WASHINGTON — There’s simply no downplaying the significance of No. 5 Georgetown’s game against visiting No. 17 Syracuse on Saturday.
Hoyas coach John Thompson III didn’t even try.
For starters, a victory in the regular-season finale would give Georgetown (23-5, 13-4) its first Big East title since 2008. That, Thompson says, would mean “a lot.”
Making it “absolutely” more important, to use Thompson’s word? This is the last time Georgetown and Syracuse will face each other as rivals in the Big East. Syracuse is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Georgetown is part of a group of seven Catholic schools splitting away to form a basketball-centric league that will get to keep the Big East name.
“Georgetown-Syracuse is a big game any time, any regular season. The fact that it’s the last game of this year, makes it that much more of a big game. The fact that it’s the last time we’re going to be playing as conference opponents — that then adds on to it. And then the fact that if we win, we win — that adds on to it,” Thompson said Friday.
“So, no, this isn’t just your ‘normal,’ 10th game of the year, ‘Let’s go play, because all games are important,’” he said. “It has special meaning, for all those factors.”
This will be the 89th meeting between the schools (Syracuse leads 48-40), and Thompson said it won’t be the last.
But occasional non-conference matchups probably won’t hold the same sway.
“Change is here. But the Big East is something that I know, that we know, and it’s going to be missed,” said Thompson, whose father, former Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr., and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim helped write the history of Syracuse-Georgetown and the conference itself.
“We still will play,” Thompson continued, “but it’s not going to be the same playing a random home-and-home with an opponent, as opposed to having a conference foe, a conference rival, a conference opponent where you’re going to play twice a year, sometimes three times a year, and just the nature of the success of both programs … every game usually means something. So that will be missed.”
Patrick Ewing. Carmelo Anthony. Sleepy Floyd. Pearl Washington. And the list goes on — names that helped turn games between these teams into events.
“It’s one of the best rivalries in college basketball,” Georgetown junior forward Nate Lubick said. “You talk about Duke-UNC, and I think Syracuse-Georgetown’s probably next.”
Otto Porter Jr. added his name to the mix with a 33-point performance on Feb. 23, when Georgetown won at the then-higher-ranked Syracuse 57-46.
That launched the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, who leads Georgetown by averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, squarely into the discussion about season-award recipients.
“He’s one of the more difficult guys in the country to cover,” Boeheim said. “He’s by far the player of the year in our conference.”
Porter knows Syracuse will have something more in store for him to deal with this time around.
“That one game, they look at it, they’ll try to learn from their mistakes, as well,” Porter said. “So they’re going to try to key on me more, which is going to open up more for everybody else.”
He was held to 17 points in Georgetown’s most recent game, a 67-57 loss at unranked Villanova. The Hoyas turned the ball over 23 times and had an 11-game winning streak end.
They also missed out on a chance to clinch top seeding for the Big East tournament — and perhaps a No. 1 seeding for the NCAA tournament.
“A humbling experience,” freshman guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said. “Just a reminder that we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We ended up winning 11 straight; I think we got complacent with that.”
He and his teammates can right themselves in a big way Saturday against Syracuse (23-7, 11-6), which ended a three-game losing streak by defeating DePaul 78-57 on Wednesday.
Thompson called it “fitting” that the schools’ last conference matchup has a title at stake.
Georgetown enters the game tied for the Big East’s best record with Louisville and Marquette, but the Hoyas own the tiebreakers.
“It’s going to be a competitive day — and a sad day, too,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. “The Big East, there’s no better way to end it: Syracuse vs. Georgetown. You couldn’t script it better.”
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