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Pregame Party: Cincinnati v. Georgetown

Can Hoyas beat familiar nemesis to advance to conference tournament semifinals?

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Georgetown starts Big East Tournament play Thursday against a familiar foe, the Cincinnati Bearcats. Can the Hoyas shake off last year's loss in MSG and oust the Bearcats?

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Okay, let's get it all off our chests. It's been exactly fifty-three weeks since these two teams met in what became an epic, classic, double-overtime heartbreak for your Georgetown Hoyas. That defeat was one of four straight by your Hoyas to the fighting Mick Cronins, each in agonizing fashion, including two losses in 2012 that both saw Georgetown give away late leads.

But those were different teams, with different stars. As we know, Georgetown lost three stars off last year's team and, mid-season, one of this year's centerpieces, while Cincinnati bid goodbye to the two hubs of last year's Sweet Sixteen squad.

This year, Georgetown won the teams' lone match-up, a 62-55 thriller at Cincinnati. That loss was one of five in six games for the Bearcats, who slid from the conference's upper crust to the NCAA Tournament bubble. You can construct the narrative you like about this slide. Perhaps Cincinnati just ran into a tough stretch in its schedule, featuring games against Pitt, Connecticut, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, and lost a few close ones that a few bounces could have swung. Or perhaps an injury or two took its toll on an already thin rotation, exposing the Bearcats' weaknesses. Regardless, Cincinnati salvaged its ticket to the Dance with a pair of home wins, one in overtime over South Florida, and may have punched that ticket for good with a 61-44 dispatching of upstart Providence on Wednesday in the Big East Tournament.

Bearcats to Know. Cincinnati features a guard-driven offense and a rim-protecting defense. The Bearcats' leading scorer is shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick (17.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.3 stl pg), who compensates for middling accuracy by shooting a lot and getting to the line often. Cashmere Wright (12.8 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.6 stl pg, 35.3 3FG%) is the Bearcats' point guard by necessity, providing a bit of outside shooting in addition to distributing the rock. Wright has been hindered of late, playing through a knee injury that particularly has hindered his outside shooting. On the wing is a third guard, JaQuon Parker (11.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 39.1 3FG%) a slasher whose outside shooting remains excellent even after a recent dip.

This back-court trio accounts for sixty percent of the team's scoring, leaving the front court to grab the misses and protect the rim. Manning the middle is center Cheikh Mbodj (5.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.6 blk pg), a big man who ranks among the conference's best shot blockers on a per-minute basis. Flanking Mbodj is forward Titus Rubles (6.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 33.1 FG%), a solid rebounder and passer who hasn't quite found his shot. Recently returned from an ankle injury is forward Justin Jackson (4.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.0 stl pg, 1.4 blk pg), a defense and rebounding specialist. After that, Cronin typically plays one or two of: lane-clogger David Nyarsuk (2.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.9 blk pg), sophomore wing Jermaine Sanders (3.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg), and freshman forward Shaquille Thomas (2.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg).

When Cincinnati Has the Ball.

  • What the first match-up told us:
    • The Bearcats might miss. Cincinnati shot just 31.5 percent from the field in its first game against Georgetown, in particularly struggling from beyond the arc, where just 4 of the Bearcats' 24 three-point attempts drew net. As with any Georgetown defensive performance, the praise deserved to be shared, but Jabril Trawick matched up particularly well with Kilpatrick, who shot just 3 of 13 from the field.
    • ...but they draw fouls. Georgetown's lengthy winning streak and the final seven-point margin over the Bearcats have partially obscured the fact that the Hoyas heavily flirted with disaster against Cincinnati. Four Hoya starters finished with at least four fouls: Otto Porter and Nate Lubick had to be shuttled in and out, and Mikael Hopkins fouled out late in the second half. Only Cincinnati's sub-mediocre free-throw shooting (17 of 30) kept the first half from getting away from the Hoyas. That experience was not unique, for either team. A short Hoya rotation has meant lots of foul trouble. For their part, the Bearcats have compensated for errant jump shooting by earning trips to the line at one of the better marks in the conference. Kilpatrick, Parker, and Rubles are particularly adept at drawing fouls, averaging nearly 12 free throws per game between them.
    • ...and hit the offensive glass. Before its dramatic finishing kick, Georgetown gave away a 12-point cushion in the second half, largely thanks to the Bearcats' all-out assault on the offensive boards, where they grabbed 9 of their 19 second-half misses. While the Hoyas protected the boards in the first half, doing so for all forty minutes, even as fouls and fatigue mount, will be paramount.
    • Two more things to watch:
      • Parker. For all the attention Kilpatrick gets, Parker can wreak havoc, whether on the boards, beyond the three-point arc, or in drawing fouls. In the first game between these teams, he scored 11 straight points by himself, spurring a second-half comeback that nearly stole the game. Wednesday against Providence, Parker showed his all-court play again, nailing a pair of triples, grabbing 10 rebounds, and earning five trips to the line. Keeping pace with him all over the court must be a priority for the Hoyas.
      • Lineups. In the first match-up, foul trouble meant JTIII's lineup choices were dictated largely, particularly in the frontcourt. If Georgetown, particularly Porter and Lubick, can avoid foul trouble Thursday, will JTIII go big, with Hopkins or Moses Ayegba countering Mbodj on the boards? Or will we see a smaller, three-guard lineup that has characterized the Hoyas more recently?

