The last thing the coach of a 14-13 team should have to worry about is overconfidence. Yet that is exactly Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick's primary concern entering Wednesday night's Big East Conference tournament opener against Villanova in Madison Square Garden.
The Wildcats will suit up just seven players, five on scholarship, following last weekend's discovery that 12 players, including all five starters Wednesday, had gained unauthorized use of a telephone access code to call off-campus locations, a violation of an NCAA rule prohibiting extra benefits to athletes.
The total charges for each player are being determined, Coach Jay Wright said. But NCAA guidelines specify suspensions for more than $100, so each of the 12 will miss a minimum of three and a maximum of eight games. Seniors sit first, so leading scorer Gary Buchanan and leading rebounder Ricky Wright will not play against the Hoyas.
"They're good kids who made bad choices," Jay Wright said. "They're held to a different and higher standard. I'm disappointed for our fans, our alumni and our students. We're not exactly talking about winning this thing."
That's what worries Esherick. No one expected the Wildcats to be much of a threat against No. 7 Pittsburgh on Sunday, a day after the suspensions had been announced, but the Panthers barely escaped with a two-point victory.
"What I worry about," Esherick said, "is people expecting them to lose, so our players might have a false sense of confidence . . . The one thing I think Villanova has in their favor is the fans will be rooting for them [and] almost turning it into a storybook-type finish. We've got to make sure we don't let it happen."
Under a plan provided for by the NCAA, the Wildcats fielded a lineup that amounted to three guards, including freshmen Randy Foye and Allan Ray, 6-7 freshman forward Curtis Sumpter and a 6-foot-9 sophomore center, Marcus Austin, who had averaged 1.8 rebounds. Walk-on guards Tom Grace and Mike Claxton, who comprise the entire bench, were not suspended.
All of this suggests a Georgetown jam session, because center Mike Sweetney has dominated games that featured the sort of zone defenses the Wildcats figure to offer. However, the Hoyas have tended to play to the level of their competition.
"People will expect us to blow 'em out," Sweetney said. "We still have to concentrate on playing basketball, getting up and down the court, playing hard, not letting up."
Added swingman Gerald Riley: "We're not looking at it as them only having seven guys. We're going at them like they have 10 or 15 guys."
Villanova will try to work the clock as much as possible. And Foye and Ray, who each average about 10 points, were among the most highly regarded recruits a year ago. The 6-3 Foye was the New Jersey player of the year, and Ray teamed with Julius Hodge, now at North Carolina State, to lead his Bronx/St. Raymond's team to a state title two years ago.
The Hoyas will not have to get out of character to counter Villanova's tactics. They press quite a lot anyway, to emphasize their depth, and dump the ball inside to Sweetney whenever possible. Esherick frets that the double teams on Sweetney tonight will be quicker than usual.
Wright said all the suspended players have been allowed to practice and that the ones whose suspensions are limited to three games might join the team here. If the Wildcats happen to beat Georgetown tonight and then Syracuse on Thursday night, they would play, and Foye, Ray and Sumpter would start serving their suspensions.
Notes: Boston College senior guard Troy Bell, who set a Big East record with a 27.8 scoring average in league games, was named player of the year yesterday by a vote of the conference's head coaches.
Seton Hall's Louis Orr was named coach of the year. Connecticut center Emeka Okafor was selected defensive player of the year. Three Syracuse players captured awards. Freshman forward Carmelo Anthony was named rookie of the year, sophomore forward Hakim Warrick was the most improved player and senior guard Kueth Duany won the sportsmanship award.