Game Preview: St. John’s at Georgetown (posted at Casual Hoya)

Your Hoyas seek to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Syracuse on Sunday at the Verizon Center, when they face a young, struggling St. John’s squad. Check out the game preview posted over at Casual Hoya.

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Heartbreaker: Syracuse 64, Georgetown 61

Georgetown fought the number two team in the nation to the brink and beyond Wednesday night, taking the hated Syracuse Orange to overtime before succumbing in the last minute, 64-61. The Hoyas withstood multiple Orange surges, punching back even as the home team threatened to run away with the game. Ultimately, despite the valiant effort, two miscues did the young Hoyas in: their big men’s inability to finish near the rim, and their failure to contain Orange wing Kris Joseph.

Georgetown led for nearly the entire first half, dominating the boards while staying just ahead of the Orange. Freshman Otto Porter, who would finish with 14 points and 13 rebounds, led the charge to the glass, grabbing nine first-half misses. The Hoyas were no great shakes from the field, shooting below 40 percent for the half, but managed a couple of timely threes from Hollis Thompson and just enough ball movement to score on the Orange zone. On the other end of the floor, the Hoyas’ zone bottled up the Orange, save for a couple of Joseph threes, helping the visitors to carry a 31-27 lead into half-time.

Syracuse came out of the break with eight straight points to wrest the lead from the Hoyas. A sloppy turnover and missed shot both led to easy transition points, which Georgetown had limited up to that point. Syracuse’s run culminated with a Brandon Triche three that brought the 27,000 plus Orange-clad fans to their feet. Seniors Jason Clark and Henry Sims each had picked up their third fouls, making the Hoyas’ prospects grim.

Faced with veteran foul trouble, JTIII turned to a line-up of Hollis and the four freshmen. As they had so many times before, the first years came through on the defensive end, stanching the blood-letting while scoring just enough to tighten the margin back up. The game was nip-and-tuck the rest of the way, with each team taking one-basket leads that were just as quickly equalized. But Georgetown struggled to keep up, as Sims and Mikael Hopkins, the Hoyas’ big men, missed a series of chip shots near the rim, finishing 2 of 20 between them from the floor. While some of the shots looked make-able, many of the misses could be chalked up to Syracuse’s stout interior defense which, led by massive center Fab Melo, boasts the best block rate in the Big East. Having contained the Hoyas on offense, Syracuse rebuilt its advantage, which swelled to six thanks to yet another three by Joseph with 4:37 remaining

Just when Georgetown looked to be fading into the night, though, Clark hit back-to-back threes from ten or more feet beyond the arc. Reinvigorated on offense, the Hoyas locked down on defense, holding the Orange to just a single free throw over the last four minutes. In part, the Hoyas were aided by Orange guard Dion Waiters’s decision to play hero ball, as the sophomore launched jumper after ill-advised jumper. But Georgetown’s stingy defense also ruled out other options, clogging the lane and swarming the perimeter. Clark’s second bomb pulled the Hoyas within one, and an ill-advised foul with a minute remaining sent Greg Whittington to the line with just one minute remaining. The freshman made one of two to tie the game; each team missed opportunities to win in the final minute, including a frustrating possession in which Sims looked off a wide open Thompson on the perimeter.

A see-saw extra session ensued, with each team gaining, then relinquishing, a two-point lead. With less than a minute to play, Syracuse had the ball with a chance to break a 61-all tie. Once again, the Orange found Joseph free on the wing, and once again, the senior converted from three, his sixth trey of the evening with barely 20 seconds remaining in the extra session. A Georgetown timeout and a frustrating sequence ensued, in which Thompson tried to check into the game, but too late, leaving the Hoyas without their best perimeter marksman on a critical possession. Left without an additional option, Clark was bottled up and turned the ball over, ending the Hoyas’ chances.

The final minute was a disheartening end to an extremely encouraging evening that validated the Hoyas’ progress throughout the season. Whatever the struggles on each end of the floor, the Hoyas proved that they could shut down the Orange offense, which until last night had averaged more than 78 points per game. Porter once again proved his merit on a big stage, notching a double-double, while the rest of the Hoya freshmen seemed unfazed by the rabid opposing crowd. Clark and Thompson each played moderately well against the swarming Orange zone, with Hollis in particular showing full-court effort en route to his own 10 point, 10 rebound double-double.

Georgetown takes these positives into a five-game stretch in which the Hoyas are likely to be favored in each contest: Sunday’s home game against St. John’s; road trips to Providence and Seton Hall; and a pair of home games, against Villanova and Notre Dame. Each game will present its own challenges, but if the Hoyas bring the same defensive tenacity and composure against those foes that brought them within a free throw of being the first team to win at the Carrier Dome, they should emerge victorious. For now, the sting of Wedneday’s loss lingers, but another game awaits. Hoya Saxa.

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Clampdown: #14 Georgetown 75, South Florida 45

Georgetown played the first half Saturday against South Florida as it had several recent games: the defense was stingy, but the offense scarcely produced more points than the defense yielded. Coming out of intermission, though, the Hoyas hit their offensive stride while keeping the clamps on defensively, pushing the lead to twenty points and then beyond, all of which proved too much for the cold-shooting, error-prone Bulls to overcome. Henry Sims topped five-double digit Hoyas with 13 points, while also leading the team with 9 rebounds and 5 assists.

For the second straight game, Georgetown held its opponent without a field goal for ten-plus minutes, keeping South Florida scoreless from five minutes after the tip until barely four minutes remained in the first half. The Hoyas were aided in their defensive efforts by the Bulls themselves, who committed numerous and egregious turnovers (at one point, five straight USF possessions ended in turnovers), missed free throws and lay-ups, and generally shot themselves in the foot offensively. But Georgetown’s defense also limited perimeter looks, rotated crisply, and held its own on the boards.

Initially, the offense wasn’t much to speak of, shooting just 35 percent for the first half and managing just three free throws over a nine-plus minute stretch. But that all changed after the half, when the Hoyas rattled off a 16-4 run to open the half, then scored on 14 straight possessions to end any thought of a South Florida comeback. Some of the new-found offensive production was the result of better ball movement, as Sims, Otto Porter (12 points, 4 assists), and Jason Clark (11 points, 2 assists) all picked up nifty assists. But the onslaught also was fueled simply by hot shooting, as seemingly ill-chosen long two-pointers and one-on-one forays alike led to baskets. Regardless, the jump in production, after recent bouts of offensive ineptitude, as plenty welcome.

In all, the win, its sixth holding a major-conference opponent under 60 points after four such victories last year, was further proof that Georgetown can win games with its defense. For all of Sims’s passing virtuosity, the absence of a true play-maker will continue to cause offensive lapses, but many fans exasperated by frequent defensive indifference in years past are willing to be patient with offensive difficulties. Saturday’s victory also runs Georgetown’s conference mark to 8-3 which, combined with Notre Dame’s win over Marquette, puts those three teams in a three-way tie (in the loss-column) for second place. The Hoyas’ position will be challenged Wednesday, when Georgetown travels to Syracuse to face the streaking Orange. The Hoyas will enter that game as underdogs, but, as they proved last year in the Carrier Dome, anything can happen. A preview of that game follows Saturday at casualhoya.com.

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Game Previews at Casual Hoya

The good gents at Casual Hoya have invited me to post my pregame musings on their site. So, click here to read about tomorrow’s game against South Florida and check back at casualhoya.com for game previews going forward.

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Return to Form?: Georgetown 58, Connecticut 44

Georgetown’s once-again stingy defense conspired with an atrocious Connecticut offense to hold the Huskies without a field goal for more than ten minutes Wednesday night. In the process, the Hoyas turned an early six-point deficit into a lead they would never relinquish, riding Hollis Thompson’s sweet stroke and timely scoring from their other two upperclassmen to a 58-44 victory.

