By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 1:21 AM
Three weeks ago, Georgetown's game on Saturday at Rutgers ranked among the least-anticipated matchups on the Hoyas' schedule. Now, though, it's nothing less than critical for Georgetown, whose tailspin has rekindled memories of its collapse in the second half of the 2008-09 season.
Following each of the past three defeats, Coach John Thompson III's message has been that there's still plenty of basketball left to play. But, with a 1-4 record in the Big East and five of their remaining 13 games against opponents ranked 18th or better, escaping the notoriously boisterous Louis Brown Athletic Center, or RAC as it is commonly known, with a victory is an absolute must.
"It's an extremely important game, in a difficult venue to play in," Thompson said. "But we're not going to sit here and look at the schedule. We're putting all of our energy and focus into Rutgers right now."
Beating the Scarlet Knights isn't guaranteed, as proven by last season's 71-68 loss in Piscataway, N.J. Nothing, in fact, can be considered a certainty for Georgetown (12-5), which has dropped three straight for the first time since a five-game losing streak in January 2009.
During the current slide, everything from rebounding and turnovers to missed free throws and spotty interior defense has plagued the Hoyas. But there's been a common thread weaving through each of the defeats: the star players have been anything but.
Leading scorer Austin Freeman has averaged 9.6 points per game on 10-of-31 shooting, while point guard Chris Wright has shot 18.7 percent from three-point range (3 of16) and Jason Clark has been limited to seven points or less twice. The trio has made a combined 10 of its 39 attempts (25.6 percent) from beyond the arc as opponents have focused their defensive efforts around the perimeter, perhaps knowing it's unlikely they'll get burned in the paint.
"They have to realize that they are the same people they were three weeks ago," Thompson said of his guards. "We just need to focus on getting a good shot and that person needs to step up and make it. We're getting open shots, the ball just isn't going in."
After Wednesday's 72-57 loss to No. 5 Pittsburgh, Thompson emphatically refuted the assertion by Panthers guard Ashton Gibbs that familiarity and proper preparation is an antidote to Georgetown's unique offense. But the Hoyas' recent record in conference play - Georgetown is 18-23 against Big East competition since the start of the 2008-09 season - shows that Big East teams have found success against Georgetown.
Take away five wins against Rutgers and DePaul - two teams that have been at or near the bottom of the Big East - and the Hoyas are just 13-23 over that stretch.
"We're familiar with them also," Thompson said of league opponents. "Once conference play starts, we know what the opposition is doing, they know what we're doing. Many times, it just comes down to execution."
The majority of those losses were accrued in a 2008-09 campaign that, much like this one, started impressively. Georgetown cruised through its early nonconference slate that season, going 9-1, and opened conference play with a double-digit win at Connecticut, then ranked No. 2 in the country. But disappointment soon set in as the Hoyas, dogged by chemistry issues, nose-dived, dropping 12 of their final 16 games, including a first-round loss to Baylor in the National Invitation Tournament.
According to the Thompson, there are no comparisons to be drawn.
"The similarities are that we've lost a few games in a row," Thompson said. "But other than that, there are no similarities in terms of the composition, the makeup, the togetherness of this team [compared to] that team."
Such a strong statement figures to allay some concerns, but it doesn't change the fact that Saturday's game is easily the biggest of the season to this point. A win would send the Hoyas into Tuesday's contest at Seton Hall with some much-needed confidence, and a sweep on the New Jersey swing could signal a turning point.
Upon returning, Georgetown has an eight-day break in which to regroup and prepare for a rematch with St. John's at Verizon Center on Jan. 26.
But first things first.
Rutgers is no pushover. Jonathan Mitchell and the Scarlet Knights proved that last season when the 6-foot-7 forward scored a career-high 24 points to help upend then-No. 7 Georgetown. This season, Mitchell is Rutgers's leading scorer at 12.4 points per game and the Scarlet Knights are 10-6 overall and 1-3 in the Big East under first-year coach Mike Rice, who has, no doubt, leaned on associate coach David Cox for a scouting report. Cox spent the previous three seasons on Georgetown's bench as an assistant to Thompson.
Whether that makes a difference remains to be seen. What's more important to Thompson is that his players play with more focus and urgency than last season.
"We were extremely flat," Thompson recalled of the loss. "We cannot be flat. It's simple as that."