Each of the several mini-seasons college basketball teams play has a reason, and Coach Craig Esherick hopes that the two he structured for Georgetown have provided the proper foundation for the most important one -- against Big East Conference teams -- that starts today at MCI Center against suddenly efficient West Virginia.
"This season's going to be a good one for the Hoyas," versatile guard Tony Bethel said.
In preparation for a conference race that seems as wide open as any in recent years, Esherick has offered his players a variety of situations. The seven can't-lose games at home were designed to build confidence and chemistry. The latest of the two tough road games, a seven-point loss to top-ranked Duke on Wednesday, had several purposes.
"I cannot think of a place I've played in and coached in that's as loud," Esherick said of Cameron Indoor Stadium. "That was great preparation for some of the places we're going to play. If our guys are able to keep their concentration [and] play as hard as they did for 40 minutes against the number one team in the country with the number one environment in the country I think there's [nowhere] in the league that should intimidate us."
Georgetown (8-2) generally handled the crowd well and mostly matched each of Duke's runs. The several-minute stretch of rushed shots after Duke hit two straight three-pointers that proved decisive has happened to the Hoyas in far less hostile settings.
But two major concerns developed at Duke, the most important short-term being injuries to freshman guard Ashanti Cook and junior swingman Gerald Riley. Cook (ankle) will not play today and also may miss the road game against Seton Hall on Tuesday. Riley (foot) probably will play today, Esherick said, but did nothing more than light shooting in practices.
"I'm worried about Gerald's minutes the next couple of games," Esherick said.
The other worry is power forward Mike Sweetney, around whom the offense and defense revolve, spending too much time on the bench in foul trouble. He played just 15 minutes before fouling out in the four-point road loss to Virginia two weeks ago and 25 minutes against Duke. Esherick was upset by the officiating at Virginia, but admitted a couple of fouls that could have been called against Sweetney at Duke were not.
Esherick wants the other Hoyas to position themselves better on defense, so that Sweetney is not forced to expose himself to fouls trying to swat away shots from otherwise unguarded players. Also, Esherick may try to protect Sweetney by playing more zone defense.
The third way for Sweetney to avoid fouls is more subtle, with Esherick saying: "When two [Hoyas] stand next to the guy that's fouled, we have to do a better job of putting our hand up when we're not Mike."
Sweetney refused to blame the officials.
"It's me," he said, "and it bothers me a lot. The best thing, I think, is keeping my hands up, don't place them down."
Esherick also wants center Wesley Wilson, Sweetney's front-court partner, to be less foul prone. Wilson played just 13 minutes against Duke, but Esherick said that was partly because of his poor play overall and the solid effort of senior Victor Samnick on both ends of the court. Sophomore small forward Darrel Owens surely earned more playing time after making three steals and hitting five of his seven field goal tries against Duke.
West Virginia (9-3) has been among the early surprises this season, or at least to those unfamiliar with new coach John Beilein (pronounced BEE-line) during his last 10 seasons, split evenly at Canisius and Richmond. With just seven scholarship players and three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, the Mountaineers have defeated Florida and Tennessee in nonconference play and Miami in its conference opener.
Beilein preaches "one more pass" on offense, and that strategy has produced close to 50 percent accuracy from the field. The free throw percentage, however, is a dreadful 56.5 and opponents on average have grabbed seven more rebounds.
"Georgetown has the advantage in quickness, experience, size, everything," Beilein said. "It'll be very difficult against their size and strength."
Instead of grabbing more rest by walking through plays in the ballroom of the team hotel this morning, Beilein said, the team voted for a 9 a.m. shoot-around at MCI Center and a trip back to the hotel before again departing for the 2 p.m. game.
The Hoyas have worked on attitude as well as execution against West Virginia's patience on offense.
"We have to do a really good job of knowing that if they take more time scoring against us we still can fast break," Esherick said. "We have to create a pace we're comfortable with."