Pregame Party: Georgetown v. South Florida

The Hoyas look for their third straight in a never-friendly trip to Tampa.

Georgetown takes a quick trip to the Sunshine State this weekend to face the South Florida Bulls. With another, higher-profile road game at Notre Dame awaiting Monday, the Hoyas' focus this weekend must be on the task at hand, as wins in Tampa aren't guaranteed, particularly with the Bulls desperate for their first conference win.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Before last season, South Florida has not enjoyed a rich basketball history, having appeared in the NCAA Tournament just twice, and having lost both of those contests (the latter in 1992 to your Georgetown Hoyas). Even early on New Year's Day 2012, things looked grim, as the Bulls, coming off a 3-15 conference campaign the season before, had already dropped their first Big East game to level their record at an even 9-9. With a grueling conference slate ahead, head coach Stan Heath should have counted himself lucky to make the NIT.

But then the remarkable (and at times, remarkably ugly) thing happened. The Bulls started winning--beginning with a January 1st squeaker over Rutgers--and winning a lot, emerging victorious from 10 of their next 13 contests, all in the Big East. Except for those three losses, all by double digits to eventual tournament teams (including by 30 to your Hoyas), the competition was modest by Big East standards, and the wins weren't always convincing, but the Bulls didn't lose any games against those lower-tier teams. By the time the Bulls unthinkably won at Louisville (which would eventually go to the Final Four) two months later, they seemed primed, even with their so-so early start, for their first NCAA tournament in two decades. As it happened, the Bulls were one of the last at-large bids, relegated to the "First Four" mid-week games. But South Florida beat Cal, then uglied it up in an opening-round win over Temple. Only a six-point loss to Cinderella Ohio kept the South Florida from its first Sweet Sixteen.

This season has been more true to form, as the Bulls managed to go 9-3 through non-conference without any notable victories. Having lost three front-line seniors from last season and suffered a couple more injuries, South Florida hasn't been the interior force it was, and a top-20 defense in the country has become merely decent. Things headed south with a tough early conference schedule, as the Bulls lost four straight to Syracuse, Villanove, Louisville, and, Thursday night, a three-point heartbreaker at Rutgers.

Bulls to Know. The Big East's leader in assists rate isn't Tray Woodall, Peyton Siva, or even Vincent Council, who lit up the Hoyas after halftime Wednesday. Rather, trailing a certain sticky-fingered Orange in handing out helpers most frequently in the conference is South Florida sophomore Anthony Collins (9.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 7.0 apg, 1.9 stl pg). Collins is a respectable shooter, a good penetrator, a tenacious defender, and a dependable passer, orchestrating what otherwise would be a miserable Bulls' attack.

The Bulls also rely on a pair of veteran forwards. Victor Rudd (11.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.2 apg) is a solid defender and good rebounder but a middling offensive player. Next to him Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (11.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 blk pg) has the unenviable combination of being a power forward playing center by necessity, and the team's primary three-point threat.

Between that trio, Heath has settled on a sort-of wing by committee. Senior Jawanza Poland (10.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.1 stl pg) has produced the most, and, after a couple of down games, surged back with 17 points at Rutgers. But the Bulls also have turned to new faces of late, as incoming transfer Martino Brock (5.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and freshmen Javontae Hawkins (2.6 ppg) and Zach LeDay (3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg) have seen more burn.

When South Florida Has the Ball.

  • Bulls' strength: protecting the ball. South Florida's offense isn't much, ranking roughly on par with the Hoyas'. Add in the Bulls' pace, which is 332nd in the country, and no one's tuning in to see them score. But South Florida doesn't waste those few possessions, turning the ball over on under 18 percent of possessions, one of the better marks in the Big East, and the country.
  • Hoyas' strength: protecting the paint. South Florida ranks in the bottom quarter in the country in shooting from within the arc. Georgetown defends that area exceptionally well, holding opponents to barely 41 percent shooting from two. That number actually has improved without Greg Whittington, albeit against a couple of mediocre opponents. Against a feeble interior offense, the Hoyas should control the paint again.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Collins. Georgetown struggled to contain one of the league's better point guards on Wednesday. Will the Hoyas be able to lock down Collins, another talented lead guard, Saturday? Other Big East teams have been able to do so, as both his scoring and assists have dipped in conference play, but when Collins gets going, the Bulls' offense becomes much more potent.
    • Offensive rebounding. Georgetown gave up 13 offensive rebounds to Providence, an unacceptably high number. It's tempting to blame that number to the absence of ace rebounder Whittington, but the Whit-less Hoyas held St. John's to just five offensive rebounds a few days earlier. Providence generally is a very good offensive rebounding team, and St. John's isn't. Neither, as it happens, is South Florida. So keep an eye on the boards, because if the Hoyas can't deny second chances to the Bulls, they certainly won't be able to do so against Louisville (18th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage), Cincinnati (10th), and (gulp) Syracuse (4th).
    • Foul trouble. Georgetown's line-ups have varied over the past two games because of foul trouble. Against St. John's, Mikael Hopkins sat much of the game, while Otto Porter and Nate Lubick each were disqualified against Providence. Will the Hoyas have to bench one of their starters early Saturday?

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: the big two. Without Whittington, Otto Porter and Markel Starks have stepped up, combining for 36 points per game over the past two. Starks particularly has come alive, hunting for shots off the dribble and taking over team lead in assists. The Hoyas will need dependable production from them Saturday to assure a road win.
  • Bulls' strength: defending the three. Georgetown wasn't much deterred by Providence from beyond the arc, which until Wednesday hadn't allowed much from three-point range. Finding the outside touch South Florida may be still more difficult, as the Bulls which have yielded barely 28 percent from three on the season, and a league-best 24 percent in conference play.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Pace. All three of the things to watch have to do with Hoyas' opportunities for extra points. The first, and most notable of late, has been the change of pace. The Bulls don't exactly charge, preferring one of the 20 slowest paces in the country. The Hoyas have played the last two games at a pace that would put them in the fastest quarter of teams in the country. Can they generate those transition opportunities again Saturday?
    • Free throws. Georgetown has been on a parade to the free throw line the last three games, averaging nearly 25 attempts per game, and shooting a respectable (especially by the Hoyas' lowly standards) 70 percent. South Florida rarely sends its opponents to the free throw line, rating near the top of the conference, and indeed the country, in giving up few free throw attempts. Can the Hoyas get easy points from the stripe Saturday?
    • Bench scoring. Wednesday's game was the Hoyas' third straight in which the bench has contributed 15 points or more. D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has contributed nearly half of those points, notching 7 on Wednesday to go with a number of other contributions. But Aaron Bowen also has been the story, heating up from the outside as JTIII has given him extra run. Can Georgetown count on points off the pine Saturday?

Prediction. It's rare for a team just one week removed from the polls and sporting a respectable 12-3, 2-2 record to be playing its third consecutive must-win game in January. But such is life for these Hoyas. Georgetown probably needs a winning conference record to punch its ticket to the dance, and to do so, it needs at least one more road win. Saturday's game might not be the last roadie in which the Hoyas will be favored, but may nevertheless be the most winnable. But it won't be easy, as they'll face a South Florida squad that will be desperate for its first conference win in five tries. The good news is that the same formula that has produced the last two wins could translate well against the Bulls. Georgetown 62, South Florida 57.

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