When the Georgetown men’s basketball team last stepped onto the court at the most famous arena in the world, Coach John Thompson III and his players were precariously close to the point that an NCAA tournament berth was all but out of reach.
Two weeks later, the Hoyas not only are back in the conversation for college basketball’s showcase event but also in the mix to move into the top tier of the Big East Conference with six games left in the regular season.
That stretch run continues Sunday night against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, where the Hoyas at times have been almost as comfortable as playing on their home court. Georgetown proved as much Feb. 1 by outlasting then-No. 7 Michigan State, 64-60, to begin a four-game winning streak that has the Hoyas at .500 in the Big East for the first time since Jan. 18.
“Obviously we had a great win a couple weeks ago against Michigan State, which in some sense turned our season around, I guess if you want to say, but it is [St. John’s] home court,” Hoyas senior forward Nate Lubick said. “This is not a neutral-court game anymore.”
Immediately before the Hoyas (15-9, 6-6) played the Spartans that afternoon, St. John’s scored a 74-59 home win against Marquette that extended its own upswing. The Red Storm (16-9, 6-6), which began 0-5 in conference play, has won seven of eight to move into a tie for sixth place with Georgetown.
St. John’s early struggles included a 77-60 loss to the Hoyas at Verizon Center on Jan. 4. Georgetown opened a 42-16 lead at halftime and was never threatened the rest of the way.
“This St. John’s team, much like we’re a much different team now than when we played them the first time, they’re a much different team,” Thompson said. “They’re playing at a high level right now. They’re really defending, I think. You see a noticeable difference in energy on defense.”
The Hoyas have been particularly stingy defensively themselves when it comes to limiting St. John’s junior guard D’Angelo Harrison. In five career games against Georgetown, the third-leading scorer in the Big East (18.0 points per game) has shot 12 for 62, including 4 for 33 over the last three games.
In the teams’ first meeting this season, Harrison had four points and missed 11 of 12 shots. Four of the 10 career games in which Harrison has failed to reach double figures have come against the Hoyas.
“I think our defense has really picked up, and that’s something that allowed us to have a lot of success last year,” said Lubick, who drew three charges in Monday’s 83-71 victory over Providence. “Not to say that we weren’t working as hard on defense or anything this year, but there were certain things we weren’t doing.”
Georgetown has been more attentive to foul shooting, getting to the free throw line and ball security during its second longest winning streak this season. The Hoyas have shot 77 percent (88 for 114) at the line during the winning streak and over their last three games have committed just 19 turnovers, including five Monday to match a season low.
Also encouraging is the shooting resurgence of sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The Hoyas’ leading scorer (17.1 points per game, fourth in the Big East) had missed 17 straight three-pointers before going 2 for 4 against the Friars, and he made 7 of 10 field goals after missing 45 of 63 in the previous five.
Smith-Rivera’s season high of 31 points came against St. John’s and included 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range.
“Everybody keeps talking about that being my best offensive game, so I mean that’s the only reason why I even think about it or have talked about it,” Smith-Rivera said. “We don’t look back. We’re focused on this next game Sunday against St. John’s.”