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Georgetown Hoyas Face Mission Improbable at Big East Tournament

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; E01

Not everyone was pleased when presidents of the Big East universities voted in November 2007 to expand the league's basketball tournament from 12 to all 16 teams starting this season.

Some argued it would dilute the cachet of the event and, in turn, make tickets a tougher sell.

But inclusiveness won out. Coaches of teams that were perennially mired at the bottom of the standings reveled over the opportunity to join the party at Madison Square Garden and, with luck, eke out another victory or two against a quality opponent, raising their profiles in the process.

Who would have thought when this season opened, however, that Georgetown would be among those grateful for one last opportunity -- however remote -- to state its case for an NCAA tournament bid or, at the least, prove that its ability exceeds its 16-13 record, the Hoyas' worst regular season mark since Coach John Thompson III arrived on the Hilltop.

After earning back-to-back regular season titles in the punishing Big East, Georgetown stumbled and sputtered to a tie for 11th place this season and the No. 12 seed at the Big East tournament -- good enough to have squeaked into the conference tournament under the old rules, but well shy of any claim to an at-large NCAA bid.

Buoyed by the number of returning starters, Big East officials bragged about their chances of sending a record 10 teams to the NCAA tournament when the season opened. But after four months of pummeling one another, the conference will do well to match last year's mark of eight invitees.

Georgetown -- which has served as a high-profile punching bag for ascending teams such as Marquette, West Virginia and Cincinnati -- won't be among those earning NCAA bids unless the Hoyas absolutely dazzle in the Big East tournament.

"If we win it," Thompson said recently, "then there's nothing to debate."

To win the Big East tournament, however, Georgetown will have to win five games in five days. That's a tall order for any team, and particularly tough for a squad that hasn't won two consecutive games since mid-January.

Even the Hoyas' most recent victory, 48-40 over DePaul on Saturday, wasn't convincing. Georgetown's 48 points were the fewest it has scored against a Big East opponent all season, and the Hoyas' offense fizzled against a team that gives up an average of 72.6 points per game.

DePaul Coach Jerry Wainwright heaped empathy and accolades alike on the young Hoyas afterward, insisting that their record would soon catch up to their ability. He was more sober about the immediate task ahead.

"It would be very difficult for somebody to win five in a row because of how physical this league is," Wainwright said. "That would be a heck of a test."

However ragged, the victory over DePaul was a welcome relief after the Hoyas' gut-wrenching collapse against St. John's four days earlier at the Garden, in which they squandered a 15-point lead in the final 10 minutes.

The Big East tournament bracket dangles the prospect of redemption.

Georgetown opens play against 13th-seeded St. John's (15-16, 6-12) today at 2 p.m. Sophomore guard Austin Freeman, who sat out the loss to the Red Storm, is expected to play, though he is not recovered from the hip pointer that limited his movement.

According to senior guard Jessie Sapp, the Hoyas' hunger and intensity will be greater this time.

"We're going to go in with a different focus than we had," Sapp said.

Any focus at all would be an improvement, especially in the waning moments. Late-game scoring droughts have been a persistent problem for the Hoyas, along with turnovers, poor rebounding and sub-par shooting from three-point range and the free throw line.

But if Georgetown can avenge its loss to St. John's, the bracket shapes up nicely for the Hoyas.

Seeds five through eight don't open play until tomorrow. If Georgetown advances, it would draw fifth-seeded Marquette (23-8, 12-6). While the Golden Eagles swept both meetings with the Hoyas this season. Georgetown led in both games. And Marquette has struggled since losing senior starter Dominic James to a broken foot against Connecticut on Feb. 25, dropping four straight.

Should the Hoyas make it to the quarterfinals, fourth-seeded Villanova (25-6, 13-5) awaits. Georgetown won the teams' only meeting this season, 56-54, on Feb. 28 in Philadelphia.

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