College basketball teams have been pointing toward conference play ever since practice began close to three months ago. Georgetown and Virginia open tonight in their respective leagues, while American and George Mason go on the road after starting the Colonial Athletic Association season three weeks ago against each other.
Georgetown's Craig Esherick is among those coaches not even close to satisfied with how the preparatory games have gone.
"The only thing I'm pleased with is the effort on defense," Esherick said as the Hoyas (8-3) prepared for a road game against Big East Conference rival Providence. "We're not there in terms of rotation, where people belong. But we've been able to make up for mistakes with effort."
George Mason and American have been moving in opposite directions recently. The Patriots (6-5), who beat AU Dec. 18 at home, visit William & Mary tonight after recovering well from a slow start. They have won four of their last five games, the only loss coming to then-No.14 Maryland by three points at Cole Field House.
AU (5-5) will be carrying a three-game losing streak into James Madison. Virginia (9-3) tries for its first six-game winning streak in nearly five years, but that will be difficult in its Atlantic Coast Conference opener against No. 8 Duke at University Hall.
The Hoyas have won their last six games and been projected to be among the top five teams in the league by the time the postseason tournament takes place in March, because they are young but not totally inexperienced. Esherick could open with a lineup that started all but three games last season, but has chosen to play freshman Victor Samnick ahead of junior Nat Burton at small forward for better rebounding.
"We're much more talented this season," said sophomore point guard Kevin Braswell, "and we're smarter. That's shown by how we've played at the end of games."
Georgetown lost six games by six or fewer points last season and two key players, Braswell and center Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, seem much improved. In fact, Esherick has demanded that the first look on each play against the Friars be to Boumtje Boumtje.
That's because the 6-foot-11 1/2 Boumtje Boumtje has developed more moves inside, has become a better passer and has made 72 percent of his 71 foul shots.
"That also frees me and Kevin up," said shooting guard Anthony Perry.
Esherick's biggest concern may be at power forward, where he may give freshman Courtland Freeman and Samnick significant minutes behind starter Jameel Watkins. A fourth player, senior Rhese Gibson, may be on the court in the final minutes if the Hoyas have the lead because he makes smart decisions and inbounds the ball well.
"He's sort of our closer," Esherick said.
The most eagerly anticipated individual battle will be Boumtje Boumtje against 7-2 Karim Shabazz, but the most critical player for the Friars will be injured point guard John Linehan.
If Linehan's lingering groin problems keep him from playing, he may well be redshirted. The Friars list him as questionable.
The Friars (7-6) have won three of their last four games, but lost to Fordham in their most recent test. In the last two games, a victory over Massachusetts and the loss to Fordham, Providence has been outrebounded 84-52.
"They probably have a better team this year," Esherick said, "but we match up better."
George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga is looking for more consistency from everyone other than junior forward George Evans, who leads the team in scoring (19.2) and rebounding (8.5). AU Coach Art Perry will welcome back junior shooting guard Ronald Hearns, who probably will move into the starting lineup, and key reserve Keith Gray. Both were held out of the 79-43 loss to Ohio State last week as punishment for missing a Christmas practice.
For Virginia, the series with Duke has not gone well of late. The Blue Devils have won the last nine games, and by an average of 25.8 points. In three of the last six games, Duke has won by more than 40 points.
But the Cavaliers clearly are more talented this season, winning their last five games against decidedly inferior teams after suffering an 85-63 loss to St. John's in New York. Virginia has not won six straight games since the middle of the 1994-95 season.
Special correspondent Seth Emerson contributed to this report.