“Coming into the season, I kind of felt that way,” Smith-Rivera said when asked whether he’s more comfortable shooting the ball now than at any other time in his career. “Just the offseason, I took a lot of time focusing, just working on things I need to fine-tune for the season.”
Saturday’s game also will be a homecoming for Smith-Rivera, who played basketball for three years at North Central High in Indianapolis. There, he won a state title in 2009-10 as a sophomore and played the championship game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, then known as Conseco Fieldhouse, only a few minutes from his home.
A week later, Butler lost to Duke in the national championship game down the street at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was the first of consecutive appearances in the final for the Bulldogs — a program Smith-Rivera admired while growing up.
“The atmosphere around the city, you could tell there was a lot of tension anticipating Butler making a good run, and they did,” said Smith-Rivera, who will have many family members and friends at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, where part of the movie “Hoosiers” was filmed.
In high school, Smith-Rivera developed a friendly relationship with then-Butler coach Brad Stevens, and the two would speak in passing about Smith-Rivera perhaps playing for his hometown college. But those plans took a different turn when Smith-Rivera left Indianapolis to play at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia during his senior year.
These days, both Smith-Rivera and Butler have undergone significant changes.
This past offseason, Smith-Rivera embarked on a fitness regimen that helped him shed roughly 15 pounds. With increased stamina and quickness, he has become the fifth-leading scorer in the Big East and is shooting 68 percent over the past two games.
Smith-Rivera also made 8 of 10 three-point attempts in that span, averaged 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists and was the only starter to reach double figures in Wednesday’s loss at Providence. Georgetown (10-4, 2-1 Big East) had beaten the Friars eight straight times entering Wednesday and had not lost to its longtime conference rival since 2005.
Butler, meanwhile, is a member of its third conference in as many years after leaving the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10 last season. The Bulldogs spent one season in the Atlantic 10 before departing for the Big East with new Coach Brandon Miller after Stevens accepted the same position with the Boston Celtics.
The Bulldogs (10-5, 0-3) are coming off a 99-94 double-overtime home loss to DePaul on Thursday night. The other two losses to open Big East play came against Villanova, which at No. 8 is the only ranked team in the conference, and Xavier, which Georgetown plays Wednesday to wrap up its road stretch.
Butler has not lost four straight games since 2004-05.
“It’s not so much that they’re a desperate team,” said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, who is making his first trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse. “It goes back to what I said postgame after Providence: Every game in the Big East is a challenge. We’re going to have to play well.”
Note: For a second straight game, the Hoyas will be without starting center Joshua Smith. The 6-foot-10, 350-pound transfer from UCLA stayed in the District trying to resolve an academic issue, school officials confirmed. It remains unclear when Smith will be back with the team.