Georgetown and Syracuse had squared off on the basketball court just 18 times in 51 years when the Hoyas edged the host Orange in the final game at Manley Field House in February 1980.
Current Hoyas coach John Thompson III was listening on the radio at home when he heard his father, then Georgetown’s coach, proclaim, “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
That comment and the school’s membership in the fledgling Big East Conference ignited one of college hoops’ best rivalries. Over the last 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have battled 69 times with Jim Boeheim’s Orange winning 37 of those matchups.
Tomorrow, the 11th-ranked Hoyas will visit the eighth-ranked Orange for quite possibly the final time – the teams will duel again at Verizon Center on Mar. 9 — since Syracuse will move to the ACC next season.
There’s even more hype for tomorrow’s contest because Georgetown (19-4) and Syracuse (21-4) are tied with Marquette for the Big East lead and because an NCAA on-campus record crowd in excess of 35,000 is expected in the Carrier Dome where the Orange has won a Division l-best 38 in a row.
“Georgetown-Syracuse is special,” said the younger Thompson, who’s glad that there’s so much current importance to a game which has so much historical significance.
And yet, while Georgetown’s best player, sophomore forward Otto Porter is “sad” to see the Orange leave the Big East, Thompson, who’s just 1-6 in Syracuse, figuratively shrugged and said, “Life goes on.”
Junior forward Nate Lubick, along with junior guard Markel Starks, the only Hoyas who have won in the Dome, said the chance to play Syracuse is one of the reasons he signed with Georgetown.
While the Orange is just 4-3 after a 19-1 start, the Hoyas have won eight straight since a stunning loss at South Florida on Jan. 19, their longest winning streak in Big East play since 2006-07, the last season in which they reached the Final Four.
Sophomore guard Jabril Trawick said that it naturally took such a young team — three sophomores and a freshman are among the four players who see more than nine minutes per game – a while to gel. The Hoyas have certainly come together during the last six weeks while beating nationally ranked Notre Dame, Louisville and Marquette.
Georgetown is 10-1 since suffering its worst defeat in 28 years, a 73-45 home spanking by Pitt that was followed by sophomore forward Greg Whittington, the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, being ruled academically ineligible.
“We are getting better … but I think we still have some room for improvement,” Thompson said. “The question is: are we ready to go up there and play them? Yeah. We are.”
Thompson said rebounding has been the key to Georgetown’s run, but Lubick credited improved defense.
“We’re just playing smarter basketball,” Lubick said. “Defensively, we’ve been able to play man and zone. Being able to switch it up keeps the other team guessing. Our defense has been really good and that has allowed us to get out in transition and get some easy buckets.”
The Hoyas have held all but one of their last 11 opponents below 40 percent shooting. They’re allowing just 56.1 points, the seventh-fewest in the nation.
“We’re playing as a team and we’re playing unselfish, guys trusting one another,” Starks said. “It’s fun. Guys are having a good time playing and when that happens, everybody’s feeding off one another.”
But there’s no doubt that Porter is the key to the Hoyas. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward is Georgetown’s top scorer and rebounder while ranking second in blocks and third in assists. The Hoyas had just one Big East Player of the Year (Jeff Green in 2007) over the past 20 seasons, but the usually circumspect Thompson said that Porter should win that award, adding, “and I don’t think it’s close.”
The same could be said for Thompson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the Big East and was 38th in the preseason national poll. Georgetown tied for fourth in the conference last year, its best finish since it won the title in 2008.
“It’s [not] trying to prove anybody wrong,” Starks said. “We [just] want to win.”
If Georgetown wins tomorrow, Thompson won’t be declaring the Carrier Dome “officially closed” since Syracuse isn’t leaving the building, but a victory will certainly solidify the Hoyas’ high seedings in next month’s Big East and NCAA Tournaments and set the stage for an even more emotional exclamation point to the rivalry with the Orange (barring a postseason meeting) two weeks from tomorrow on F Street.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin