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Friday, December 3, 2010
G'Town-Utah State a trap-game spectacular

By Eamonn Brennan

These are the perils of a tough non-conference schedule. Every time you think you're out of the woods, bam: the trees just keep on coming.

So it is with Georgetown's 2010 non-conference slate, which ranks among the toughest in all of college basketball this season. With the exception of Gonzaga, the Hoyas have the toughest non-con of any team, and certainly the toughest of any true power-six conference school.

Taking on that kind of challenge means dealing with stretches like this: On Tuesday, John Thompson III's team traveled to Kansas City to play Missouri in the Sprint Center, where they won in overtime in game-of-the-season fashion, 111-102. Saturday, the Hoyas return home for a game with Utah State, the WAC favorite and one of the more underrated teams in the country. Five days later, Georgetown will play at Temple, one of the best defensive teams in the country and (still) the early favorite to win the A-10 title.

That is brutal. And while an attempt to judge the psychology of a team is always fraught with difficulty -- best to just pay attention to what happens on the court most of the time -- it's hard not to see Saturday's Utah State match up as, yes, something of a trap game. Cliche? Sure. Fitting? Possibly.

Sandwiched between road visits to Mizzou and Temple, maybe the Hoyas get complacent. Maybe the comforts of home lull them into a slow start. Maybe not. Maybe Georgetown stays focused and plays every bit as well as in the Missouri game. Maybe not. That this question is even plausible is why Georgetown's schedule is so difficult and, in its way, admirable.

In some respects, the armchair psychology bit doesn't even matter. Why? Because Utah State is a good team independent of Georgetown's mental condition. The Aggies' potent offense is ranked No. 29 in the nation by Ken Pomeroy thanks largely to two factors: an incredible ability to get to the free throw line (No. 3 in the nation in free throw rate) and an unwillingness to turn the ball over (No. 17 in turnover percentage). The Aggies aren't a good offensive rebounding team, and their shooting has yet to rise to last year's lofty standard. (The 2009-10 Aggies ranked No. 10 in the nation in effective field goal percentage; not only did they never turn the ball over, but they usually scored, too.) But this year's Aggies are thus far making up for it by getting to the line and keeping opponents off the offensive glass. So far, it's been working. And with so many players returning from last year's team, it's fair to expect that shooting to jump a few notches very soon.

Another key factor in Utah State's style? Sloth. 2009-10's team was a sloggy, slow-paced bunch, and this year's team is no different. Which makes them, coincidentally, a very interesting matchup for Georgetown. Thompson likes his teams to play a methodical Princeton style, but Georgetown showed it can run with the most uptempo teams in the nation in Tuesday night's win over Missouri. This game will be much different; expect long possessions, plenty of backcuts, and an efficient, but low-scoring, affair.

Whether that works to either team's advantage is up in the air. Georgetown will have to keep doing what it's been doing all year: make shots. Particularly 3-pointers. When your team is this guard-dominated, it helps to knock down all those looks, and Georgetown -- with the sixth-highest 3-point field goal percentage of any team in the country to date -- has been doing exactly that. A Hoyas team that shoots the ball well is not a Hoyas team primed to lose at home. Not to Utah State. Not to anybody.

Still, the stakes are higher for Utah State. After losing to BYU, this is the Aggies' last chance to notch a quality non-conference win -- and impress the NCAA tournament selection committee -- ahead of what should be an easy romp through WAC play. It's a crucial game. For Georgetown, Saturday is just another date on the calendar, another tough team, another challenge.

Does that matter? Maybe. Maybe not. But Georgetown would do well to keep its radar up. This Utah State squad doesn't need you to overlook them. They can beat you anyway.