- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2015

The prestige that comes with a national ranking is not lost on the Georgetown men’s basketball team.

“It matters,” junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said. “I can’t say that it doesn’t.”

The Hoyas moved back into the rankings Monday, checking in at No. 21 in the latest Associated Press poll and No. 22 in USA Today’s coaches’ poll. It’s their highest ranking since the 2012-13 season, when they finished eighth, and the second time they’ve been ranked this season. Two days after that previous appearance in late December, they were crushed by Xavier, 70-53, and immediately dropped out.

It is somewhat fitting, then, that Xavier will be in town Tuesday night, on the heels of the Hoyas’ return to the rankings. This time, they’re aiming to stay there.

“The first time we played them, they handled us pretty easily,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said Monday. “They took us out of what we wanted to do offensively, and our frustrations on offense led to lapses in defense. So do I think we’re better than we were New Year’s Eve? I hope so. But we have to be significantly better than we were then, at both ends of the floor.”

The Hoyas are the same talented team they were when the season began more than two months ago. Injuries have been rare, and the rotation has more or less been consistent. But as the wins have piled up in recent weeks, including a blowout of Villanova and an overtime win at Marquette last week, their national reputation has grown. A return to the rankings is evident of that.

Being ranked doesn’t change the way the Hoyas view themselves, senior forward Mikael Hopkins said. It’s more of a validation of their performance than anything.

“You pay attention to it,” Hopkins said. “You’ll see it on TV, when you’re watching other games, you’ll see your name come up at the bottom of the screen. Students on campus talk about it. But we just want to get better.”

The Hoyas said it starts with defense. In their first meeting with Xavier on Dec. 31, players said they were focused more on individual matchups than switching and covering for one another. That becomes particularly problematic in transition, a phase of the game in which the Musketeers thrive.

“They don’t play with a conscience,” Smith-Rivera said. “I think everybody on their team is capable of scoring the ball at a high rate. So it makes them deadly.”

Georgetown also looks to play fast, and its offense has steadily improved as younger players, especially freshman Isaac Copeland, have continued to grow. The scoring burden is no longer on Smith-Rivera or center Joshua Smith, as it was at times last year. Between L.J. Peak, Jabril Trawick, Aaron Bowen, Paul White, Copeland and others, there’s a diversity of scoring options that has helped the flow of the offense as a whole.

“The good thing with this team, and you’re seeing it, is we’re getting better. We have not arrived yet,” Thompson said. “This might sound like a small thing, but it’s not: the guys like each other. There’s a sense of selflessness in that I’m just as happy for you if you’re scoring. So if we can get that same selflessness on the other end of the court, on defense, help each other out a little more, we’ll be okay.”

Georgetown might be without two of those key cogs Tuesday night, as both Trawick, who has a thigh injury, and Peak, who injured an ankle, missed practice Sunday and are questionable for the game. Thompson said the absence of either player would significantly affect the team’s rotation but declined to go into specifics when about the ways in which it would change.

A fifth consecutive win would only continue to boost Georgetown’s tournament resume. But following close conference losses to Xavier, Butler and, most recently, Providence, the Hoyas are not looking that far ahead quite yet.

“We know that anybody in our conference can beat anybody,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a dogfight. That’s just how the Big East is.”

Blocking out that tournament talk, and the recognition that comes with being nationally ranked, will be one of several challenges for the Hoyas moving forward. Thompson, however, isn’t concerned. Behind those questions, he knows there is one constant answer.

“We just have to find ways to keep accumulating wins,” Thompson said, “and that will take care of everything else.”

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