Monday, February 11, 2008

Georgetown has no time to brood over its loss to Louisville with Villanova descending on the District.

Perhaps the only benefit of the Hoyas’ quick turnaround is that the squad that faded in the second half at Freedom Hall on Saturday night has an immediate opportunity to make amends tonight against a Villanova bunch that has never lost at Verizon Center in six appearances.

On a positive note, the Hoyas (19-3, 9-2 Big East) still own the Big East’s pole position heading into the regular season’s final seven games. On a negative one, the Cardinals turned a spotlight on Georgetown’s flaws Saturday night, highlighting the backcourt blemishes the Hoyas must spend the remainder of the season trying to hide.

The Cardinals pulled off a 16-point second-half advantage over Georgetown for one reason: The Hoyas’ perimeter game imploded against Louisville’s defensive pressure. When coach Rick Pitino and the Cardinals cranked up the intensity on their fullcourt press, Georgetown’s guards lost their composure.

Time and again in the second half against the frenetic Louisville press, Georgetown’s guards struggled to get across midcourt, barely maintaining control before lapsing into a tentative, stagnant halfcourt posture that yielded few uncontested shots and only 20 second-half points.

While the Hoyas committed only a handful of turnovers because of the press, that statistic doesn’t do justice to how thoroughly the defense scrambled the Georgetown offense, which devolved against a similar defensive onslaught one week earlier against Seton Hall.

Harried out of its game plan, Georgetown’s backcourt gave senior center Roy Hibbert fewer than 10 touches in the paint after halftime. Hibbert finished with 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting but attempted just four field goals in the second half.

The backcourt warning signs have been up for some time, especially in narrow home victories over Syracuse and Seton Hall. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge Georgetown has a weakness far more difficult to correct than its early season rebounding woes.

From a pure talent perspective, the Hoyas more than hold their own in the frontcourt with any team in the nation thanks to the combination of Hibbert, sophomore forward DaJuan Summers, senior reserve Patrick Ewing Jr., solid freshman swingman Austin Freeman and emerging backup center Vernon Macklin.

The same cannot be said of the team’s backcourt. Primary ball-handlers Jessie Sapp, Jonathan Wallace and Jeremiah Rivers have struggled, a problem that wasn’t quite as obvious when passer supreme Jeff Green was running the offense last season as an All-American point forward.

For most of his career, Wallace has done a masterful job masking his physical shortcomings with his superb basketball IQ. Always a dubious defender and reticent penetrator because of his lack of quickness, Wallace spent his first three-plus seasons on the Hilltop overwhelming those significant shortcomings with a combination of heady play and devastating shooting accuracy.

But in conference play, Wallace has lost his stroke. Dating to the Connecticut game Jan. 12, the player who owns the Georgetown records for career 3-pointers (206) and 3-point shooting percentage (.423) has been in a dreadful slump, dropping only nine of his last 39 attempts (23.1 percent) from behind the arc.

Despite spending significant time before and after practice of late trying to regain his rhythm, Wallace was 0-for-5 from 3-point range in the 59-51 loss to Louisville.

“Guys say, ‘What’s wrong?’ But I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Wallace said. “I’m just going to stay in the gym, keep shooting, and hopefully it will start falling.”

Georgetown needs Wallace’s shot because the team gets virtually no offensive support from Rivers, the only real ball-handler on the bench. With a .355 field goal percentage, worst among Georgetown’s regulars, and a guard-worst 1.3-1 assist to turnover ratio, Rivers is almost as big a liability on the offensive end as he is an asset on the defensive end.

And while Sapp is in the midst of his best season on the Hilltop, he has never been asked to carry his backcourt mates night after night. But that’s what has been happening. Sapp has endured just three single-digit scoring performances in league play this season, and Georgetown has lost two of those games (Pittsburgh and Louisville).

Perhaps most painfully, the team’s most talented guard might be sitting on the bench beside coach John Thompson III. Backcourt potency and depth didn’t seem to be a concern before freshman Chris Wright aggravated his offseason foot injury in the team’s last nonconference tuneup Dec. 31.

The quickest guard on the team, Wright was both a one-man press-wrecker and a budding defensive nemesis. Plus, the winner of the 3-point shootout in the McDonald’s All-American game arrived on the Hilltop as one of the top gunners in the current freshman class. Though he still dresses for practice every day, takes part in shootaround and has already appeared in too many games to qualify for a medical redshirt, Wright still hasn’t been cleared for game action by the team’s medical staff.

“I can’t waste time worrying about who’s not out there,” Thompson said when asked whether the team missed Wright after committing a season-high 21 turnovers against Seton Hall. “The guys we have out there are more than capable.”

Clearly, the Hoyas are more than capable of competing for a second consecutive Big East crown. And clearly they’re capable of remaining a top 25 staple with a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth already locked up before Groundhog Day. But Thompson has bigger plans.

“We’re a long way away from where I want to be,” Thompson said last week. “It takes a lot to build a program. I don’t want to have a good team. I don’t want to have something that’s cute and trendy. I want this program to be good, to be the best, forever. That’s all-encompassing. We still are in the infancy phases, literally and figuratively, of getting to where we will be.”

Today’s game

VILLANOVA (14-8, 4-6 Big East) AT NO. 6 GEORGETOWN (19-3, 9-2)

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: ESPN, AM-980

Outlook: The Hoyas have won 18 straight home games since Villanova upset them 56-52 at Verizon Center last January behind a 16-point effort from former Herndon star Scottie Reynolds. Georgetown is coming off a draining road loss at Louisville on short rest and has struggled of late against guard-oriented teams like Villanova that like to press (see Seton Hall and Louisville). The Wildcats scraped by Seton Hall on a last-second shot Feb. 2 to snap a five-game losing streak. Reynolds (16.8 points) and freshman Corey Fisher (11.2 points) form a dangerous backcourt combo, but Villanova likely will have trouble with Georgetown center Roy Hibbert.

Barker Davis

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