The last clash of Big East rivals Georgetown and Syracuse was bound to be emotionally charged. But the competitive stakes of Saturday’s game at Verizon Center, where the No. 5 Hoyas and 17th-ranked Orange will square off one last time as conference foes in the regular season, have only heightened the tension.
Knotted in a three-way tie atop the Big East standings, Georgetown (23-5, 13-4) can clinch a share of the regular season title with a victory — or claim it outright, if Louisville and Marquette stumble in their respective season finales.
And Syracuse (23-7, 11-6), which has lost two of its past three since falling to Georgetown before a wildly partisan, record crowd of 35,012 at the Carrier Dome two weeks ago, is trying to claw its way into the fourth seed (and coveted double-bye) for the upcoming Big East tournament.
As Coach John Thompson III reflected on all that will be lost when these two Big East founders part ways this summer — Syracuse to the ACC, Georgetown to a pared-down, built-for-basketball Big East — he agreed it was fitting that so much hangs in the balance.
“Georgetown-Syracuse is a big game any time, any regular season,” Thompson said Friday. “The fact that it’s the last game of this year makes it that much more of a big game. The fact that it’s the last time we’re going to be playing as conference opponents — that then adds onto it. The fact that if we win, we win [the regular season title] — that adds onto it. . . . This absolutely has special meaning for all of those factors.”
The Hoyas were ecstatic when they strode off the Carrier Dome court Feb. 23 with a 57-46 upset of then-No. 8 Syracuse, thanks largely to a 33-point eruption from Otto Porter Jr., who instantly joined the national player of the year conversation with the performance.
But like their coach, they tempered their showboating, mindful that they’d have to face the Orange at least one more time, likely with even more at stake.
Both teams have been humbled since: Syracuse, falling to Marquette and Louisville; Georgetown, seeing its 11-game winning streak snapped in a turnover-fest at the hands of Villanova.
“It was a reminder that we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said of the Villanova loss. “We ended up winning 11 straight, and I think we kind of got complacent with that.”
Unless the Hoyas take better care of the ball Saturday, Syracuse stands a terrific chance of exacting revenge on Georgetown’s home court.
“We know we can’t turn the ball over like we did — especially against Syracuse, because they get points off of turnovers,” Porter said. “So we’re going to have to control our mistakes.”
Georgetown hasn’t won a regular season Big East title since 2007-08. Snapping that drought Saturday would carry particular pride for two reasons.
In October’s preseason poll, Georgetown was projected to finish fifth in the Big East standings after losing its three leading scorers from last season.
And it’s the final season of the Big East that since its founding in 1979 has cast such a muscular shadow over the landscape of college basketball.
While a new Big East will emerge from its remains on July 1 — a 10-team league built around Georgetown and the six other members that don’t play big-time football — it won’t have the clout of the current Big East, which is losing Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame in addition to Syracuse, Georgetown and its basketball-focused brethren.
“A Big East regular season title is what’s most important right now,” junior forward Nate Lubick said. “That has been the biggest thing in terms of a goal for us during this regular season. And we’ve got to go get it.”
As he does each year, Thompson has drilled into his Hoyas all season the conviction that every Big East game is critical. No opponent, no game is more important than another in the quest for the regular season title.
But it’s an impossible case to make heading into Saturday, given the buzz over the final installment of Georgetown vs. Syracuse — the rivalry that gave the Big East its reputation for tough-nosed basketball and, along the way, made Hall of Fame coaches out of Jim Boeheim and John Thompson Jr.
It’s expected to set an attendance record for a Georgetown home game, drawing a capacity-plus crowd of former Hoya players, students returning from spring break and, no doubt, a vocal contingent of Syracuse alumni. Verizon Center doors will open at 9:30 a.m. in advance of the noon tip-off. And ESPN’s College Gameday will broadcast from the venue starting at 10 a.m.
Hoya players aren’t the only ones inundated with ticket requests from friends and family.
Said Thompson: “I’ve got to think that with a 35,000-plus seat-Dome, I think Boeheim probably had a lot easier job of accommodating ticket requests that I’m having for [Saturday].”