This game started much like the last one ended, with the Hoyas following up Saturday’s lax defensive effort against Pitt with similarly poor play early against UConn, which made six of its first seven shots. Husky uber-freshman Andre Drummond domainted the post early, making four of those six early buckets. But then the Huskies went away from Drummond, who did just okay when he did get the rock. Instead, UConn mostly kept the ball outside, lazily passing around the perimeter of changing Georgetown defenses. Zone and switching man both invited long-range hoists by the Husky guards, who dutifully complied with brick after brick. The Connecticut back-court of Jeremy Lamb, Ryan Boatright, and Shabazz Napier, who average a combined 42 points, shot just 4 of 31 from the field, netting just 15 points between them. While 14 of those points were Lamb’s, he was perhaps the principal offender, repeatedly throwing up errant heat checks from well beyond the three-point arc.

By the time Connecticut’s drought ended–not in a monsoon, but in a bare trickle–the Hoyas had taken the lead. Thompson scored eight straight Hoya points, then Henry Sims put in six straight in versatile fashion, with in a pair of foul shots, a mid-range jumper, and a driving lay-in. A nifty Nate Lubick feed to Thompson for a lay-up ended the half’s scoring with Georgetown up ten. The game was never really in doubt again: the Huskies closed the gap to six just once, whereupon Jason Clark scored consecutive buckets and Sims made the play of the night with a rim-rattling dunk to push the lead back to 12. Thompson finished with 18, a nice bounce-back after a two-game slide, while Sims and Clark scored 13 and 11, respectively.

Much like the old contrast between campaigning and governing, some wins are poetry, and others are in prose. This one was definitely the latter. While Georgetown’s defense deserves some of the credit for Connecticut’s 30 percent shooting, more blame should be given to the Huskies, who alternately looked cold and and toxic Wednesday night. Boatright and Napier, locked in a zero-sum game for minutes, both were forcing the issue on offense, while all three guards seemed incapable of acknowledging that Drummond was their only viable option. And coach Jim Calhoun, apparent endower of whatever academic scholarship Drummond is receiving, employed roughly zero tactical changes throughout the game. On the Hoya side of the ball, improved defense scarcely affected an offense that continued middling results (decent, 44 percent shooting but 15 turnovers) after poor performances against Pitt and Rutgers.

But every win is important in Big East play, including Wednesday’s, which kept the Hoyas in the top four in the conference as the schedule moves into its back nine. With another one in the bag for the Hoyas, Saturday’s showdown with South Florida, of the surprising 6-3 conference mark, looms suddenly large.

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Rust, not Rest: Pittsburgh 72, Georgetown 60

Georgetown showed the ill effects of a week off Saturday, digging a 17-point hole from which it couldn’t get out, eventually falling against Pittsburgh, 72-60. The Hoyas sleep walked through much of the first half, sputtering on offense and not getting back on defense. While the deficit eventually was narrowed to five, the blue and gray committed too may errors, largely in the form of poor defensive rotations and forced shots on offense, to overtake a renewed Pittsburgh team.

Make no mistake: this was not the same Pitt team that lost its first seven Big East games. Panther point guard Tray Woodall returned before Wednesday’s win over Providence, revitalizing a downtrodden team. Saturday, Woodall generated a number of easy opportunities for his teammates, finishing with 10 assists. Several of those helpers came as fellow Panthers slipped screens and otherwise exploited a Georgetown defense that switches on picks. Particular beneficiaries were Nasir Robinson and Lamar Patterson, who combined to shoot 15 of 17 from the field to finish with 39 points.

Still, Georgetown was as bad as Pitt was good. The missed defensive rotations that led to so many easy Panther baskets were largely because of slow feet and poor communication by the Hoya defense. And the offense was little better: tentative cuts and poor ball movement helped hold the Hoyas to just 11 points in the first 15-plus minutes. Even the baskets the Hoyas could manage were outside the flow of the offense, and free throws again were an issue, as Georgetown finished just 7 of 12 from the line. Before Georgetown could right the ship, the deficit was a nigh-insurmountable 28-11.

Then, the Hoyas started clicking. Improved defense held the Panthers to just 5 points over as many minutes, while three-pointers from Otto Porter and Greg Whittington fueled an offensive spurt narrowed the Pitt advantage to 11 at the half. (Had the old bugaboo–foul shots–not bitten Georgetown again in the last minute, when Porter missed the front end of a one-and-one, the lead might have been single digits.)

