After a perfect three-game home stand, your Georgetown Hoyas take to the road to try to beat the slumping Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Can the good guys continue their winning streak against a team suffering through a streak of a very different sort?
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. This is year three of the Mike Rice era, who's sort of like a less kind, less gentle, less successful Steve Lavin. He's generated some sense of change at Rutgers, and even has threatened .500, something of an accomplishment by the program's modest recent standards. But it's hard to say that the program is headed for better things, particularly after Rice's recent suspension.
Against Georgetown, the Rice-led Scarlet Knights also have yet to break through. Two years ago, Georgetown beat Rutgers at the RAC in a game that ended a Hoya losing streak and began a run of eight straight wins. Last season, the Scarlet Knights submitted a slug-fest, committing 29 fouls (or, more accurately, 75, only 29 of which were called), the last of which led to two Otto Porter free throws to seal a 52-50 Hoya win.
Still, there were hopes for progress this year, as Rutgers returned most of a very young team that finished 6-12 in conference. The seasoning of those underclassmen made a winning record a plausible goal. And the early returns kept that hope alive, as the Scarlet Knights pulled off a home upset over Pitt en route to a 3-2 early conference record. But then the bottom fell out: a narrow loss at Notre Dame began a five-game losing streak, with three of those defeats by double-digits.
As a result, Georgetown and Rutgers, both in the conference peloton that had formed just two weeks ago, have headed in opposite directions. The Hoyas now sit just a game out of first place and the Scarlet Knights claim sole possession of twelfth place. Still, the difference between winning and losing in these games must seem frustratingly slim, as Rutgers has found itself within a basket in the second half of each of the five straight losses.
Scarlet Knights to Know. Rutgers is a two-headed beast with an extended supporting cast. Leading the attack are a pair of in-state sophomore guards, Eli Carter (15.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 38 FG%) and Myles Mack (12.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.9 stl pg, 45.3 3FG%). Last year, Carter seemed to be the high-volume, low-efficiency guard that sometimes leads a bad team only out of necessity; this season, his continued low shooting percentages suggest that the fault lies with him, rather than his circumstances. By contrast, Mack has developed an accurate shot, particularly from three, despite being undersized at just 5'9". Rounding out the guard rotation is yet another sophomore, Jerome Seagears (5.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 38.8 3FG%) who, like Mack is undersized and can shoot the three but, like Carter, struggles inside the arc.
On the wing, Dane Miller (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.6 apg) is the team's best defender and overall glue guy, though Mike Poole (4.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.0 stl pg) often starts over him. Down low, onetime McDonald's All-American and Kansas State Wildcat Wally Judge (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 52.8 FG%) has never quite fulfilled his promise but has given Rutgers some much-needed size and rebounding down low, while sophomore Kadeem Jack (5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.1 blk pg) is developing into an effective rebounder and shot-blocker.
When Rutgers Has the Ball.
- Scarlet Knights' strength: three-point shooting. Rutgers has a pedestrian offense, rating just 14th in efficiency in the conference, thanks to miserable turnover and free-throw rates. With those expectations in mind, the Scarlet Knicks' 34.4 percent three-point shooting is comparatively lethal. And opposing defenses do have to keep an eye on Mack and Seagears, who combine for roughly three triples per game.
- Hoyas' strength: packing it in. Not surprisingly for a team with short guards and limited scoring options in the front court, Rutgers struggles to score inside the arc, netting under 43 percent of two-point shots in conference play, the third-worst mark in the Big East. Georgetown, by contrast, is third-best at defending the two in the Big East, and have been getting better of late.
- Three things to watch:
- Carter. Mack is the more accurate guard, but Carter's combination of volume and volatility perversely could make him more dangerous. That is, if he somehow gets hot. Georgetown twice has bottled up D'Angelo Harrison, a s similar if better lead guard. The Hoyas need to do the same to Carter.
- Foul trouble. Georgetown has heard plenty of whistles lately, with Porter, Nate Lubick, Mikael Hopkins, and Moses Ayegba all brushing up against foul trouble at one time or another. Rutgers is worst in the conference at drawing fouls, but a few friendly home calls could change that dynamic.
- Press? Georgetown has used its press sparingly in conference play, but has proven willing to deploy it against its most turnover-prone opponents like Seton Hall. Against a Rutgers squad that forks the ball over on more than 23 percent of possessions, will the Hoyas guard full court?
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Hoyas' strength: finding the right shot. Georgetown has been on a relative tear shooting the ball recently, with Otto Porter and Nate Lubick particularly playing above even their accurate standards. As a result, the Hoyas are the second-best shooting team in the conference. Rutgers struggles to defend generally, and particularly has a hard time defending opponents' shots (no surprise, given their sometimes undersized lineups).
- Scarlet Knights' strength: defensive rebounding. Rutgers isn't an elite defensive squad by any stretch, rating average or worse on every defensive indicator. On the boards, the Scarlet Knights allow second chances on nearly 35 percent of opponents' misses. But they should be able to hold off the Hoyas, who still rate just 10th in the conference in offensive rebounding.
- Three things to watch:
- Free throws. Georgetown shot 36 free throws in last year's game against Rutgers, and did well enough, netting 25, to eek out a win. The Scarlet Knights haven't changed their grabby ways, sending opponents to the line an average of 23.6 times over their current five-game losing streak. Making free throws has been a challenge for this year's Hoyas, who will need to convert those opportunities Saturday.
- Starks. Since Greg Whittington became ineligible, Markel Starks has been logging some heavy time, playing 36 or more minutes in six of the seven games (the lone exception being the Seton Hall blowout). And those minutes aren't easy, as the junior often has defended the opponent's lead guard while being the team's second-leading scorer. The Hoyas still have a month-plus of basketball in front of them, and need to be as fresh in March as they were at the turn of the year. With Jabril Trawick and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera becoming increasingly reliable, will JTIII find some rest for one of his key pieces?
- High-low. Lubick and Porter have found an effective two-man game of late, with Lubick carving out space down low and Porter operating from the high post. Against a Rutgers squad that gives up 48 percent from two, can the two hubs of the Georgetown offense get things going again Saturday?
Prediction. I dislike games at the RAC. Just the sight of the court's over-sized R makes me feel agitated. The Hoyas have only been upset there once recently, a 2010 loss in an eminently winnable game. But other good teams have fallen in Piscataway: Pitt earlier this season, Cincinnati last year, and Villanova the year before that. Those wins don't make Rutgers even a very good home team. Still, the Scarlet Knights occupy an uncomfortable middle ground, a step above DePaul and Providence, where the Hoyas haven't lost recently, but a couple of steps below the upper-tier teams where a road win comes as a pleasant surprise. Since a disappointing road trip South Florida (in another arena that inspires much gritting of teeth), Georgetown has focused on the task at hand, racking up four straight wins. Saturday, the Hoyas will need more of the same, ignoring the high-profile foes ahead and beating the only team they can. Here's hoping they do. Georgetown 55, Rutgers 51.