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Georgetown basketball vs. St. John’s: Young teams confront rigors of Big East play

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The scoring may not be prolific and there likely will be more basketball potential than prowess on display when Georgetown takes on longtime rival St. John’s on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

The Hoyas start two juniors and three sophomores; the Red Storm is even younger, starting three sophomores and two freshmen. Both teams are coming off Big East defeats in which their offense faltered and immaturity showed. And both are led by veteran coaches grappling with the challenge of preparing youngsters for the punishing reality of conference play.

It’s a fine line to walk, making clear to former high school standouts what the Big East demands without undermining their confidence in the process, Georgetown’s John Thompson III and Steve Lavin of St. John’s conceded in separate interviews this week.

“At the same time, they need to understand what’s necessary,” said Thompson, whose 19th-ranked Hoyas on Tuesday suffered the program’s biggest defeat since 1974, a 73-45 loss to Pittsburgh. “Sometimes you have to beat ’em down to build ’em up.”

“Embarrassing” is how Thompson described the drubbing immediately afterward. After studying the tape, replaying episodes of stone-cold shooting and lax defending, he concluded the loss was “all-encompassing,” with failures of execution at both ends of the court.

It was the fourth game this season in which Georgetown (10-3, 0-2) has scored less than 50 points. The Hoyas finished with more turnovers (17) than field goals (13). And the squandered possessions sent fans heading for the Verizon Center exits well before the buzzer sounded on what proved a deflating Big East home opener.

What Thompson has stressed since, he said, is the importance of “emotional consistency.”

“The hard thing is getting them to understand that we don’t need the high highs and the low lows,” Thompson said. “You can have a couple of great games, but that doesn’t mean you’ve conquered the world. And you can have a bad loss, and that doesn’t mean you’re the worst team in the world, either. Usually, emotional consistency leads to on-court consistency.”

Georgetown’s growing pains are all too familiar to Lavin, whose Red Storm fell to 9-6, 1-2 after a 58-56 loss to Rutgers on Wednesday. His team charged back from a 12-point deficit only to lose its composure over the final minutes, missing a dozen free throws for the game and taking hasty jump shots instead of working the ball inside.

“It’s the youngest team I’ve ever coached in my career,” Lavin said. “They’re learning College Basketball 101 at the highest level.”

At times when a young team confronts the rigors of the Big East, Lavin quipped, it looks as if the NFL’s venerable Vince Lombardi or George Halas is coaching, the offensive gains can be so incremental.

“It turns into a game of field goals and moving the chains,” Lavin said. “You can’t overreact. You just keep teaching.”

Like Georgetown, St. John’s isn’t without weapons.

Chief among them is defensive powerhouse Chris Obekpa, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Nigeria who blocked a school-record eight shots in his college debut and is averaging 5.1 blocks.

But the offense is still evolving and has scored 56 and 53 points its last two games.

“Partly it’s the grinding nature of the Big East,” Lavin said. “Teams are so well scouted in terms of the overall scheme and also individually — the tendency, the vulnerability and weakness in terms of personnel on a given team. There will be stretches where a team struggles to score.”

The only option for the coach of a young team, he added, is to keep teaching and demanding the right things without destroying their confidence.

“So much of basketball is confidence,” Lavin said. “If you’ve got a team that’s hesitating or looking over their shoulder, you have real issues.”

Added Thompson: “We are taking a hard look at ourselves. It’s no time to panic.”

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