Pregame Party: Georgetown v. Cincinnati

Phil Sears-US PRESSWIRE

Hoyas hit the road in an effort to win seventh straight, maintain share of first place

Can Georgetown notch its seventh straight conference win Friday night? They will have their work cut out for them, hitting the road to face a strong, veteran Cincinnati squad.

******Public Service Announcement: Big East Bedlam****** Syracuse lost last night. In addition to being extrinsic proof of the existence of the divine, the Orange's defeat at Connecticut pulls the Hoyas into a three-way tie for first place in the standings. Georgetown's winning streak has shifted fans' perspective from whether the Hoyas can still make the tournament without Greg Whittington (the chances of whose return, JTIII reportedly said Wednesday, were "slim"), to just how far they can go. Despite rising up the standings, Georgetown hasn't exactly left the pack behind: the difference between first place and ninth in the conference is a mere 1.5 games entering Thursday. One of the teams at the tail end of that bunch is Cincinnati, which has lost five conference games, but four of them by just a combined 13 points. The thin margins, both in each game and in the standings, underscore how critical Friday's trip to the Queen City is.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Head coach Mick Cronin has done of a terrific job of rebuilding a Cincinnati program that was in shambles after Bob Huggins' unceremonious departure. In each of the past five years, the Bearcats have won as many or more games than the year before. It's just too bad no one has noticed. Oh, wait, Cronin has.

Despite stiff competition from a philanderer and a couple of maniacs, Cronin quickly is claiming pole position as the most insufferable Big East coach this side of the Canadian border. (To paraphrase Sam Elliott, that would place him high in the running for most insufferable world-wide.) Maybe it's his loud mouth, his lousy clothes, or his general shortness. Regardless, it's hard to imagine rival fanbases morphing photos of another coach (well, another coaches besides Magoo) variously into a Martian, a member of the Lollipop Guild, and Elmo.

Yet the results are there: the Bearcats won 26 games each of the past two years, and reached the Big East Tournament final and Sweet Sixteen last season. Cincinnati particularly has had Georgetown's number of late, winning the last four games in the series. There's context for those defeats: the first saw Chris Wright's hand broken by a Bearcat; the second, shortly thereafter, didn't see Wright at all; and the last two both involved the Hoyas squandering late leads. Still, it's beyond dispute that Cincinnati has emerged from the post-Huggins depths.

Having returned a roster full of upperclassmen, this season might have continued that same trajectory. And it still might, though the results have been uneven of late. Things started out well, with a nearly perfect non-conference run blemished only by a one-point loss to a good New Mexico team. But conference play has been tougher sledding, as the Bearcats lost at home three times while also falling at Syracuse (barely) and Providence. Cincinnati still has won 7 against those 5 losses, putting another tournament appearance within reach. But with five of their six remaining games against teams with above-.500 Big East records, each game, particularly at home, is dire.

Bearcats to Know. While Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon are finally gone, the rest of last year's Cincinnati rotation is back. Even without Dixon, this year's team is led from the back-court. The primary scoring option is still shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick (18.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.4 stl pg), a volume shooter who gets to the line often. His scoring has risen this year, though his long-distance shooting has taken a dip. Cashmere Wright (13.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.8 stl pg, 37.2 3FG%) is the Bearcats' point guard by necessity, providing a bit of outside shooting in addition to distributing the rock. One year after being the de facto power forward in a four-guard lineup, JaQuon Parker (10.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 42.1 3FG%) has become more perimeter-oriented this year, with his rebounds and free-throw attempts predictably declining while also becoming the Bearcats' most accurate (if not highest-volume) three-point shooter.

This back-court trio accounts for sixty percent of the team's scoring. The front court, then, provides the team's rebounding and rim protection. Manning the middle is center Cheikh Mbodj (5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.4 blk pg), a big man who, but for Chris Obekpa, would be the best shot-blocker in the conference on a per-minute basis. Also a fearsome defender, and a solid rebounder to boot, is forward Justin Jackson (4.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 stl pg, 1.3 blk pg), who, despite Gates's departure, hasn't enjoyed more playing time this season and often comes off the bench. Starting instead at power forward is junior college transfer Titus Rubles (6.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 32.2 FG%), a solid rebounder and passer who's still looking for his shot. Backing up Mbodj is transfer David Nyarsuk (3.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.1 blk pg), another rim protector.

