Wednesday, March 8, 2006

For humbled Georgetown, the seeds of atonement lie waiting on the Garden floor.

Just four days removed from their worst loss of the season, the 23rd-ranked Hoyas (19-8, 10-6 Big East) face Notre Dame (15-12, 6-10) today at Madison Square Garden in the opening round of the Big East tournament with their postseason position and psyche hanging in the balance.

According to every major pundit in the business, the Hoyas already have accomplished enough this season to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2001. But Saturday’s stunning loss at lowly South Florida (7-22, 1-15) damaged the team’s NCAA seeding status and, undoubtedly, its pride.

Was the debacle in Tampa, Fla., simply an anomalous wake-up call or the latest and most indicting exhibit against a senior class that has excelled at underachievement since arriving on the Hilltop? The NCAA selection committee is waiting for the Hoyas to respond to that question in New York.

“It made me feel like one of those Southwest commercials: ‘Wanna get away?’ ” Georgetown fifth-year senior Darrel Owens said of the 63-56 loss at South Florida. “We just weren’t focused. … A lot of times, Coach [John Thompson III] tells us you can’t go into a ballgame thinking you’re going to win before the ball goes up in the air, and I think that was a perfect example of that. As players, we went in there thinking we were going to win, and we got something handed to us.

“But this is a new beginning for us. It’s the Big East tournament. We know we won our last game in the Garden [against St. John’s on Jan. 8]. And if you can’t get motivated to play in there, I don’t know if you can get motivated to play anywhere.”

In some respects, Georgetown’s loss at South Florida proved the result of the perfect storm: The Bulls knew it was their last game of the season, and seniors Solomon Jones and James Holmes desperately wanted to make it memorable.

The Hoyas, coming off a bye week in which they were entrenched in exams, arrived in sunny, warm Tampa with a Top 25 ranking. They knew a victory against top-ranked Duke and a solid record in the nation’s most brutal conference already had secured them a spot in the NCAA tournament. Throw in the sickness of sophomore forward Jeff Green, the team’s key player as the triggerman in Thompson’s motion-based offense, and all the elements for an upset were in place.

“If we do what we’re supposed to do, that perfect storm scenario doesn’t even enter the equation,” Thompson said. “It was a bad loss … but we have to bounce back. We can sit here and dwell on it all day. I try not to, in general, dwell on a win or a loss. But you … sure can’t do it this time of year.”

For close followers of the program, perhaps the most disturbing part of team’s failure in Tampa was that it continued a trend that has been evident during the last two seasons: When Green struggles, for whatever reason, the Hoyas struggle, no matter the caliber of competition. In several of Green’s other sub-par games this season, sophomore center Roy Hibbert has stepped in to accept the team’s go-to mantle. But rarely has the void been filled by one of the team’s logical leaders — seniors Owens, Brandon Bowman and Ashanti Cook.

Only Owens, who carried the Hoyas down the stretch last season, has had success among that senior trio of either understanding or assuming that pressure-filled burden.

“As older players, we have to realize that if Jeff or Roy is having an off night, it’s our job — mine, Brandon’s and Ashanti’s — to carry the load,” Owens said. “We’ve just got to take a leadership role from here on out and know that this is our last season and we’ve got to step up.”

A healthy Green should go a long way toward restoring order for the Hoyas on both ends of the floor today. But perhaps Owens holds the key to the Hoyas’ run in the Big East tournament and beyond. The 6-foot-7 sharpshooting swingman averaged 16.2 points for the Georgetown in last year’s postseason. And unlike Bowman or Cook, Owens possesses the demeanor and intensity to provide the team the senior leadership it desperately needs.

“In that South Florida game, a lot of us lost focus. And it should have been a lot more of us getting on each other besides just Coach Thompson getting on us,” Owens said. “As a senior, you have to pick yourself up as well as others. And if it takes a little of us getting on each other to get motivated, then that’s what it takes. Because we’ve got to stay focused and hungry.”

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