Saturday's game between No. 12 Georgetown and No. 10 Pittsburgh seems to cast a shadow across the rest of the week. It will feature the top two teams in the Big East, will help determine the regular season champion and will be nationally televised.
Tonight's game between Georgetown, the hottest team in the league, and Cincinnati, the coldest, doesn't have the same luster. The Bearcats have lost eight straight and 13 of their past 14, and they sit at the bottom of the Big East standings (10-16, 1-11).
The Hoyas say that they've learned their lesson from last season, when they were coming off of an emotional win over Syracuse and then promptly lost to last-place South Florida, a team that was riding a 17-game losing streak.
The memory of that loss "plays a major role," sophomore guard Jessie Sapp said. "Last year, we went in and we were like, they haven't won any games and we could just beat them. So this year, we just don't take anybody for granted."
There is plenty at stake for the Hoyas (20-5, 10-2) during the final two weeks of the regular season, which includes games at Syracuse (where Georgetown has won only once in the past 11 years) and against Connecticut (which Georgetown has not beaten since Feb. 3, 1997).
A strong finish would solidify their claim to a top four seed in the NCAA tournament, something they haven't had since 1996, when they advanced to the East Region final as a No. 2 seed. Georgetown's résumé doesn't include a bad loss; its five losses have been to teams -- Old Dominion, Oregon, Duke, Villanova and Pittsburgh -- that are ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index.
The Hoyas also have a shot at the Big East regular season title. Georgetown's last regular season title came during the 1996-97 season, when the conference was split into two divisions and the Hoyas won the Big East 7 with an 11-7 record. That season also marked the last time the Hoyas won more than 10 conference games.
Two weeks ago, Coach John Thompson III was asked about striking a balance between making a push to win the league's regular season title and preparing his team for the NCAA tournament.
"Ooh, boy. Honestly, I don't think in those terms," he said. "We're just trying to win the next game. Winning the league regular season title would be a huge achievement."
The Hoyas' nine-game winning streak -- the longest of Thompson's tenure -- has put them in this position. First, they blasted five of the conference's weaker teams by an average margin of 16.6 points, including an 82-67 win over Cincinnati on Jan. 27; then they beat four of the better teams, using their front-court dominance to power past Louisville, Marquette, West Virginia and Villanova.
"I think the team has matured," junior guard Jonathan Wallace said last week, before the Villanova game. "I think we're playing pretty well, but there's always room for improvement. We have to stay consistent; we can't be front-runners as Coach Thompson always says. It's very important -- teams are going to make runs and we're going to have down parts in games -- but we have to stay consistent in what we do."
Against Villanova on Saturday, the Hoyas twice had to dig themselves out of holes (an 11-point deficit in the first half, and an eight-point deficit in the second). Georgetown won a game that came down to the final possessions, something that it had not done this season.
"We haven't [been in that situation], but our guys are comfortable with what we're doing," Thompson said. "We were comfortable in that situation. With our guys, as the year's progressed, we've grown up. . . . We have poise."
That starts with the unflappable Thompson and extends to the players; junior forward Jeff Green has referred to the Hoyas as "a laid-back group of cats."
"We can't think we're going to blow every team out," said Green, who was named Big East player of the week. "We've got to keep our composure. I was asked in an interview last week about how do I keep my team from overreacting? I feel like that's just a team effort. We can't get overhyped or get down on ourselves if we make a mistake. We've got to keep playing."