A year ago, a senior-laden Georgetown men’s basketball team gave Coach John Thompson III his first career victory at the Carrier Dome, and in the process ended the school’s nine-year drought in central New York.
Georgetown’s freshmen have played before hostile capacity crowds at Alabama, Louisville and Pittsburgh this season. But they’ve never played at Syracuse, where a university official said they’re expecting 26,000-plus orange-clad fans.
Sophomore guard Markel Starks said he won’t soon forget the welcome he received during warmups last February.
“As soon as I got on the court, fans were jawing at me,” he recalled. “I heard some things I wish I didn’t hear. The best way I can tell [the freshmen] to prepare for it is to try to tune the crowd out. But it’s hard.”
Starks and Nate Lubick were the only Hoyas freshmen to suit up in last season’s 64-56 victory. This season, the Hoyas (18-4, 8-3 Big East) rely on a group of four freshmen — guard Jabril Trawick and forwards Otto Porter, Greg Whittington and Mikael Hopkins — that has accounted for 32.6 percent of the team’s minutes. Porter is averaging 28.3 minutes per game, which ranks behind only senior Jason Clark and junior Hollis Thompson.
“They’ve seen it,” John Thompson III said. “They watch games. They know what they’re walking into. But knowing it and experiencing it are different. They have a sense of the crowd, and how great their fans are, and how numerous their fans are.”
Syracuse’s legion of vocal supporters, though, won’t be Georgetown’s only concern. The Orange (23-1, 10-1) possesses the Big East’s highest-scoring offense (78.1 points per game) as well as its most efficient (1.16 points per possession).
Syracuse’s deep, balanced and varied scoring attack is led by 6-foot-7 senior forward Kris Joseph (13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds per game) and guards Dion Waiters (12.3 points) and Brandon Triche (10 points, three assists). Only Marquette has dished out more than Syracuse’s 16.8 assists per contest.
“They have quality depth,” said Thompson, whose Hoyas lead the conference in scoring defense (58.6 points per game). “There’s no drop-off from second team, and at some positions, the third team.”
The meeting will also mark the storied rivals’ only scheduled contest of the season because of the Big East’s unbalanced schedule. In June, Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian told The Washington Post that Syracuse will return to Washington during the 2012-13 season. That, however, came before Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced in September they were leaving for the ACC, clouding both the short- and long-term future of the rivalry.
The Orange also figures to be motivated by the chance to give Coach Jim Boeheim sole possession of third place on the all-time wins list. With 879 victories, he is tied with former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and trails only Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski (919) and former Indiana coach Bob Knight (902).
Through the years, Boeheim has amassed many of those wins thanks to his trademark 2-3 zone defense. Last February, though, Georgetown switched things up, putting guard Chris Wright in the heart of the zone, and the senior dished out nine assists in the Hoyas’ victory. But Wright missed the rematch three weeks later because of a broken hand and Syracuse prevailed, 58-51, at Verizon Center.
Thompson acknowledged a “cat-and-mouse game” of trying to solve Boeheim’s zone. He also wasn’t tipping his hand Tuesday.
“That’s all he plays,” Thompson said. “There is a cat-and-mouse game going on of: ‘Okay, what are they taking away? Okay, now let let’s look for Option B. What are they giving us? Should we take that? Should we not?’ ”
Wednesday’s outcome likely will be determined by whether the Hoyas find — and exploit — what the Orange gives them.
And, to the same extent, whether their freshmen are able to keep their focus on the court, not the verbal jabs being hurled from the stands.
“They haven’t told me anything about it yet,” Porter said. “But I’ve seen a couple games on television. The fans are amazing. They were loud and into the game. It’s going to be fun.”
Added Trawick: “They say the Syracuse experience is something you can’t explain. It’s going to be very hostile. It’s easy to get out of sync when you go up to a place like that. If they get on a run, it’s easy to start playing out of control. We just have to keep composed.”