Hoyas starting off with familiar test

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Georgetown hopes to spend the last few hours of the year exorcising a couple of last season’s most galling demons.

The 13th-ranked Hoyas (9-1) begin Big East play on New Year’s Eve against the same St. John’s squad that snuffed the last remaining vestiges of Georgetown’s NCAA tournament hopes last season with a two-game, stretch-run upset sweep.

Though last season’s many second-half shortcomings included multiple losses to Cincinnati and a debacle at lowly Seton Hall, Georgetown might have squeaked into the NCAA tournament had it taken both games against the Red Storm to finish 18-13. That record would have featured victories against six tournament teams (Maryland, American, Memphis, Connecticut, Syracuse and Villanova).

Instead, a sub-.500 St. John’s team that finished 13th in the Big East embarrassed Georgetown on the boards 42-22 in a 59-56 victory at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 3. The Red Storm added a 64-59 win a week later in the opening round of the Big East tournament.

“We know we lost twice to them last year in the last week of the season, and the guys certainly understand the implications and repercussions that had on our hopes of making the NCAA tournament,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “But at the same time, I think this group understands that this season starts right now. There’s no time to think about last season or grudges or whatever because the Big East is here and it’s time to just play.”

Thus far, this season’s Hoyas have held little resemblance to the squad that unraveled last season. Behind often dominant play from sophomore center Greg Monroe (15.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists) and dramatic improvement on the defensive end (particularly rebounding), Georgetown has put itself back in the national spotlight in the opening two months.

Despite an upset loss to Old Dominion, the Hoyas emerge from their preconference slate with one of the nation’s strongest postseason resumes after posting wins over four teams ranked in the RPI’s current top 30 in Temple (No. 3), Washington (10), Butler (16) and Harvard (30).

Now the Hoyas face the task of translating that success to a league that again looks like the deepest and strongest in the country. While this season’s Big East doesn’t feature super powers like last season’s big three of eventual NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds (Pittsburgh, Louisville and Connecticut), St. John’s (10-2) epitomizes the change that should define the league this season. Recent also-rans like the Red Storm, Cincinnati and Seton Hall all appear to have significantly improved.

St. John’s, for instance, returned its top nine contributors from last season and added a pair of junior-college starters in guard Dwight Hardy (11.7 points) and power forward Justin Brownlee (7.9 points, 5.9 rebounds). The Red Storm already have pushed Duke for 40 minutes in an 80-71 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off Temple 55-48 at the Palestra.

“St. John’s is absolutely one of the teams that I expect to take a jump and finish in the top half of the league this season,” Thompson said. “They are a veteran group who has been through some tough times together and now looks ready to use that experience and a returning core of personnel to make a move up in the standings.”

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