Georgetown’s play over the next 96 hours will go a long way toward determining the team’s postseason position.
The 17th-ranked Hoyas (17-5, 8-3 Big East) will spend the next four days on the road and under duress. They face by far their two biggest remaining challenges of the regular season in a duo of daunting road tests against Marquette tonight and No.4 Villanova on Sunday.
“In Marquette you have a team that, other than Cincinnati, hasn’t lost a league game at home. And though we aren’t thinking about Villanova at all right now, they’re right at the top of the standings,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “In terms of the [postseason] implications of these two games, if you start to say we need to win X or finish at Y, you’ll twist yourself into the ground. But there’s no doubt we have a couple of very tough games in a row here.”
Thompson isn’t one to look ahead, but here’s Georgetown’s situation: Barring the unlikely collapse by Big East principals Villanova (20-2, 10-1), Connecticut (22-2, 9-2) and West Virginia (18-6, 9-2), the Hoyas hold the upper hand in a three-team scrum with Pittsburgh (19-3, 8-3) and Seton Hall (16-7, 7-4) for the fourth and final bye in the upcoming Big East tournament (March 8-11).
With five regular-season games remaining, a 4-1 finish by the Hoyas would cement that position unless either Pittsburgh or Seton Hall were to manage the mammoth task of winning the rest of their conference games. And given the game location and relative weakness of Georgetown’s final three opponents (home against Rutgers and Syracuse and on the road at South Florida), three teams with a combined league record of just 9-22, the Hoyas’ chances of finishing 5-1 seem pretty good if they can come away with a split over the next four days.
So the Hoyas either need to win tonight at Marquette (16-8, 6-5) or Sunday on short rest against a torrid Villanova bunch that just knocked off top-ranked Connecticut 69-64 on Monday night. Given the long odds against the latter, tonight’s matchup with Marquette is crucial to Georgetown’s stretch-run hopes.
While the Golden Eagles have been pedestrian at best on the road this season (2-6 overall), they have been murder at the raucous Bradley Center, fashioning a 13-2 home resume that includes a 94-79 thrashing of Connecticut on Jan.3. The hero of that humbling of the Huskies was senior forward Steve Novak, who carried Marquette into its Big East era that night with a 41-point, 16-rebound explosion that stands as the league’s top individual performance of the season.
Marquette features two of the Big East’s brightest young stars in slashing freshman guards Dominic James (15.4 points, 5.4 assists) and Jerel McNeal (11.4 points), but the Golden Eagles basically thrive or dive based on the play of their 6-foot-10 senior sniper.
“He’s a terrific shooter,” Thompson said of Novak, who has averaged 24.0 points and 9.2 rebounds in five Big East home games this season while shooting better than 52 percent from 3-point range. “I don’t want to say he’s the best shooter in our league, but he’s certainly one of them. The comparisons to [West Virginia’s Kevin Pittsnogle] are largely because they’re the same size. Pittsnogle is a center. Novak is 6-10, but the way he handles and moves, he plays more like a small forward. In watching tapes, I noticed he’s made more closely guarded and contested shots than anyone I’ve seen this year.”
Given the way Pittsnogle shredded the Hoyas in two games this season (48 points in a season sweep), the similarly styled Novak must be salivating over tonight’s opportunity to add another quality win to Marquette’s bubble-riding NCAA tournament portfolio.
Facing Novak and the desperate Golden Eagles at boisterous Bradley Center might be among the least desirable league combinations for a team looking to rebound from a 69-56 home loss to West Virginia. But unless the Hoyas plan on discussing a streak of a darker sort come Sunday, they must come prepared to man-up in Milwaukee.