John Thompson and his over-the-shoulder towel pitted against Lou Carnesecca and those sweaters. Patrick Ewing and Bill Wennington elbowing for position on the low block. Reggie Williams and Chris Mullin going jumper for jumper.
Those were among the many matchups within Georgetown-St. John’s games that helped sell out the schools’ respective arenas and draw millions of television viewers when the original Big East was the premier conference in college basketball.
These days, with the Big East embarking on its first season following a substantial membership overhaul, the central figures may have changed, but the two flagship programs remain representative of an era when the league was at the forefront of the sport’s national landscape.
The teams are set to renew their rivalry for the 100th time Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center and for the first time since the Big East lost regular powerhouses Syracuse, Connecticut and Louisville and added Butler, Creighton and Xavier. Georgetown (9-3, 1-0) enters having won eight of nine, including its conference opener New Year’s Eve over DePaul, 61-54.
“When you play St. John’s, it’s always special,” Hoyas Coach John Thompson III said. “Your juices are always flowing. You’re a little more anxious than your average game, at least for the coach. Now I’m trying to impose that on the team and make sure they understand the history, the tradition, everything that has enabled us to be here representing Georgetown and that group representing St. John’s.”
Nearly 30 years ago, the schools played a pair of regular season games that helped define the Big East Conference. The first took place at Capital Centre Jan. 26, 1985, when St. John’s was ranked No. 2 and the reigning national champion Hoyas, winners of 29 in a row, were No. 1.
Included in St. John’s 66-65 victory was a defense so stifling that Ewing, an overpowering senior, managed just three field goals. Georgetown shot 40 percent against a determined man-to-man in which Wennington gave no quarter to his all-American counterpart.
One month later, the rankings were flip-flopped for the game at Madison Square Garden, and in one of the more memorable moments in the rivalry and for Big East basketball, Thompson opened his coat during pregame warmups to reveal a sweater similar to what Carnesecca had worn during St. John’s winning streak.
The Hoyas went on for an 85-69 triumph. This time Ewing shot 10 for 13, finishing with 20 points, nine rebounds and six blocks.
“I would say Georgetown is a big game because of the history between the two schools and the feisty nature of the matchups,” Red Storm Coach Steve Lavin said.
St. John’s (9-4, 0-1) has two players averaging at least 12.5 points, including 6-foot-3 guard D’Angelo Harrison. The junior is third in the Big East in scoring (19.6 ppg). The Red Storm also leads the country in blocked shots, averaging 9.3 per game, thanks in large part to Chris Obekpa. The 6-9 sophomore ranks second nationally with 4.4 blocks.
The Hoyas enter with a five-game winning streak against their longtime conference foe. Last season, Georgetown won both meetings by an average of 14 points and limited Harrison to a combined 3-for-21 shooting.
The Hoyas have three players averaging at least 12.1 points. At the top of that list is senior point guard Markel Starks (16.3 ppg), who Thompson III acknowledged as a student of the game with special appreciation for the storied history of the series.
“With the new Big East, there’s still old faces,” said Starks, who averages a team-high 4.3 assists. “We still have to come out with the mind-set of we want to win the next game, and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that. It’s no different in tomorrow’s game, but by being St. John’s, it does heighten.”