Saturday, January 26, 2002

Welcome to the crossroads.

Georgetown’s erratic basketball season has reached its most pivotal junction. Over the next three days, the Hoyas (12-6, 3-3 Big East) face the two teams perched ahead of them in the league’s West division: Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

With a road victory today over the Panthers (17-3, 5-2) and a home victory over the 12th-ranked Orangemen (16-4, 5-1), Georgetown would work itself back into the fray for a division title and go a long way toward earning an NCAA tournament berth. With two losses, or even a split, the Hoyas would fade back into the pack of pedestrian Big East teams facing a February defined by desperation.

“These two games remind me of the two games going into the Big East tournament last year, when we had to beat Syracuse at home and Notre Dame on the road,” said senior captain Kevin Braswell, referring to the 11th-hour sweep that edged the Hoyas into the NCAA tournament. “We have to win these two games. It’s a must, because we’ve let a lot of games get away recently, and this stretch can put us right back where we belong.”

After a rough start against an improved schedule, the Hoyas have played their best hoops over the last three weeks, taking double-digit leads over each of their last five opponents. Three of those games resulted in major blowouts. The other two ended in major breakdowns, leading Georgetown coach Craig Esherick to describe his young team as “maddeningly inconsistent” after losses to Rutgers and Pittsburgh.

Last week provided a perfect microcosm of the season. A week ago against Pittsburgh at MCI Center, the Hoyas watched an 11-point, first-half lead devolve into a 68-67 loss when Pitt’s Jaron Brown flipped home a follow-up basket with six seconds remaining. Both the blown lead and the manner in which the final hoop was scored typified the lower moments of Georgetown’s season. The Hoyas have had the box-out blues all season, losing all five games in which they were outrebounded.

“Basically, every game we’ve lost has been because we’ve been outrebounded,” said sophomore power forward Mike Sweetney (19.3 points, 9.8 rebounds). “Coach has been emphasizing that to us in practice every day. We know if we get after the boards, we win.”

In almost comically predictable fashion, Georgetown rebounded from the loss to Pittsburgh by thrashing Notre Dame on the glass and on the scoreboard in South Bend two days later.

“All three of our big men played great against Notre Dame Mike, Courtland [Freeman] and Wesley [Wilson],” Esherick said.

Wilson’s 10-point, six-rebound performance against the Irish marked his best outing since well before Christmas. In fact, there’s a strong correlation between Wilson’s midseason vanishing act and Georgetown’s rebounding struggles. In Georgetown’s last four losses, the 6-foot-11 starting center has averaged just 3.3 points and 0.5 rebounds.

When Wilson has even a faint pulse on the floor, Georgetown looks like the team Big East coaches picked as the league’s best before the season. When he plays like a cadaver clad in blue and gray, the Hoyas can’t keep anybody off the glass.

“I think the worst part is behind me, and I’m going to continue to try and improve,” Wilson said. “But you never know the rhythm of life and how everything’s going to go. You just have to work harder. You’ve got to dig down deep inside and find some inspiration to rebound. That’s not one of my strong points, but that’s what I’ve been working on.”

If you didn’t already know Wilson was a California native, consider this telling comment:

“Usually, if you get in tune with the game and get in tune with your team if you get your mental, physical and spiritual right then that’s when it’s all balanced out and you play your best game,” said Wilson, sounding like a cross between Bill Walton and Phil Jackson. “I have to find that. … I don’t ever feel like I get pushed around. Whenever I’m struggling on the court, I feel it’s because I’m stopping myself. I don’t ever feel like someone is busting me and shutting my game down. It’s always me getting in my own way.”

Both Pittsburgh and Syracuse can be exploited inside if Wilson discovers Zen is the attainment of an orange orb and decides to join the indomitable Sweetney in the paint.

“If we can just get a couple of jumpers to fall in the way they didn’t last Saturday and get Wesley going the way he was going in the Notre Dame game … whew, I would love to be watching that game instead of playing in it,” said Braswell. “We blew out Boston College. We blew out Seton Hall. We had Notre Dame blown out by 17, and we had Pitt down by 11. So we know we can do it. If we can just maintain our intensity for 40 minutes against Pittsburgh and Syracuse, we’ll be good to go.”

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