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At Big East Midpoint, Hoyas Face Steep Climb

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

There's no requirement that a basketball team finish with at least a .500 record in conference play to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.

A strong schedule and momentum down the stretch of the regular season can compensate for records that don't look impressive at first blush.

Halfway through their Big East campaign, the Georgetown Hoyas find themselves facing a steep climb just to finish at .500 in the Big East, having lost five consecutive games -- four of them to conference foes. As a result, they tumbled from the national rankings yesterday, receiving not a single vote in the Associated Press poll.

Projected to finish eighth in the conference, the Hoyas (12-8, 3-6) are now locked with Notre Dame (also 12-8, 3-6) and St. John's (12-9, 3-6) in a tie for 10th in the league standings.

To finish 9-9, Georgetown must win six of its nine remaining games. Of those, four are against teams that are currently ranked: No. 5 Louisville, No. 8 Marquette, No. 17 Villanova and No. 20. Syracuse.

Tonight's game against Rutgers (10-12, 1-8) at Verizon Center represents the first step.

Georgetown hasn't lost five straight games since the end of the 2004-05 regular season, Coach John Thompson III's first. That group, at 19-13, ended up in the National Invitation Tournament.

Come mid-March, Georgetown's difficult schedule, constructed specifically to test the young squad early, might prove to be its chief ally in making the Hoyas' postseason case.

"Their strong schedule will work greatly in their favor," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has previously speculated that the Big East could receive 10 NCAA bids (although just six conference teams were represented among the top 25 in the latest rankings).

Tonight would be the ideal time for the Hoyas to begin to reverse their fortunes.

They're back home, for one, after losing successive road games at Seton Hall, Cincinnati and Marquette.

Moreover, the Hoyas haven't lost to Rutgers since Craig Esherick was the coach.

This season's Rutgers squad has revamped its starting lineup six times. The sixth was the charm, apparently, with the Scarlet Knights thumping DePaul, 75-56, on Saturday to snap a nine-game losing streak and earn their first victory in conference play.

"It makes a big difference psychologically," senior guard Anthony Farmer said. "We see what we are capable of, and we can move forward."

Georgetown also made strides Saturday.

Before a capacity crowd of shrieking Marquette fans, the Hoyas led by 10 in the first half but were outscored and out-hustled in the second half before falling, 94-82.

Still, their shooting was far better: 56.1 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range. And leading scorer DaJuan Summers led in accuracy and production (9 of 12 for 22 points), showing no ill effects of a badly bruised foot suffered in Wednesday's loss at Cincinnati.

But Georgetown couldn't stop Marquette, getting burned repeatedly by Jerel McNeal and Lazar Hayward, who weren't fazed by Georgetown's pressure. Along with Wesley Matthews, Marquette's high-scoring trio poured in 72 points. And yet again, the Hoyas faded late in the game.

Tonight's game will mark Georgetown's fifth in 13 days. That's a wearying pace, but Thompson said he doesn't think fatigue is affecting performance.

"We've gone through a tough stretch," Thompson said after the Marquette loss, in which the Hoyas were outscored 52-40 in the second half. "And we have to turn around and play again on Tuesday. This is a difficult stretch, but I know fatigue was not a factor. We got everyone rested. I thought we were very fresh going into the second half."

Thompson also was quick to insert Nikita Mescheriakov into the lineup Saturday in search of more offense against the league's top-scoring team. The sophomore finished with five points.

Turnovers remain an issue, as do poise and shot selection at critical junctures.

With half of the Big East season remaining, Bilas believes it's too early for Georgetown fans to wring their hands over the postseason.

"If the record were reversed, and Georgetown was 6-3, I wouldn't feel comfortable saying, 'They're definitely getting in,' " Bilas said. "You wouldn't start stitching the banner. The games coming up would still be just as important."

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