is impossible to know with certainty, but if your biggest defensive weakness is negated by the shooting conditions that is a good thing.

Georgetown was 2nd in the Big East in rebounding, which certainly helped the cause, as Georgetown’s players heeded Coach Ewing’s constant refrains of “REBOUND!” from the sidelines. That was clearly the best of the Ewing era. Will the rebounding continue this year with a younger seemingly less physical team? If it doesn’t will the defense struggle as it has in the past?

Given that this season is being played at Capital One Arena, any potential benefit obtained from opponents’ poor shooting in McDonough will likely no longer be present. In less than a few days we will start to see if the Ewing era defense has changed or if we caught lightning in a McDonough shaped bottle for a year.