It seems to belie the very nature of basketball, where bigger usually is better, but the Georgetown Hoyas -- like most of the game's previous experimenters in "twin towers" -- have discovered that two dominating big men are not necessarily better than one.
With but a few exceptions, the double giant deployment traditionally has been a source of both optimism and, later, frustration. The Hoyas have added themselves this season to the list of the frustrated, for the promise of an imposing year with Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning has faded into a time of struggle and stress.
Many of the disappointments of both Georgetown and its two star big men can be attributed to the freshmen who man the Hoyas' perimeter. Missed jump shots and lazy entry passes don't do much toward extending the defenses that regularly collapse around the inside duo.
"Coaches aren't exactly geniuses; I'll leave the theory of relativity to someone else," said Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, whose team will face Georgetown Friday at 9 p.m. EST in the opening round of the Big East tournament. "But even I can figure out that you make them keep shooting from the outside until they hit a few shots."
Yet there may be a more fundamental flaw in the inability of Mutombo and Mourning to mesh. The Hoyas have been forced to ask themselves whether this alignment can function smoothly; perhaps there simply is not enough room around the basket for 14 feet worth of active, imposing basketball talent. Maybe there are not enough blocked shots, rebounds or followup dunks to go around.
"I don't think it benefits you so much (to have two talented big men) unless one of them has perimeter skills," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said this week. "With Dikembe and Alonzo, both are primarily low-post players. Alonzo is trying to learn (perimeter skills). When Dikembe's gone next year, certainly he'll be freer."
At the very least, the Hoyas have discovered that usually there is not sufficient space in the lane or enough basketballs on the court for both of their towers to be offensive forces during the same game. Never was that more evident than in Sunday's 62-58 loss at Syracuse, when Mourning reversed his recent slide by powering to 24 points and 11 rebounds as Mutombo was rendered mostly a spectator, taking two shots and totaling five points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
"Alonzo got going early," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said, "and when he's going well, then Mutombo's not going to get the ball much. You're going to have to contend with one of them every game."
This season, the focus usually has been on Mutombo, who leads the Hoyas (16-11, 8-8 Big East) in scoring and rebounding and was a unanimous first-team all-conference selection in the coaches' postseason honors. The 7-foot-2 senior center also was the league's defensive player of the year, an award he shared with Mourning last season.
Mourning, meanwhile, has spent most of his time struggling with injury and inconsistency. The 6-10 junior has moved to forward and played an unaccustomed role far from the basket. He also has battled the burden of unfulfilled expectations and Monday he was reduced from preseason all-America to third-team all-Big East.
He has said the right things: that playing on the perimeter will help him in the long run, that dealing with misfortune like this season's is something with which he will have to learn to live, that he will do what's best for the team. Even after Sunday's apparent return to form, he insisted, "We didn't win, so it doesn't matter."
But Thompson -- half of a less-than-successful twin-towers attempt with Jim Hadnot during his playing days at Providence -- has attested to Mourning's heightened frustration levels. Thompson has used the analogy that a hand endowed with two thumbs would be stronger but not necessarily functional.
"Only in the rarest cases does it work," an NBA scout said at a recent Hoyas game. "It didn't work with (Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon on the Houston) Rockets, and it didn't work last season with LSU," which had Shaquille O'Neal and since-departed seven-footer Stanley Roberts.
"It doesn't work for Georgetown, partly because they can't shoot from the outside, but also partly because Mourning and Mutombo basically do not complement one another very well."
Said Thompson: "It's not so much (the incompatibility of) Dikembe and Alonzo as a failure for the whole situation to mesh. They're dependent on others; the post position is a dependent position. You have to rely on others to get the ball to you. ... It has not been as fluid as we would like it to be. And it's not really a question of who's fault it is."
In 18 games together this season, Mourning and Mutombo each scored in double figures nine times and had 15 points or more apiece six times. They each attempted 10 or more field goals just twice -- once in the season opener against Hawaii-Loa -- and aside from a 57-point explosion in that first game, their most combined points in a contest was 41 vs. Pittsburgh in January (and 25 of those came at the free-throw line).
The Hoyas went 10-8 with their towers intact, compared to 6-3 during the six-week stretch when Mourning was sidelined with a strained left arch. They played some of their best basketball of the season in that period, when Mutombo averaged 17 points, 13 rebounds and 11 shots a game (compared to 14, 12 and 8 alongside Mourning) and Georgetown's perimeter players applied the kind of all-court defensive pressure that the twin towers forbid.
Yet Mourning has been a victim more than a culprit, averaging only eight shots in his 12 Big East games. Mutombo's every on-court move elicits child-like gushings of wonderment from spectators, but Mourning must dominate simply to do what's expected of him. "It's something I have to learn to live with," he said.
There is no sign of friction, though. Mourning and Mutombo seem to enjoy one another's presence -- "I'm so proud of Alonzo," Mutombo often says after a good performance by Mourning -- and they remain the reason the Hoyas still are a feared postseason opponent.
A win over the No. 4 Orangemen likely would have assured a 13th straight NCAA tournament berth, but the loss actually might have enhanced Georgetown's chances of advancing in the Big East tournament. The Hoyas will face Connecticut instead of surging Seton Hall on Friday, and they're bracketed in the half of the field with second-seeded St. John's instead of Syracuse, the only conference team they didn't beat this season.
For all the talk of Georgetown -- with its 12-11 record against Division I opponents -- needing at least one more victory to make the NCAAs, the Hoyas might already be in. No club with at least eight Big East triumphs ever has been excluded from a 64-team NCAA field, and Georgetown begins to look better when selection-committee chairman Jim Delany reels off the list of tiebreakers for at-large berths: strength of conference, strength of schedule and wins or close losses to ranked and NCAA tournament-caliber foes among the list.
Thompson says a trip to the NIT would not be the end of the world, but he's quick to point out that a "new season" is arriving -- and Georgetown has captured six of the previous 11 Big East tournaments. "I don't think anyone in the league wanted to be the one to have to play them in the first round," Calhoun said. "We just drew the short straw, I guess."
Said Mourning: "Nobody wants to play us. Who wants to play Georgetown? Who wants to start off playing Georgetown in the Big East tournament or the NCAA tournament? ... It's a new season about to start, and we're confident we can get some things accomplished."