Georgetown celebrates their win over Louisville. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The last thing Georgetown Coach John Thompson III wants to hear is that Louisville isn’t playing well. A victory over the fifth-ranked Cardinals still is impressive. Just ask Thompson.

“Let’s get this straight: That’s a hell of a team,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the best teams in the country.”

We agree. Even with Louisville in a three-game slide after Georgetown’s 53-51 win Saturday, the usually stoic Thompson was entitled to smile after beating a team that was ranked No. 1 just last weekend. The Hoyas displayed the type of toughness — both physical and mental — missing from too many of their performances during the first few games of their Big East schedule.

The Hoyas rebounded and played defense as if the Cardinals had personally challenged them on every possession. Against an exceptionally talented opponent — the Cardinals’ back court of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith is among the nation’s best — Georgetown again showed it’s capable of playing at a much higher level. The Hoyas are finally starting to put something together with their most important stretch of the regular season ahead.

That’s exactly the sort of thing Thompson likes. After a bad start in conference play (opening 0-2 in the Big East qualifies), the Hoyas have won four of five since second-leading scorer and rebounder Greg Whittington was declared academically ineligible. “We might have been 5-0 with him,” Thompson said without any hint of playfulness in his voice.

Still, Thompson is encouraged about the significant turnaround. For the Hoyas, it’s all about the group. And with 11 conference games remaining, the group is finding a way to win.

“We’re getting better. We’re progressing,” Thompson said. “Our guys are doing a better job of helping each other — particularly at the defensive end.”

The final stat book wasn’t needed for confirmation. The Hoyas’ efforts on defense were clear throughout the game Saturday.

Georgetown hounded Louisville on the perimeter and swarmed its post players. The result? The Cardinals shot 34.8 percent from the field and 27.3 percent on three-point attempts. As good as Georgetown was collectively, point guard Markel Starks stood out individually. He had the best showing against the toughest competition.

Siva, one of the fastest point guards in college basketball, is a matchup nightmare for most teams. Louisville Coach Rick Pitino also calls many designed plays for Siva, so whomever guards Siva has to fight through a variety of screens if they want to stick with him. Starks eagerly accepted the assignment.

“You don’t want to make it mano y mano,” Starks said, “but at some point, you’ve got to take pride in playing defense.”

Starks didn’t pound his chest. He simply pitched a shutout: Siva, who entered averaging 11.5 points, failed to score. Granted, he only played 23 minutes because of foul trouble. But everywhere Siva went, Starks followed.

“Fighting over those ball screens and staying in front of their guards . . . it’s hard work,” Thompson observed. “He did that all” game.

Said Starks, “You just say, ‘I gotta defend.’ ”

Starks was almost as good on offense. Despite the energy he expended chasing Siva, Starks scored 17 points — he shared the team lead with forward Otto Porter Jr. — and was the primary ballhandler against the Cardinals’ full-court press.

The Hoyas struggled against the press in the second half. For the most part, though, Starks had a strong all-around game. “Markel was pretty good,” Thompson said.

Typically, so was Porter. Georgetown’s leader also had a team-high 12 rebounds. The Hoyas outrebounded the Cardinals, 34-29.

“They won the game by us not blocking out,” Pitino said.

The Cardinals’ most glaring error occurred with 3 minutes 38 seconds to play. Guard D’Vaunte Smith-Rivera missed a shot and swingman Aaron Bowen made a one-handed, over-his-head-putback basket to give the Hoyas the lead for good.

When a guy completes a highlight-tape play like that for his only points in the game, things are going well for your team in a big way. “As soon as we went in the locker room, I told him, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that,’ ” Starks said.

The Hoyas have been full of surprises lately. In their previous game, Georgetown routed then-No. 24 Notre Dame at Joyce Center, where the Fighting Irish had won 47 of 49.

Thompson has put the spotlight on the players. He attributes the Hoyas’ good stretch to better play. Effective coaching also is part of the story.

Against Louisville, Thompson wisely went with a smaller lineup. Sometimes, Thompson had four perimeter players on the court. His intent was to try to neutralize the Cardinals’ press by having the team’s best ballhandlers together. The move made sense.

“You have to handle their pressure or you’re going to lose,” Thompson said. “I wanted to just get five guys out there that can move.”

The Hoyas have a lot of room to improve.

Their offense stalled too much against Louisville (Bowen’s score was their last field goal). Their shot selection could have been better. Even with the Hoyas’ solid showing on defense, the Cardinals had the ball with 37 seconds to play and a chance to tie the score.

Fortunately for Georgetown, Siva missed a jumper and Porter grabbed the rebound with only six seconds left. “This is a very good win against an outstanding team,” Thompson said.

We’re still learning about Georgetown’s team. What we know, however, is that the Hoyas showed improvement in a good win Saturday — and no one had better try to tell Thompson otherwise.

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