This kind of game once was routine for the Georgetown men's basketball team in late February. But it's been awhile since the Hoyas have faced a situation like the one they'll encounter this afternoon against Pittsburgh: a Big East battle between the top two teams, with championship implications.
CBS will be on hand for a national broadcast. Verizon Center is sold out, marking the first time that the Hoyas have filled the 20,000-seat downtown arena for a game that did not involve Duke. Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese is expected to be in attendance.
The Hoyas like to say their biggest game is their next game, and this time, that rings especially true. Tenth-ranked Pittsburgh (24-4) and No. 12 Georgetown (21-5) sit atop the Big East standings with 11-2 conference records, 1 1/2 games ahead of third-place Louisville (20-8, 10-4). The winner today will have the inside track to the Big East's regular season championship.
"It would be big bragging rights, to be number one," Georgetown junior center Roy Hibbert said. "That's our ultimate goal."
Both teams have difficult stretches to close the regular season -- Pittsburgh hosts No. 22 West Virginia and travels to No. 16 Marquette. Georgetown visits Syracuse and then finishes with Connecticut at home. Should they finish with identical league records, today's winner will most likely hold the tiebreaker for the top seed in the conference tournament.
Pittsburgh and Georgetown also are in line for top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, and will be favorites when the Big East tournament is played at Madison Square Garden in March. But the regular season championship holds some value to both teams, particularly the Hoyas, who have not won one since 1997.
"Over a 16-game period, that's a true reflection of the best team," said Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon, who led the Panthers to their third straight regular season title in his first year as head coach (2003-04). "Whereas we all know that the tournaments, both the NCAA and Big East, can come down to a one-game thing. You see the true colors over a 16-game schedule."
Pittsburgh and Georgetown, who were picked to finish 1-2 in the preseason coaches' poll, clearly have been the two best teams in the conference. The Panthers have won seven of their past eight games. The Hoyas have won 10 straight since their 74-69 loss to Pittsburgh on Jan. 13. In Big East play, Georgetown and Pittsburgh rank first and second in scoring margin, scoring defense, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage.
"You've got two teams playing very good basketball, and who have a lot of similarities in how they play," Dixon said. "They pass the ball well and rebound well and defend well. It's really a great matchup for national television."
The Panthers, like Georgetown, surround a talented and highly publicized big man with capable shooters. But 7-footer Aaron Gray, who leads the Panthers in scoring (14.5 points per game) and rebounding (10 rebounds per game), has not played in a week because of a sprained left ankle. Dixon told reporters after practice Thursday that the senior likely won't play because his ankle was still swollen and discolored. If Gray can't play, the Panthers will likely move 6-foot-10 senior Levon Kendall to center and insert sophomore Sam Young, a two-time All-Met from Friendly, as a starter at forward.
"We're preparing as if Aaron is going to play," Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. "Our approach is not going to be any different."
The first meeting was dominated by neither Gray (11 points, four rebounds) nor the 7-2 Hibbert (11 points, two rebounds).
Instead, the game was an illustration of each team's balance and efficiency. Both Georgetown and Pittsburgh shot 60 percent, and they combined for 38 assists and just 17 turnovers. Eight players scored in double figures.
The Hoyas have been thinking about the little things -- a rebound here, a loose ball there -- that helped the Panthers escape with the win. Pittsburgh's guards were able to get into the lane, which led to short shots or kick-outs to open players, and the Panthers turned long rebounds and turnovers into transition baskets.
"The first time we played them, they got a lot of penetration and open shots," said junior forward Jeff Green, who had 15 points and seven assists. "I think we've got to come out with a defensive mind-set, because I think our offense worked pretty well."
Hibbert, meantime, was held to a season-low rebound total in the first game.
"I obviously need to do a better job of rebounding," he said. "There were a couple of rebounds I could've gotten that would have changed the game. It might not be a big game for me offensively, but I need to make sure I'm getting rebounds and blocking shots."