WASHINGTON (CBDSC) – Seventh-seeded Georgetown begins its hoped-for path to a surprise Big East Tournament title tonight against 10th-seeded DePaul.
The setting, Madison Square Garden, is very familiar to the Hoyas, since the venerable arena has been the site for the Big East tourney going back to 1983 when Patrick Ewing was a sophomore and Georgetown had yet to win a national championship.
However, at the same time it’s a whole new world for Georgetown which would face DePaul (which became a Big East member in 2005), Creighton (this season) and either Xavier (this season) or Marquette (2005 ) before meeting a fellow traditional conference member such as Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall or St. John’s in Saturday’s final.
With all the conference realignment after last season, Georgetown’s 2007 Big East title en route to the Final Four is the most recent one by any current conference member. In fact, no other current Big East school has won the tournament since St. John’s last prevailed in 2000. And Georgetown, which lost the final to former member Pittsburgh in 2008 and to former member West Virginia in 2010, is the only current member to even get that far since 2000.
But for all of the Hoyas’ tremendous history in the Garden – where they stunned then-No. 7 Michigan State on Feb. 1 and have won six conference championships, one behind former member Connecticut’s total in the building – that 2007 title is their only Big East championship since 1989. I wasn’t a math major, but hoisting just one trophy in 24 years is a pretty weak ratio.
On the other hand, although Georgetown is just the seventh seed and would have to win four games in four days to take the tournament, coach John Thompson III has to be happy with his draw. The Hoyas won both of their meetings with DePaul, shocked Creighton and likely national Player of the Year Doug McDermott 75-63 last Tuesday (after a 13-point loss in Omaha), crushed Xavier 74-52 on Feb. 22 (after a 13-point loss in Cincinnati), and almost beat Marquette twice, losing in overtime at Verizon Center and by a bucket in Milwaukee.
That 4-4 record against its rivals in the bottom half of the draw is a heck of a lot better than its 3-7 against the schools in the top half: Butler, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and top seed Villanova.
Of course, Thompson’s team has been very hard to figure this season. The Hoyas own five victories over squads currently sporting a top 50 RPI: No. 7 Creighton, No. 13 Virginia Commonwealth, No. 24 Michigan State, No. 47 Kansas State and No. 48 Xavier. But Georgetown lost twice to No. 218 Northeastern and twice to No. 148 Seton Hall.
After losing five straight early in the Big East season, the Hoyas went 6-4 down the stretch. All four defeats came on the road including the nail-biter at Marquette and the finale at third-ranked Villanova.
With their own RPI at No. 54, does Georgetown extend its string of NCAA Tournament to five straight seasons – which would rank second in school history to the 14 compiled under Thompson’s father John Jr. from 1979-92 – by beating DePaul and either upsetting Creighton again tomorrow or at least pushing the Blue Jays to the limit? Or do the 17-13 Hoyas have to at least reach the Big East final to earn a bid?
Back in October, Thompson and seniors Markel Starks and Nate Lubick said that Georgetown would be fine even though 2013 Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter Jr. had bolted early for the NBA. After all, the other five Hoyas who contributed significantly to last year’s surprise Big East regular seasons championship – point guard Starks, power forward Lubick, junior center Mikael Hopkins, and shooting guards D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a sophomore, and Jabril Tawick, a junior – were back.
However, the season hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Forward Greg Whittington, who was academically ineligible for most of last year, was laid low by a knee injury. Massive center Joshua Smith, a transfer from UCLA, became academically ineligible in January.
All-Big East selection Starks (17.1 points per game) and second-team choice Smith-Rivera (16.8) are the only active Hoyas averaging more than 8.8. And they’ve had to play too many minutes, averaging 37.8 and 37.0, respectively, in the Big East.
And yet, this is a team with more unexpected highs than unexpected lows captained by a driven senior in Starks and playing at the Garden for a coach named Thompson.
“If you look at the body of work, hopefully we are very much in the conversation,” said Thompson, who has won seven of his nine Big East Tournament openers.
The path to the NCAAs is still there, which is all the Hoyas can ask for after their wacky regular season.
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.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.