Nobody in the real world would define a 6-foot-9, 223-pound human as undersized. Even in the treetop land of basketball, those dimensions hardly scream puny. From Georgetown starter Mikael Hopkins' purview, when it comes to such measurable matters, context is king.
Tasked with interior responsibilities for the No. 15 ranked Hoyas, the athletic sophomore is frequently pitted against bulkier, lengthier opponents. That hardly makes him unique in the Big East or across the entire college basketball terrain. Neither does playing down to those legitimate or perceived limitations.
The former DeMatha product generated points and the occasional rebound early this season, but achieved little statistically during December and January. In three straight conference games, Hopkins went without a single rebound despite averaging 15 minutes. In that span he committed seven turnovers and scored six points.
"I was thinking about myself, I was down on myself," said Hopkins, who maintained a starting role but saw his minutes decrease even with fellow starting forward Greg Whittington absent from the lineup. "I talked to my mom a couple of times. She was telling me to keep my spirits up, talk to my coaches and see what I need to do."
Apparently mom knows best, apparently the coaches got their message across. Through three February games, Hopkins' numbers and confidence have rebounded - and just in time. Thompson was running out of enlightening techniques.
"I've probably tried every method a coach could try with him," John Thompson III said before Wednesday's practice as the Hoyas prepped for Friday's oddly-timed 9 p.m. tipoff at Cincinnati. "[Mikael] has played better the last couple of games. He can still do better than he has been doing and hopefully we can get that out of him also."
The playing better started in the Hoyas' (18-4, 8-3) win over St. John's on Feb. 2 as Hopkins scored eight points, the same amount he scored in the previous four games combined.
Next came a road tilt at Rutgers. Forward Nate Lubick's persistent foul trouble led to an early exit, leaving Thompson to play Hopkins a Big East-high 32 minutes. Hopkins responded with a career-high 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting in another Georgetown victory.
Monday against Marquette came another personal best, one that surely Thompson desired from his forward most. In the Hoyas' sixth straight win, Hopkins yanked down nine rebounds. That's hardly a stop the presses kind of statistic, but again, context is king. Over Georgetown's opening 10 conference games, Hopkins managed only 13 boards.
"In earlier games I was focusing on boxing out, making sure my defender did not get the ball," Hopkins said. "Now I'm going after the ball, trying to get it myself. That's what helps me rebound better."
On the thin side or not, Hopkins is back getting hefty minutes. If Thompson wants mass in the middle, Lubick or the offensively raw 250-pound Moses Ayegba can step in. Seeing as Thompson said the chances of the academically ineligible Whittington returning this season are "slim," Hopkins' role will remain large assuming he concentrates on all aspects of his game.
"Mikael is physically talented. There is not much that he's not comfortable doing," the coach said. "From my vantage point, he may focus too much on what's going on offensively and he needs to focus on rebounding, defending, running hard, making harder movements, harder efforts and the offense will fall in place. I think he went through a stretch there where he was just focusing on my offense, my offense, my offense and not focusing on everything else."
Considering the next opponent, one Georgetown has lost to four straight times and 6 of 7, Hopkins' board-work revelation is again ideally timed.
Asked for the primary key against the Bearcats (19-6, 7-5), Thompson blurted out, "Rebounding. I think they're the top rebounding team in our league and one of the better one's in the nation. They do a good job of limiting you to one shot and getting multiple shots for themselves. We have to try and make that not happen."
Otto Porter, Georgetown's leading scorer and rebounder, makes it happen on the glass. Same for the rugged Lubick, same for D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Georgetown's 6-foot-3 freshman guard has 45 rebounds in Big East play, more than double Hopkins' output. Smith-Rivera also, according to the Hoyas media guide, outweighs Hopkins by four pounds. In such measurable matters, context is king.
"It's there, I am undersized," Hopkins said. "There is no question about that. Commentators see it. Fans see it. I just have to use what I have. If Georgetown needs me to play the center position, that's what I'll have to do."