- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

For the first time since before Christmas, No. 6 Georgetown faces an opponent who would seem to have the Hoyas outclassed on paper.

When Georgetown (19-2, 9-1 Big East) puts its six-game winning streak on the line tonight at Freedom Hall in a showdown between the league’s preseason co-favorites, the Hoyas will look at something of a mirror image of themselves … perhaps only better.

“I’m fired up. This is Georgetown-Louisville. You can’t get any better than that,” Georgetown junior guard Jessie Sapp said. “They’re talented. They’re deep. They’re healthy. They’re just like us in so many ways, so we’ve got to bring our A-game.

“And [coach Rick Pitino] is just amazing. He knows how to adjust in so many ways. We know he’s firing them up right now. They’re down there waiting for us. … This is a tough one. It’s going to be an all-out battle.”

Since his arrival on the Hilltop three-plus seasons ago, Georgetown’s John Thompson III has preached offensive balance and defensive intensity. For the second consecutive season, the Hoyas feature five starters averaging between 9.0 and 14.7 points and the nation’s top field goal percentage defense (35.5 percent).

Perhaps trumping the Hoyas at their own game, however, Louisville (17-6, 7-3) boasts five players averaging double digits in scoring and three players pulling down six or more rebounds. And the Cardinals rank second in the Big East to Georgetown in both scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.

Before the season, most experts thought the Cardinals had even more quality pieces than Georgetown. And since returning to full strength after a rash of early season injuries and suspensions, Louisville has played like an elite team.

While Georgetown struggled at home last week with mid-tier conference opponents Seton Hall and South Florida, Louisville’s last outing was a 71-57 win at Marquette that snapped the Golden Eagles’ 14-game winning streak at Bradley Center.

Given the teams’ contrasting performances of late, even Pitino took a mild swipe at Georgetown earlier this week.

“Georgetown right now is by themselves, but they could just as easily have three or four losses,” Pitino said. “You need luck in this conference to win, and they’ve been the lucky team.”

Undoubtedly, Pitino is referring to Georgetown’s 3-0 record this season in one-possession games; against Connecticut, Syracuse and West Virginia, the Hoyas consummated second-half comebacks with final-possession heroics.

And while nobody would argue against fortune’s role in 7-footer Roy Hibbert jarring the first 3-pointer of his Big East career at the buzzer against Connecticut or the late shot and block to win at West Virginia, perhaps the Hoyas’ record in tight games merits a closer look.

In fact, Georgetown’s mark in close games this season is a byproduct of Thompson’s coaching. During Thompson’s four-year tenure, the Hoyas are 16-4 in games decided by three points or fewer or in overtime. Georgetown’s motion-based Princeton offense is the game’s most effective in the halfcourt sets that define late-game situations.

“Nobody has been more efficient in the halfcourt than Georgetown over the last couple of years,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “They don’t turn it over, and they don’t take bad shots. So it stands to reason that the fewer the number of possessions, the better they’re going to do.”

Relative to all single-digit games, the closer the score, the better Georgetown has fared. In games decided by fewer than 10 points since Thompson’s arrival, the Hoyas are 29-21 (.580). Lower the margin to five points, and their record improves to 21-8 (.724).

Therein lies Georgetown’s big advantage over Louisville.

While the Hoyas thrive in close games, the Cardinals have struggled. Louisville is 1-3 this season in games decided by three or fewer with three Big East losses by a total of 13 points.

If Georgetown can keep it close tonight in frenzied Freedom Hall, it can upend the Cardinals.

“We played very well down there last year,” said Thompson, whose Hoyas prevailed 83-75. “We were extremely efficient offensively, which is hard to do against them. I think last year was one of those games when the stars just aligned for us, and hopefully we can cause that to happen again.”

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