Friday, January 20, 2006

When No. 1 Duke comes calling at MCI Center this afternoon, Georgetown will be waiting with college basketball’s version of the magic bullet.

If the Hoyas defy the odds, find the mark and drop the unbeaten Blue Devils (17-0), Georgetown (11-4) would only need to avoid upsets during the remainder of its Big East schedule to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2001. There’s little to lose, everything to gain and a capable marksman staring down that blue and gray barrel at a team-defining, program-building victory in the form of Georgetown fifth-year senior D.J. Owens.

“[A victory could] mean a lot of things,” Owens said. “It can mean we beat the No. 1 team in the country. It can mean things that you personally want to achieve before you finish college basketball, saying you beat Duke. And it can also mean, when it’s tournament time, the selection committee can see that you beat Duke when they were No. 1 in the country. If we do what we have to do, I think we have a good chance of winning the game.”

Obviously, a handful of things have to fall Georgetown’s way for it to pull off the upset. The Hoyas have to find defensive solutions to Duke’s All-American combo of gunner J.J. Redick (26.5 points) and center Shelden Williams (18.2 points, 9.4 rebounds). They have to crash the boards the way they did last week at Connecticut, where they battled the nation’s most daunting frontcourt to a 28-28 rebounding draw while holding the Huskies to a season-low six offensive rebounds. They have to protect the ball against a Duke team that thrives in transition and forces 17.4 turnovers a game.

And perhaps most importantly, the Hoyas have to shoot the ball well from behind the arc.

Second-year Georgetown coach John Thompson III has emerged from several games this season lamenting his team’s reliance on the 3-point shot. But, for better or worse, the long ball is the strength of the Georgetown offense.

With center Roy Hibbert still struggling with consistency and power forward Jeff Green suffering through a dreadful sophomore shooting slump, the Hoyas’ offense has been focused primarily on its perimeter players since the team segued into the meat of its schedule. Among those players, only senior Brandon Bowman qualifies as a reliable slasher, meaning the most explosive facet of the team’s offense is its 3-point shooting.

The Hoyas rank sixth in the Big East in 3-point shooting (36.7 percent). But when the Hoyas go small, inserting Owens into the lineup for Hibbert, few teams in the nation (with the notable exception of West Virginia) boast more firepower from 3-point range. Even with Green in the midst of a drought from deep, all five players in Georgetown’s No. 1a lineup (Green, Owens, Bowman and guards Ashanti Cook and Jonathan Wallace) have proved themselves competent gunners, each boasting at least one game of three or more makes from 3-point range.

And few players in the nation (perhaps only Redick) can run any hotter from 3-point territory than Owens. Fact is, the only thing separating Redick the All-American from Owens the sixth man is consistency.

Consider Georgetown’s last six games: In victories at UTEP, at St. John’s and against South Florida, Owens was an astounding 15-for-21 from 3-point range (71.4 percent) and averaged 21.7 points. In losses at West Virginia and Connecticut and a closer-than-expected victory over Providence, Owens was 1-for-13 (7.7 percent) on 3-pointers and averaged 3.0 points.

It’s not completely fair to say as Owens goes, so go the Hoyas. But with Hibbert and Green lagging of late, Owens’ play has been the key to the Georgetown offense.

And don’t think Owens’ inconsistency can be directly correlated to the level of competition. Both ranked teams during that run (No. 4 Connecticut and No. 16 West Virginia) gave Owens a slew of wide open looks, while South Florida’s 6-foot-6 McHugh Mattis was virtually Velcroed to Owens, who still hit for 20 points, including 4-for-8 from behind the arc.

The 6-foot-7 Owens is three inches taller than Redick, a half-step faster, considerably stronger and also boasts solid shooting form. Unlike Redick, however, Owens has trouble stringing together high-scoring games.

“I can’t explain it,” Owens said of his streaky nature. “It’s not something I sense, good or bad, during shootaround or warm up.

“Sometimes, it just feels like I can’t miss. I’ll knock down a couple early, and it’s all downhill from there. Other times, they just don’t go in. … That’s basketball.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t let one man push him around since he was Bobby Knight’s minion at Army, so the Blue Devils surely won’t wilt if Owens has one of his torrid shooting days.

“Everything has to be hitting — defense, rebounds, shots, shot selection — all of that stuff has to be on point to beat a team like Duke,” Bowman said. “This game is definitely important. It’s a chance for the whole team to get a signature win. This would be, I think, one of the biggest wins around here in a long time.”

Indeed, a Georgetown victory would be the program’s first over a top-5 team in a decade and its first over the No.1 team since the Hoyas downed top-ranked St. John’s (85-69) in 1985.

On that night at Madison Square Garden, Georgetown shot 59.7 percent from the field and received a titanic effort from Reggie Williams (25 points, seven rebounds, six assists).

Similar heroics will be required to down Duke. But the Hoyas are two decades overdue, and only an anomalous shooting day stopped them from authoring a shocker last week on the road against Connecticut — a team far deeper, more athletic and more daunting than Duke.

The bullet is chambered. The target is clear. And another signature shot is forthcoming.

“At the end of the day,” Thompson said, “if it comes down to us making shots, I’ll take our chances.”

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