Pregame Party: Georgetown v. Connecticut

USA TODAY Sports

Can the Hoyas extend their winning streak to double digits against a tough Huskies squad?

Georgetown puts its nine-game winning streak on the line Wednesday when it travels to Connecticut to face the Huskies. Can the Hoyas extend their run to double digits by knocking off a hungry young team with something to prove?

A Note on the Winning Streak. I have no idea whether this winning streak will last several more games or just several more hours. I don't know whether we have six more games left of Otto Porter as a Hoya, six more weeks, or another year, though the last seems less likely with each passing game. I do know that the achievements of this team and its star are rare. This winning streak is the second-best of its sort in the JTIII era with only an 11-gamer by 2007's Final Four-bound squad outpacing it. (That team also had its share of early-season disappointments, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

Traveling to Connecticut, though, Georgetown would best think of none of those wins. Rather, the Hoyas should remember losing at South Florida. Of course, this would stoke the motivational embers that might have settled a bit with nine straight wins. But also consider how uncertain Georgetown was after the loss in Tampa. The Hoyas had yet to truly prove themselves without Greg Whittington, were in the middle of a tough road trip, had just endured a fairly humiliating loss (seriously, can someone let South Florida beat them?), and had to start the turnaround in one of the league's toughest road venues against a ranked squad. The adage that the best memory in Big East play is a short one applied then, and applies equally now. The nine wins no longer exist. Only yet another road test does.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Often times, a team seems eerily familiar year to year, almost eliminating a need to update you on the state of the program: Louisville's defense is an opponent's nightmare; Marquette is overachieving by playing its tail off; the New Jersey schools are rebuilding; let's feign an interest in DePaul; Syracuse has academic and/or criminal concerns. Over the past two years, Connecticut has defied such predictability. 2011's underachievers-turned-surprise-national champions became 2012's just plain underachievers, which in turn led to near-complete program turnover. Gone is hall of fame coach Jim Calhoun, as are four of the Huskies' top six scorers from last year. Also gone is Connecticut's post-season eligibility, the casualty (not Casualty) of academic shenanigans during the final Calhoun years.

With all the turbulence, this season easily could have been lost. But former Husky point guard and new head coach Kevin Ollie has breathed new life into the program, bringing a sense of confidence and purpose that is a change of pace from the increasingly antagonistic posture of Calhoun's later years. That new spirit that was evident in Connecticut's opening game, a surprising win over Michigan State. The Huskies have continued to surprise, winning at Notre Dame and at home over Syracuse en route to a 9-5 record. And, thanks to repeat match-ups against DePaul, South Florida, Providence, and Cincinnati (nary a contender, there), Connecticut still stands a very outside chance of winning the regular season conference title.

Huskies to Know. Transfers and the NBA Draft have sapped the Connecticut roster, leaving a thin and small rotation. The team leans heavily on three guards. Two names are familiar, junior Shabazz Napier (17.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.0 stl pg) and sophomore Ryan Boatright (15.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.5 stl pg). The two are essentially co-point guards, both a bit undersized but both capable of finding open teammates or lighting it up themselves. The third guard is freshman Omar Calhoun (11.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 stl pg) a talented scorer in his own right who is big enough that he often ends up as the team's de facto small forward.

The Connecticut front court also is a bit undersized. The nominal power forward is DeAndre Daniels (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg,) who's more of a long, athletic wing playing nearer to the basket by necessity. Manning the middle is Tyler Olander (4.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.2 apg), who has turned from curiosity into survivor, the strange recipient of minutes his first two years turned starting center by default. Off the bench, forward Niels Giffey (5.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg) spells Daniels as a wing playing one spot bigger; guard and Holy Cross transfer R.J. Evans (3.1 ppg) is a fullback who makes up for little scoring ability by not shooting much; and freshman forward Phillip Nolan is a skilled but slight post who is still adjusting to the college game. Nolan has found more playing time of late because onetime back-up center Enosch Wolf (3.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg) has been suspended indefinitely while he deals with criminal charges of burglary, criminal trespass, and disorderly conduct. Still, Giffey is the only reserve to receive consistent minutes, as Ollie has leaned very heavily on the starters.

