Now comes the game that would have seemed almost laughable for both teams to imagine as recently as a month or so ago: Georgetown versus St. John's on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden for the National Invitation Tournament championship.
"One of us will win the championship," St. John's Coach Mike Jarvis said, "but both of us will win the seasons."
This could be the final game at Georgetown for junior power forward Mike Sweetney. He was not available to comment today, and Coach Craig Esherick said they soon would discuss whether he should opt for the NBA draft.
"Mike and I talked at the beginning of the season," Esherick said. "We haven't had one conversation about what he is or is not going to do. We will meet . . . maybe [in] a week."
Several NBA scouts have said Sweetney is ready for their league and a likely mid-lottery pick. But a league source today said that determining the draft order now is impossible, because of the uncertainty about how many foreign players would be available.
For Sweetney and his teammates, the chances of making the Big East Conference tournament were in doubt until a March 1 victory over West Virginia on the road. The frustration included eight losses in nine games starting Jan. 14, two in overtime and two others by a point each. One of the most frustrating was to St. John's at MCI Center: The Hoyas (19-14) had a 16-point lead with 7 minutes 23 seconds left and melted to full-court pressure and guard Marcus Hatten in a five-point loss.
"Stole the ball, scored. Stole the ball, scored," Esherick recalled. "That creates momentum for their team, and takes away some of the confidence for our team. . . . Hatten [who had 34 points, 3 assists and 3 steals in the game] is a threat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands -- and also whenever he's around the ball on defense."
St. John's was 12-12 on Feb. 26 after losing six of seven league games, and Jarvis, like Esherick, was booed. Then came an upset of Duke at home and, after a 64-63 victory over Texas Tech in the semifinal round Tuesday night, the Red Storm (20-13) has won eight of nine games.
"Anytime I have a chance to win a championship," Hatten said, "is golden to me."
St. John's has won five NIT titles, the most of any school in the tournament's 65-year history. Georgetown made the final once before, losing to Minnesota in 1993.
Esherick will make one lineup change, reinserting forward Victor Samnick, who had 13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in the 88-74 semifinal victory over Minnesota. Samnick missed the previous game, at North Carolina, because of an intestinal infection.
In St. John's victory over the Hoyas in mid-January, Sweetney made 11 of 13 free throws and had 21 points. But he also had six of Georgetown's 24 turnovers. Lately, the Hoyas have been much more effective against full-court pressure, although Minnesota caused a flutter in Esherick's pulse with one in the first few minutes of the second half.
Several minutes after the victory over Texas Tech, Jarvis looked ahead to Georgetown and said: "We've been practicing a couple of things we haven't used all year that we'll probably have to use."
At a news conference today with Esherick a few feet away, Jarvis was not as coy.
"We'll try to play Sweetney head up sometimes, say: 'Get yours,' " he said. "At times, we'll put two guys on him, three guys on him. Mix it up. You do what you have to do. . . . There's no real secrets about this game."
Madison Square Garden is where St. John's plays most of its important home games, but based on Georgetown's recent experience, Esherick does not seem to mind.
"I almost hope that we don't have too many people here," he said, "because we seem to play better when more people are rooting for the other team."