Georgetown came out of the break on the same trajectory as it closed the first half. Henry Sims–sluggish, silent, and ineffective in the first half–took over the post, scoring all 10 of his points after intermission and finding open teammates for suddenly easy baskets. And Jason Clark, who had scored just two points in the first half, scored twice off the bounce to pull the Hoyas within just five, a number that they matched on a Sims jump hook on the next possession.

But the errors were too many the rest of the way. For every stout defensive possession that resulted in a forced shot or 35-second violation, there was a slow-footed rotation that left Patterson or Robinson open under the hoop. On offense, a couple of forced jumpers frittered away possessions the Hoyas could scarcely afford to waste. Although Porter was excellent, leading the team with 14 points and 6 rebounds, the other offensive options, and the defensive stops, were too few. Georgetown would never again get closer than six.

The Hoyas’ offensive droughts have become something of a theme over recent weeks, whether in the closing minutes against Cincinnati, the entire first half against Rutgers, or the opening fifteen or so minutes against Pitt Saturday. Georgetown is even more susceptible to bouts of offensive ineptitude when one or more of its upperclassmen struggle. Saturday, the veteran in question was Hollis Thompson who, despite scoring 11 points, struggled for the second straight game, going scoreless between the Hoyas’ opening bucket and a largely meaningless eight-point flourish in the final minute.

While Georgetown (barely) withstood long scoreless stretches against Rutgers thanks to rugged defense of its own, the Hoyas could not contain a Pitt offense that, whatever the struggles of the team as a whole, remains highly efficient, and shot 52 percent from the field Saturday. Wednesday, the Hoyas will have a similarly small margin for error when they host the defending national champion UConn Huskies.

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Game Preview: #9/#10 Georgetown at Pittsburgh

Georgetown will try to win its fourth straight Saturday when it hits the road to face a struggling but dangerous Pittsburgh squad. Here’s what you need to get yourself ready.

When & Where. Saturday, Jan. 28, 4 p.m. EST, Petersen Events Center.

TV/Internet/Radio. ESPN/ESPN3/SportsTalk570.

It’s Been So Long Since Last We Met. Pitt has been the model of excellence over the past decade. Since 2003, the Panthers have averaged27 wins per season, have lost 10 games just once, and have compiled an astounding 101-41 record in the Big East, never failing to win more than 2/3 of their games overall or more than 1/2 of their Big East contests. That astoundingly consistent record made this year’s early-season collapse all the more surprising. Sure, Pitt lost a trio of seniors from last year’s team, including top playmaker Brad Wannamaker, rim defender Gary McGhee, and glue guy Gilbert Brown. But they returned a bevy of talent and had even more coming in. An early season home loss to Long Beach State was disconcerting, but the Panthers still stood at 11-1 heading into their Dec. 23 Christmas tune-up against Danny Hurley’s Wagner squad. But then the Seahawks improbably pulled off the upset. Big East play, and more losses, followed. The defense–for so long the Panthers’ calling card, emblematic as it was of coach Jamie Dixon’s unrivaled intensity–was suddenly porous, compounded by a key injury (more on that below) and the transfer, after barely one semester, of freshman phenom Khem Birch. The nadir came with a 23-point home beat-down by Rutgers, or maybe it was an earlier loss at DePaul. That defeat concluded with the Demon faithful rushing the floor, a show of exuberance that was all the more painful because it bore no relation to the Panthers’ record this season. By the time this Wednesday rolled around, Pitt had lost eight straight, including four at the once-inhospitable Petersen Events Center. Finally, this week, the bleeding stopped, or at least paused, when the Panthers finally got off the schneid by dispatching Providence at home. In other words, Pitt is now 1-7 in conference but perhaps finding its winning ways just in time to welcome your Hoyas into town.

Panthers to Know. The Pitt perimeter resembles those of their previous top-flight squads. Big East preseason Player of the Year Ashton Gibbs (16.7 ppg, 3.1 apg, 35.2 3FG%) anchors the Panther back-court and, despite shooting struggles this season, remains a threat to go for 20-plus. Gibbs’ load has been made a bit easier by the return of junior point guard Tray Woodall (11.6 ppg, 7.1 apg, 44.4 3FG%), an all-court menace who missed several games with a sore groin, from which he’s still feeling the effects. Still, Woodall seems to be rounding into form, as he went off for 17 points, including 4 three-pointers, and 9 assists against the Friars. Senior forward Nasir Robinson (12.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg) leads the team in rebounding despite standing just 6’5″, while sophomore guard Lamar Patterson (9.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 40 3FG%) provides some outside shooting while also out-rebounding his 6’5″ frame.

