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Hoyas See Need to 'Relax and Play'

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In too many games of late, Georgetown's offense has ground to a halt. Far too often, those lapses have come when it mattered most.

A typical sequence: The Hoyas race toward the basket, their opponent in pursuit, and stop as if they've hit an invisible wall. They pass the ball around the perimeter in methodical fashion until one player fires a shot.

When the carefully calibrated system of getting the ball to the open man produces points, it's a study in teamwork and efficiency. But when it doesn't, as has been the case in critical stretches of the last eight games, it has left the young Hoyas looking frustrated and tentative.

With a once promising season unraveling down the stretch, Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said yesterday that his Hoyas need to loosen up on the court.

"When you go through difficult stretches, it's natural to start to wonder, question and be apprehensive," said Thompson, whose squad started 12-3 but has lost seven of its last eight games. "We're at the point where we need to relax and play."

Whether this means a subtle or a substantive change in Georgetown's approach should become clear tonight, when the slumping Hoyas (13-10, 4-8 Big East) face South Florida (8-16, 3-9) in Tampa.

Led by sophomore Chris Wright's season-high 25 points, Georgetown stormed back from a 16-point second-half deficit to force overtime against Syracuse on Saturday. While the result was yet another defeat, 98-94, the late-game surge showed encouraging grit and scrappiness.

Wright said the key was "playing more off our instincts."

If this signals a fundament shift in the way Georgetown attacks opponents, the Hoyas need to make the transition quickly.

Having fallen to 12th place in the Big East, Georgetown has only six regular season games remaining to state its case for an NCAA tournament bid. Three of those games are against teams ranked in the top 12 -- No. 10 Marquette, No. 7 Louisville and No. 12 Villanova.

Jerry Palm, who analyzes teams' NCAA tournament chances at CollegeRPI.com, says Georgetown faces a "pretty sizable" hurdle.

"Thirteen and 10 is just not a good enough record, almost no matter who you play," Palm said. "They need to get hot. Their margin for error is pretty much gone. If they can crawl back to .500 [in the Big East], I think they may be all right. Anything short of that? I don't know how they survive without a strong run in the conference tournament."

Georgetown will need a blend of structure and instinct to jump-start its offense, said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who follows the Big East closely.

"It's a game of reaction, but it's also a game of feel," Bilas says. "It's a combination of both; otherwise coaches would just say, 'Hey, go out there and use your instincts!' You can't play that way. You have to play within a certain framework. You want to be concentrated but relaxed at the same time."

That's difficult for a young team, particularly after losing a string of close games.

"It weighs on you a little bit," Bilas said of a string of losses, pointing to Texas and Duke as teams going through similar struggles. "But Georgetown has not been blown out. They've lost a couple of games, but they've been in all those games with a chance to win. I think the level of competition they've faced in the Big East will work in their favor."

Thompson insists he's not distracted by the mind-bending math that influences NCAA tournament selections -- regular season records, conference records, strength of schedule -- focusing only on winning the next game.

"Obviously you start to look around, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities with each passing game to get wins," Thompson said. "At the end of the day, we do have the Big East."

Winning the conference tournament, of course, would solve everything. Failing that, the Hoyas will likely need a deep run in the tournament -- which will include all 16 teams for the first time -- with victories against several quality opponents.

But South Florida is the opponent on tap. Looking ahead to the matchup, Thompson said he plans to start sophomore Nikita Mescheriakov again instead of senior Jessie Sapp, despite the fact that Mescheriakov didn't score in the loss at Syracuse. Sapp came off the bench to contribute nine points and three rebounds.

Thompson said the move should not be interpreted as a sign that he's focused more on grooming next season's team than on finishing strong with the current squad.

"I believe in this group," Thompson said. "This group that we have now, we're going to figure out how this group is going to win. And we're going to worry about next year, next year."

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