For Hoyas, Tough Road Test

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

It seems like a lifetime ago that the Georgetown men's basketball team found itself in this position, of trying to regroup and move on after a loss. For the past month, the 17th-ranked Hoyas piled up win after win -- seven in a row -- their confidence and poise increasing with each game. But after a disastrous second-half performance in a 69-56 loss to West Virginia, the Hoyas embark on a difficult two-game road trip at a critical juncture in the season. Tonight, Georgetown faces Marquette, which is 11-2 at Bradley Center; on Sunday, it plays fourth-ranked Villanova at The Pavilion, where the Wildcats are 6-1.

"We'll see how they respond," Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. "We have to approach every game with a sense of urgency. The next game is the most important game -- that's cliche, but I promise you that's what I've said to the team. We have a tough stretch here, and we have to put all our energies into the next game. We don't need to look at the big picture."

But there is plenty at stake in the big picture for Georgetown, which is 17-5 overall and 8-3 in the Big East. The Hoyas are in the mix for one of the four first-round byes in the conference tournament; they sit behind Villanova (10-1), Connecticut (9-2) and West Virginia (9-2) in the loss column.

Since the tournament expanded to a four-day format in 1983, no team has won four straight games to take the title, and only two teams (Connecticut in 2000 and West Virginia in 2005) have even made it to the final without the benefit of a first-round bye.

The Hoyas were in this position a year ago, holding an 8-3 conference record and sitting in third place with five games to play. But Georgetown lost those five games and dropped to seventh place. In that stretch, the Hoyas' defense faltered and Georgetown was outrebounded in four of the five losses.

Thompson acknowledged earlier in the season that fatigue was a factor down the stretch. Georgetown relied heavily on seven players last season, three of whom were freshmen and unaccustomed to the rigors of a Big East season.

This season, the Hoyas once again use essentially a seven-man rotation, with senior swingman Darrel Owens and freshman guard Jessie Sapp the only reserves who average more than 10 minutes per game.

Thompson has turned to senior forward Amadou Kilkenny-Diaw and freshman forward Marc Egerson for extended periods at times, and he says that he has eight or nine players that he's comfortable going with. As for the importance of having depth, he recalled teams at Princeton that used five players almost exclusively, and ones that went 10 deep.

"A lot of it is how you've been prepared," Thompson said. "It's mental."

Marquette (16-8, 6-5), which just joined the Big East, is a new test for Georgetown; the teams haven't met since the 1971-72 season. The Hoyas are 3-0 against the conference newcomers, winning by an average margin of 14.3 points, but Marquette -- which beat Connecticut by 15 points in its Big East debut -- is the best of the five teams.

The Golden Eagles average 13,000 fans at Bradley Center (fourth most in the conference), and they haven't lost at home since Jan. 7 against Cincinnati. They are the second-best three-point shooting team in the Big East, and Thompson said it's important that the Hoyas don't get dejected if Marquette hits two or three long-range shots in a row.

Guard Dominic James has been perhaps the best freshman in the Big East, and senior Steve Novak has been one of its best shooters. Novak, who played on Marquette's 2003 Final Four team, ranks first in the Big East in three-pointers per game (3.63) and second in three-point percentage (45.1). He presents an unusual challenge because of his size (6 feet 10, 220 pounds) and his comfort on the perimeter; Novak has taken -- and made -- twice as many shots from beyond the arc as he has from inside.

Georgetown has faced West Virginia's sharpshooting 6-11 senior Kevin Pittsnogle twice, and he scored a combined 48 points (6 for 15 from three-point range) in the two Mountaineers wins.

"He is a terrific shooter," Thompson said of Novak. "The comparisons with Pittsnogle come with the size, but Pittsnogle is a center. This guy is 6-10, but he's more of a small forward in terms of how he moves and handles the ball, gets shots off the dribble. He's made more tough shots -- more guarded, contested shots -- than anybody I've seen this year."

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