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Hoyas Battling Through Early Big East Identity Crisis

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John Caprio #25 of the Georgetown Hoyas grabs the arm of Kameron Woods #31 of the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 11, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Georgetown defeated Butler 70-67. (Credit:  Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

John Caprio #25 of the Georgetown Hoyas grabs the arm of Kameron Woods #31 of the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 11, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Georgetown defeated Butler 70-67. (Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - Junior center Josh Smith was sidelined indefinitely with academic issues. Junior swingman Jabril Trawick was out with a broken jaw he suffered during the previous game at Providence. And of course, Otto Porter Jr., the focal point of last year’s surprise conference championship season, had left early for the NBA.

On top of those absences, forwards Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins and backup center Moses Ayegba had all fouled out as Georgetown lost a nine-point lead during the final 6:37 and went to overtime last Saturday at Butler’s fabled Hinkle Fieldhouse. And yet, with senior reserves Aaron Bowen and John Caprio – each little-used before this year – playing career-high most minutes, the Hoyas prevailed 70-67 to improve to 11-4 overall, 3-1 in the remade Big East heading into tonight’s visit to Xavier (13-4, 3-1), another new conference member.

“I know we’re a tough team after that win,” said Lubick, who was smacked in the face at Butler. “That was a really big step for us, to be able win a close game like that. We had a bunch of different guys step up and make plays … lineups that we haven’t even seen in practice. Being able to gut out a win like that was very important, especially to set the tone with the new teams in the league.”

Not to mention that it came on the heels of the shocking 70-52 defeat at Providence.

“We just didn’t show up to play,” lamented senior point guard Markel Starks, adding that the blowout loss to the long-time Big East doormat was a wakeup call.

Coach John Thompson III would obviously prefer not to have to rely on Bowen and Caprio against the Musketeers, but minus the 6-foot-10, 350-pound Smith and the versatile Trawick, Georgetown is basically down to eight players.

Sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has filled some of the offensive void left by Porter, leading the Hoyas at 17.3 points per game, nearly twice his average of last season.

“He’s been playing really well,” Lubick said. “He’s taken a leadership role on offense. He makes plays.”

Add the steady Starks (15.4 points, 3.9 assists) and Georgetown’s starting backcourt averages 32.7 points (44.3 percent of the Hoyas’ total), 7.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.3 steals. However, with Smith and Trawick out, Hopkins and Lubick, who combine for just 12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds, are Thompson’s only reliables up front.

“We’re a resilient group,” Thompson said. “Guys are going to get opportunities that haven’t had ‘em in the past. As long as everyone plays as hard as they can within themselves, [we’ll be fine]. We don’t want anyone to step up and not be who [they] are.”

But who are the Hoyas? Not only have they been pounded by Providence, but they were crushed at now-No. 15 Kansas and also lost to now-unranked Oregon and at unheralded Northeastern, a defeat that summoned memories of last year’s stunning loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Georgetown’s signature victory over then-No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth on Nov. 24 no longer stands alone in the area after George Washington’s inspired triumph over the Rams last night. Butler, 0-5 in the Big East, is a shadow of the team that played for the national championship in 2010 and 2011 while fellow conference victims St. John’s and DePaul aren’t tournament-worthy.

Lubick believes that Georgetown can defend its Big East title thanks to its ever-tenacious defense, but then the conference obviously isn’t as strong minus No. 2 Syracuse, defending national champion Louisville, No. 19 Cincinnati and formidable Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

The Big East won’t be receiving eight NCAA bids on Selection Sunday any time soon, if ever again, as it did last March. Xavier might eventually be ranked, but No. 20 Creighton and No. 6 Villanova — whom Georgetown faces during a brutal three-game stretch starting Jan. 25 that ends against No. 4 Michigan State — are the Big East’s only current Top 25 teams.

“A lot of people have written us off already,” Starks said with a tinge of the Hoya Paranoia that characterized Georgetown’s best teams back in the 1980s. “We believe in us. It’s us against them.”

Thompson, in his typical fashion, declined to discuss how the redone Big East is shaping up and where his team stands in it.

“There’s no need to sit here and say, ‘What’s our place in [the conference]?’ ” Thompson said. “Let’s just go and try and win the next game. If you win enough next games, everything will be OK.”

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 four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

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