- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Don’t press that panic button.

Sure, a Georgetown team ranked eighth in the preseason and picked to challenge for the Big East and perhaps national titles is now 11-5, losers of two straight, a game under .500 in the league (1-2) and nowhere near the Top 25.

Relax. The fact of the matter is Saturday’s performance in a loss at then-No. 7 Pittsburgh is more cause for confidence than concern as the Hoyas enter the soft portion of their conference schedule tonight at Rutgers (8-9, 1-3 Big East).

No one on the Hilltop puts much stock in moral victories, but Georgetown’s 74-69 loss at Pitt probably did more to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee than any loss by any team this season. In the loss, Georgetown shot an outlandish 60.9 percent from the field and committed just 10 turnovers, making it the most efficient offensive exhibition for the team this season.

There are probably only a handful of teams in the country who could have beaten Georgetown on Saturday night, and Pitt (16-2, 4-0 Big East) just happened to be one of them. There’s a reason the Panthers were chosen by the Big East coaches to win the conference, while Georgetown was picked to finish second.

When both teams play their best, as they basically did Saturday night, Pitt is simply slightly better. The Panthers are deeper, more experienced and, most notably, more potent off the bounce on the perimeter.

“We thought we could exploit our quickness advantage on top with Levance [Fields] and myself, and I think we did,” Pittsburgh junior swingman Mike Cook said after leading all scorers with 18 points. “I think you saw some pretty good ball from both teams.”

Aside from a handful of lapses in perimeter defense from Georgetown’s backcourt and a slight Pittsburgh advantage in terms of loose balls (nine offensive rebounds), the game was a virtual draw, certainly amping up the anticipation of the stretch-run rematch at Verizon Center (Feb. 24).

Most importantly for Georgetown, however, the team’s performance against Pitt implies that last week’s poor showing in a 56-52 loss to Villanova was an anomaly for a team that has established a superb standard of play in the last month.

Since the team’s 61-52 loss at Duke (Dec. 2), the Hoyas have been the nation’s best shooting team. They have won seven of nine games courtesy of a torrid shooting clip that has boosted Georgetown to the nation’s No. 3 slot in that category (51.6 percent) behind only Florida (53.9) and Air Force (53.5).

The Hoyas still have plenty of room for improvement on the defensive end and in terms of ball security. But if they continue to shred the nets as they have since leaving Durham, another streak of victories like the seven-game stretch highlighted by the team’s league-opening rout of then-No. 17 Notre Dame (66-48) seems far more likely than a midseason slump.

Georgetown’s next five opponents (Rutgers, Seton Hall, DePaul, Cincinnati and St. John’s) have a combined 6-12 Big East record. Starting tonight, the Hoyas will be heavily favored in each of their next five games, putting a 16-5, 6-2 Big East record within reach before they begin the rigorous backloaded portion of their conference schedule.

Georgetown’s most daunting opponent during the coming stretch could well be apathy, though the team might have even discovered a solution for its occasional dispassionate performance in Pittsburgh. That solution wears No. 33 and bears the name and bloodline of the player most synonymous with the program during its glory years.

Perhaps the ultimate Georgetown positive at Pittsburgh was the play of junior swingman Patrick Ewing Jr., who gave the team a tremendous lift on both ends of the floor, scoring 12 points on just six shots to keep the Hoyas close down the stretch while defensively frustrating Big East MVP candidate Aaron Gray. The Pittsburgh center scored only three points after halftime, largely because of Ewing’s defensive tenacity.

“Patrick came in and did what he’s supposed to. He gives us great energy,” Thompson said of the player who seems to be earning most of the minutes left behind by dismissed forward Marc Egerson. “Even more than his contributions on the offensive end, I think he did a very good job on Gray. He gives us a huge boost defensively.”

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