- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

For the second consecutive season, Georgetown coach John Thompson III seems to have pulled the right senior switch.

After a month of floundering, the Hoyas (14-10, 5-8 Big East) look to have found their stride just as they reached the crucible of their season. In the next eight days, the Hoyas’ postseason fate will be determined to a large degree by how they fare in three games against top-12 opponents Marquette, Louisville and Villanova.

Many analysts agree that a 9-9 Big East record would all but guarantee the Hoyas an at-large NCAA tournament bid given their otherwise-strong credentials as the team with the nation’s toughest schedule and a trio of marquee victories (at Connecticut, Memphis, Syracuse). That requires a 4-1 regular-season finish.

The Hoyas close the regular season with games against St. John’s and DePaul (two teams with a combined league record of 3-23), so the bulk of their stretch-run challenge comes against the trio immediately on tap. Win two of three starting Saturday at Verizon Center against the 10th-ranked Golden Eagles (22-4, 11-2), and the Hoyas likely will be positioned to make their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

Just a week ago, such a feat seemed unlikely. But Georgetown has played its best back-to-back games since early January in the past week. The Hoyas erased a 16-point second-half deficit to force overtime at Syracuse last Saturday and routed host South Florida on Wednesday.

The performances followed Thompson’s decision to move senior Jessie Sapp to the bench. The move seems to have paid dividends on two fronts: No longer deferring to Sapp, sophomore Chris Wright averaged 21 points and six assists against the Orange and Bulls. Sapp has provided an offensive spark by averaging 9.5 points off the bench.

“We’ve been conditioned to think that the best five are the first five, and that’s not always the case,” Thompson said. “[Sapp] understands this probably better than the fans or the media - that just because he’s coming off the bench doesn’t mean his coach has any less confidence in him. … He’s giving us a big boost, and I think in the past couple of games he has played better.”

A similar lineup change keyed last season’s run to a second consecutive Big East regular-season title. Thompson shifted senior Patrick Ewing Jr. to the bench midway through the season. Ewing then earned Big East sixth man of the year honors. Sapp contacted Ewing after Thompson informed him he wouldn’t start at Syracuse.

“Once Coach told me that he wasn’t going to start me, I called Pat to get his thoughts,” Sapp said. “He was great. He came to speak to me at the hotel before the Syracuse game. He just told me how he felt when it happened to him and how he handled it, and that really helped me. It was tough to swallow at first, but I took what he told me, digested it and that made it easier.”

Sapp, Wright and the rest of the Georgetown backcourt will be tested Saturday by guard-centric Marquette, which wore them down three weeks ago in Milwaukee (94-82) via perimeter penetration and a 38-13 advantage from the free throw line.

“They were at the line all day,” Sapp said. “We can’t let that happen again, but we’re a much different team. We’re playing much harder with much more attention to detail than we were when we played them out there.

“We’re finally playing the way we should have been all year.”

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