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • What the first match-up told us:
    • Find seams inside the arc. Georgetown opened up the Cincinnati defense by frequently departing from the structure we're used to seeing out of the Hoyas' half-court offense. Instead, the Hoyas generated offense off of creative drives by Markel Starks, nifty passes by Lubick, particularly to D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and plenty of attacking the rim, which led to 25 free throws, a high number for your Hoyas.
    • There won't be many second chances. Georgetown managed just four offensive rebounds against Cincinnati, and there's reason to believe the number won't be much higher Thursday. The Bearcats lead the conference in defensive rebounding percentage, while the Hoyas grab offensive rebounds at a below-average rate.
    • Expect some droughts. Georgetown went scoreless for the first four minutes against the Bearcats, and suffered another scoreless spell of roughly equal length in the second half, allowing Cincinnati to claw back into the game. In addition to protecting the defensive glass, the Bearcats block shots at an elite rate, particularly Mbodj, and generally clog the lane. Neither of these teams plays pretty, so expect for your teeth to be firmly gritted during much of this game.
    • Two more things to watch:
      • Depth. The first Cincinnati game was a particularly stark example of the Hoyas' lack of offensive depth. Porter, Starks, DSR, and Lubick accounted for 53 of the Hoyas' 62 points, 19 of their 27 rebounds (and 3 of the 4 offensive ones), and 10 of their 11 assists. For all his defensive grit, Trawick struggled on offense when he wasn't off the floor with foul trouble, which plagued Hopkins as well. Moses Ayegba and Aaron Bowen played 18 minutes but managed just 2 points and no other positive statistics between them. Getting more from someone else (most likely Trawick) will be necessary Thursday.
      • Once the hunter, now the hunted. Georgetown entered the first Cincinnati game as a mild underdog, as hard as that is to believe now, and riding a losing streak to the Bearcats to boot. Since then the Hoyas have earned the top seed in the conference tournament, Otto Porter was named Big East Player of the Year, and John Thompson was named the conference's Coach of the Year. The Bearcats, most prominently Cornin, are natural antagonists, seeming to thrive more naturally as the underdog than as the favorite.

Prediction. This has been an incredible week. The monumental win over Syracuse alone would have sufficed. But then Chris "Lumpy" Wright got an overdue NBA call-up, Otto Porter, Markel Starks, and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera were recognized on various All-Big East teams, and promising forward Isaac Copeland decided he'd like to be a Hoya. All this, before the weekend was out. Tuesday brought the expected honors for Porter and the long overdue recognition for JTIII. (This photo made my already-oversized smile ache.)

Then came Tuesday night, with a somewhat strange feeling. Madison Square Garden adopted a strange floor for the Big East Tournament, and, instead of mildly respectable teams fighting for a spot in the tournament, we had cellar dwellers just fighting not to be the butt of jokes like, "Dying Boy Brought in to Cheer Up DePaul Blue Demons."

We couldn't even feign interest by scouting the next day's opponent because, oh yeah, Georgetown won the conference (that, and conference realignment and NCAA sanctions have changed the bracket, but let's not get bogged down with facts). That title, and the double-bye that went with it, would have felt familiar just a few years ago, but felt strange Tuesday. Or, more accurately, it felt strangely awesome.

As refreshing as a return to the top of the standings has been, the Hoya faithful, and the Hoyas themselves, expect a bit more. We hope Georgetown advances to the semifinals (and, hopefully, beyond) of the Big East Tournament for just the second time in the past five tries. We hope that Georgetown advances in the NCAA Tournament, to the Sweet Sixteen (and, hopefully, beyond) for the first time since 2007.

But in case previous postseason disappointments weren't reminders enough, this season has taught us that success is tenuous and is built, true to the greatest sports cliché of all, one game at a time. With that in mind, whatever lofty goals your Georgetown Hoyas may have for the coming weeks, they can only win one game Thursday. That game is against a team that has had a hand in more than its share of Georgetown misery over the past few years. Can the Hoyas exorcise their demons against Cincinnati? I say yes. Georgetown 59, Cincinnati 56.