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball.

Panthers’ Strength. Offensive rebounding. Pitt always is tough on the boards, but this year is especially remarkable. The Panthers’ starting line-up goes, shortest to tallest, 5’11″, 6’2″, 6’5″, 6’5″, 6’9″, the last being sophomore Talib Zanna (6.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg). And yet the Panthers are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing more than 45 percent of their own misses. That gaudy number hardly has been affected by conference play, as the Panthers have continued to lead the Big East in generating second chances despite their losing streak. As is often the case with rebounding, Pitt’s success is a team effort, with Robinson (63 O. Reb.) leading the charge and Zanna (56), Patterson (40), and junior forward Dante Taylor (6.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 56 O. Reb.) bringing reinforcements.

Hoyas’ Strength. Use length to force bad shots. Neither team’s strength has changed from the Rutgers game. Like Rutgers, Pitt is a tenacious but somewhat undersized team that struggles to get clean looks. Woodall’s returns has made good shots easier to come by, but a Hoya zone featuring the freshmen still should frustrate the Panthers. Pitt has been particularly susceptible to blocked shots this year, an area in which the Hoyas, led by Henry Sims (1.6 blk pg), excel.

Looming Question. Gibbs? Woodall’s return to form should help Gibbs, who intermittently was tasked with running the point during the former’s convalescence. Having to be more distributor than scorer, and not benefiting from easy looks set up by his teammate, Gibbs struggled to score. As a consequence, while his scoring average remains the same as last year, he has had to shoot more to get there: while last year he shot 47 percent from the field and a scorching 49 percent from three, this year he’s shot just 39 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. But Wednesday’s game against Providence may have been the turning point. In addition to Woodall’s excellent performance, Gibbs went for 22 points on the strength of five three-pointers. Whether Jason Clark or, in reserve, Greg Whittington is assigned to guard him, keeping Gibbs in check will be essential Saturday.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

Hoyas’ Strength. Establish the (high and low) posts. One of the confusing aspects of Pitt’s struggles this year has been the Panthers’ defensive ineptitude. Previously a stout defensive team, Pitt has plummeted this year, rarely forcing turnovers and yielding plenty of open shots. In particular, the Panthers have given up more than 50 percent of opponents’ shots from two-point range, and have blocked less than 6 percent of opposing shots, both numbers that reflect the absence of a true interior defensive presence. Georgetown would do well to establish Sims, Nate Lubick, and Otto Porter inside on Saturday, and particularly to set up Sims in the high post, where he can attack the basket or feed a cutting teammate.

Panthers’ Strength. Defensive rebounding. As they do on offense, the Panthers clean the defensive boards effectively, yielding less than 35 percent of opposing misses as second chances. A Georgetown team that of late has generated plenty of extra possessions on the offensive glass will need to be more efficient against Pitt.

Looming Question. Free-throw shooting? Georgetown has been parading to the free throw line during conference play, leading the conference in free throw attempts as a percentage of shots overall. While getting the line has been easy, converting those opportunities hasn’t been, as the Hoyas have made just 65 percent of their free throws, the third-worst mark in the conference. Shaking off the slump may prove decisive tomorrow.

Prediction. It’s often said of rivalry games that, in predicting the outcome, the spectator should throw the teams’ records out the window. While the Panthers aren’t the Hoyas’ most natural rival, Georgetown should have its blood up a bit after last year’s embarrassing 72-57 stomping in Verizon. In any case, the proposition holds true: Pitt is better coached, more talented, and more dangerous, particularly at home, than its modest record suggests. Still, the Hoyas have proven themselves able road warriors this year, going 4-1 on the road, including wins over Louisville and Alabama. A bit of hand-to-hand combat in a hostile venue will be nothing new. Expect a tight, slow-paced affair that comes down the final minute. Georgetown 65, Pittsburgh 60.

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