- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Final Four fever has come a month early to the Hilltop.

In order to salvage its season of rank underachievement, Georgetown must either start a stretch-run sweep with a victory tonight over Big East behemoth Connecticut, or the Hoyas might as well start praying for a miracle at Madison Square Garden.

The task ahead for Georgetown (15-9, 6-6 Big East) is straightforward, if stringent. In order to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas likely must close the regular season with four victories (vs. Connecticut, at Syracuse, at West Virginia and vs. Rutgers) and at least one win in the Big East tournament (March 6-9). Lose just one of those final four, and the Hoyas can stick a "Tournament Title or Bust" bumper sticker on the bus for the ride to New York.

"I think it's a simple numbers game for the Big East bubble teams now," said ESPN analyst Digger Phelps this weekend. "I think four teams are in [the NCAA tournament] already Pittsburgh, Miami, UConn and Syracuse. And I don't think the Big East will get six bids. That means Notre Dame, St. John's, Georgetown, Rutgers and Boston College are all scrapping for what I think will be a fifth and final bid for the league. All things considered victories, conference record and RPI I think Notre Dame definitely has the edge right now."

That would not be true if the Hoyas had managed just one clutch bucket in four last-possession shots against the Irish in Georgetown's 116-111 loss to Notre Dame (17-8, 7-5) in quadruple-overtime 10 days ago. It might not be true if the Hoyas had protected a five-point lead with 36 seconds left in regulation of an overtime loss at Villanova on Saturday.

But time and again, Georgetown has faltered at the finish this season, leaving its NCAA tournament resume thin (see chart) and its margin for error over the next two weeks even thinner.

"The close losses are frustrating for everyone involved with the program," said Georgetown coach Craig Esherick yesterday. "But they are a factor of the youth of our team. [Senior guard] Kevin Braswell is the only one out there right now who has played for us for more than a season. … Kevin's basically out there with a bunch of babies. But they'll grow up, and we still have an opportunity to do some things this season."

Of the four teams left on the schedule, no team has given the Hoyas more trouble of late than the Huskies (17-6, 9-3), who come into tonight's meeting at MCI Center with a league-best five-game winning streak against Georgetown.

Connecticut features one of the league's most balanced attacks behind forwards Caron Butler (19.0 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Johnnie Selvie (12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds), perimeter gunners Ben Gordon (12.2 points) and Tony Robertson (11.3 points) and shot-swatting center Emeka Okafor (9.3 rebounds, 4.4 blocks).

Of particular concern for the Hoyas are Butler, Selvie and Okafor. The Hoyas have had trouble keeping opposing teams off the offensive boards all season. And Connecticut features by far the most athletic frontline Georgetown will have faced.

"They are tough, because they have three guys down there who can rebound and score in the post," said Esherick. "I'd say UCLA's frontcourt was almost as talented but not as aggressive."

Nobody in the league has been able to stop Butler all season. The 6-foot-7, 235-pounder is a matchup nightmare, too quick and versatile for any power forward in the league and too physical and tenacious for any swingman. Georgetown will start with sophomore Gerald Riley (6-6, 205 pounds) on Butler, but reserve freshman forward Harvey Thomas (6-8, 205) will also be asked to defend UConn's baseline beast.

"Gerald has really impressed me with his defense lately, and I think both Gerald and Harvey are capable of doing a good job on Butler," said Esherick. "And I think we're still very capable of earning a bid to the [NCAA] tournament. I'm not talking doom and gloom or desperation right now. I have definitely let the guys know how important it is to beat Connecticut, but we've still got time to get it done this season."

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