When Cincinnati Has the Ball.

  • Bearcats' strength: offensive rebounding. Cincinnati's profile roughly resembles Georgetown's: a so-so offense more than made up for by a stellar defense. When they have the ball, the Bearcats excel at two things, first and foremost gathering their own misses, which they do successfully 40 percent of the time. Five different Bearcats grab at least one offensive rebound per game, and Parker and Mbodj haul in more than two. All of the Hoyas must box out on Friday night.
  • Hoyas' strength: stifling. Cincinnati is not an accurate-shooting bunch, posting just the 12th-best effective field goal percentage in the league. The Bearcats are woeful inside the arc, where they shoot just 44.3 percent from the field. Your Hoyas are best in the conference at defending the shot, and third at contesting two-pointers. Don't expect too many Bearcat points in the paint Friday.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Foul trouble. The other way in which Cincinnati has salvaged a mediocre offense is by getting to the line, which the Bearcats do at the third-best rate in the conference. Kilpatrick, Parker, and Rubles are adept at drawing fouls, averaging nearly 11 free throws per game between them. Georgetown has suffered through foul trouble of one sort or another throughout the past several games, but scarcely can afford cheap or thoughtless fouls Friday.
    • Zone. Georgetown has used a zone intermittently throughout the year, though less so without Whittington. The question Friday will be whether the Bearcats can stretch the Hoya zone from the beyond the arc. Cincinnati shoots barely 30 percent from three, but does so at such a high volume--nearly 22 three-pointers attempted per game, the highest rate of three-pointers in the conference--that a couple of canned treys can force a defense to adapt quickly. And perhaps the Hoyas don't want to invite long-distance shooting by Cincinnati, instead seeking to force the action to the Bearcat bigs.
    • Kilpatrick. Georgetown has seen both sides of the high-volume scoring guard coin this year, twice shutting down D'Angelo Harrison but getting torched by Eli Carter. Keeping Kilpatrick in check is necessary to pull off a tough road win.

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Georgetown's strength: work the ball inside. Despite having a number of shot blockers, the Bearcats are porous inside the arc, probably attributable in part to their three-guard defense. The Hoyas have been accurate from two, making more than half of their attempts from that range, led in particular by Otto Porter and Nate Lubick. Relying on that inside game again Friday is the Hoyas' best hope.
  • Bearcats' strength: defensive rebounding. Your Hoyas have attacked the offensive glass over the past three games, grabbing nearly 45 percent of their own misses. But the Bearcats have been a stout defensive rebounding team throughout the year, ranking second in the conference in denying opponents second chances.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Lineups. So long as Cincinnati plays its primary, three-guard lineup and Georgetown plays Porter at small forward, he will have a significant size advantage on whoever is guarding him. Parker and Kilpatrick are both strong, negating some of that height difference, but Otto still should be able to get plenty of open looks.
    • Three-point shooting. Some of those open looks will come from three, where Georgetown has been on fire of late, rising from a mediocre long-distance shooting team to the second-best three-point shooting team in the conference. Cincinnati has defended the three-point line well so far this year, yielding just 29 percent from three-point range in conference and limiting opponents' three-point attempts. A three ball here or there could swing things.
    • Down low. Mikael Hopkins has received deserved praise for upping his game of late, averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game over the past three. Some of his resurgence can be attributed to getting the ball in positions where he can succeed, cutting to the basket and finishing near the rim. Another probable cause of his improved play is psychological, as he clearly was discouraged earlier in the season, and success begets success. Can he continue to generate offense against Mbodj and Nyarsuk, two of the bigger big bodies in the conference?

Prediction. This game could get ugly. Both teams play good defense and are prone to offensive droughts. Cincinnati has a tendency to make things uglier, playing sticky defense and drawing plenty of fouls on offense. That may sound ominous for witnesses of the Pitt debacle, but Georgetown has won or kept things close in every other game this year. Expect a close, hard-fought game decided by a bounce or two. Call me cynical, but don't be surprised if those bounces against the good guys this time. Cincinnati 59, Georgetown 57.

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