When Connecticut Has the Ball.

  • Huskies' strength: guard play. Height is inversely proportional to just about everything on Connecticut: scoring, assists, minutes, importance. Connecticut relies on Napier, Boatright, and to a lesser degree Calhoun, who account for sixty percent of the team's scoring and over seventy percent of its assists. Napier and Boatright are both versatile talents, dangerous off the bounce or the pass, and from long distance. Georgetown needs to lock down on the Connecticut guards to keep its winning streak intact.
  • Hoyas' strength: protecting the glass. Having an undersized lineup predictably has caused the Huskies to struggle on the glass, where they rate last in the league and in the bottom 20 percent of teams nationally at grabbing their own misses. Georgetown's shift to smaller lineups without Greg Whittington has produced some uneven defensive rebounding efforts, but the Hoyas should be able to keep the Huskies at bay Wednesday.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Three-point shooting. The Hoyas particularly need to keep an eye on the Huskies from distance, where Connecticut shoots the best rate in the conference. Napier and Boatright in particular combine to make nearly four three-pointers per game at a nearly forty percent conversion rate. Georgetown has held its opponents to just 26 percent from three; the winner of this particular immovable force versus irresistible object may prevail overall.
    • Pace. It hasn't always been glamorous, but Georgetown has stifled several recent opponents by limiting, most recently Syracuse. With plenty of shifty guards, Connecticut likes to get up and down. Can the Hoyas keep pace with the Huskies?
    • Lineups. JTIII has been creative with his lineups of late, giving Moses Ayegba and Aaron Bowen extra run when the match-ups merit it. Will we see more three-guard sets against pint-sized Connecticut? Or will we see some bigger lineups to press the size advantage, particularly on the boards?

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: attacking the basket. Connecticut's defense gets worse the closer the ball gets to the basket. The Huskies are difficult on the perimeter (more on that below), but their lack of size hurts them inside, where they rate twelfth in the conference in defensive rebounding, tenth in opponents' two-point percentage, and tenth in blocked shots. Georgetown has crept ever more toward the perimeter as the season has wound along, but still posts the second-best two-point percentage in the league. Exploiting size advantages, particularly at the forward positions, will lead to some easy points.
  • Huskies' strength: perimeter pests. Connecticut ranks third behind Georgetown in three-point percentage defense, and the Huskies post a very healthy 8 steals per game. Both are reflect active perimeter defenders, particularly Napier.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Offensive rebounding. Georgetown has attacked the offensive glass when opportunities present themselves, and against Connecticut there should be plenty of those chances. Ayegba grabbed five offensive rebounds in an outstanding performance at Syracuse. Will he get the chance to muscle his way to second chances again Wednesday?
    • Nate Lubick. Daniels is a solid player but a bit thin to hang with Lubick down low. Will we see an endless series of lefty hooks against the Huskies?
    • Guard scoring. One game after D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera lost feeling in his face en route to a career-high 33 points, the Hoya guards were more muted, scoring-wise, combining for just 16 points at Syracuse. Instead, the Hoya guards played tough defense and Trawick in particular helped crack the Orange zone in the second half. How will DSR, Markel Starks, or Jabril Trawick step up against Connecticut?

Prediction. The last time Georgetown took a long winning streak into Connecticut, things didn't go so well. In 2011, the Hoyas had won eight straight before losing on the Huskies' home floor. A narrow road win at South Florida was the only remaining highlight of the season, as Georgetown lost not just its winning streak but soon thereafter all hope when Chris Wright suffered a broken hand. By contrast, Connecticut went on to win the Big East Tournament (in the process beating Georgetown again) and, improbably, the NCAA Tournament.

There's a far different picture two years later, as Lubick is the only remaining starter between the two teams. The common element, though, is that the Hoyas' winning streak won't count for much. The Huskies won't spot the Hoyas points based on accumulated wins. They have played with pride and determination in a season with nothing to think about beyond the next game. The Hoyas seem to be gaining motivation while extending the streak, rather than allowing complacency to soften them. Expect a nail-biter. Georgetown 60, Connecticut 57.

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