College Basketball Nation: Austin Freeman

CHICAGO -- Hours before Virginia Commonwealth took the floor to play No. 6 seed Georgetown on Friday, coach Shaka Smart gathered his players for a prepared video session.

It wasn't for extra, last-minute film study. It wasn't an impromptu team movie to lighten the tone. And it wasn't home footage of a family trip to Disneyland.

No, to hear Smart describe it, VCU's pregame video session was a fiery mix between motivational seminar and George Orwell's Two Minutes Hate.

"Today, before we had lunch, we sat down and watched a video of Joe Lunardi saying we couldn't guard him," Smart said. "He said over and over in the video, they can't guard me, they can't guard me. We were showing clips of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman and Jason Clark."

Smart watched as his players responded. He liked what he saw.

"They don't like it," Smart said. "They don't like it. They grit their teeth, and they -- you know, you can see them ready to kind of fight back. That's what we're looking for."

[+] EnlargeAustin Freeman
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastVCU limited Austin Freeman to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in Georgetown's loss.
If that sounds a bit over the top, well, it is. But it's hard to argue with the result.

On Sunday, VCU was one of two at-large tournament inclusions that many believed didn't belong in the field of 68. Two days later, the Rams knocked off USC and then polished off one of the more impressive wins of this young NCAA tournament, a 74-56 thrashing of No. 6-seed Georgetown in the final game of Chicago's first-round action.

Few lines are as overused in sports as "no one believed in us," but maybe there's a reason coaches seem to trot out that old cliché so frequently. Maybe, just maybe, it's the added edge those teams need.

At the very least, it can't hurt. Clearly, this VCU team wears it with pride.

"Any time people disrespect you, especially on national TV, it kind of hurts you a little bit," said Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez. "We had an opportunity to come out here and prove people wrong. Hopefully we keep it going. That's really it."

Whether they're proving people wrong is up for debate. After all, the Selection Sunday surprise at VCU's inclusion was never about whether the Rams could play. It was about whether their accomplishments were more impressive than those of a handful of teams left out of the tournament. VCU's pre-tournament résumé won't change no matter how far the Rams go in this tournament, and that's one reason all this talk about bubble disrespect is a little overblown.

Still, if these "haters" remain, they don't have much ammunition in the chamber. VCU was peerless in victory Friday night.

The Rams pressured Georgetown from the opening tip, forcing the Hoyas guards to avoid traps and rush the ball up the floor, and as a result Georgetown never settled into any sort of rhythm. Shots began clanging off the rim -- Georgetown was 1-of-12 from beyond the arc in the first half -- and turnovers began piling up. Virginia Commonwealth capitalized on the other end, shooting 12-of-25 from 3-point range. By the time the first half was over, VCU had built an 11-point lead.

After the break, the Rams only extended that margin. With 17:12 left, Brandon Rozzell added one of his six 3-pointers -- Rozzell went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points -- and backcourt mate Bradford Burgess followed up with two 3s of his own. Georgetown fans expecting their team to solidify in the second half, to calm down and close the gap, instead found the Hoyas flailing. VCU's lead was now 18 points. Georgetown would never recover.

It was another bitter postseason end for Hoyas coach John Thompson III. For the second straight season, Thompson's team lost to a double-digit seed in the team's first game of the NCAA tournament. This time, the loss ended the careers of guards Freeman and Wright, two of the best Hoyas of recent vintage who were never able to demonstrate their ability on the sport's largest stage.

Wright and Freeman shot a combined 6-of-27 Friday night, including an 0-of-13 mark from the 3-point line.

Asked to discuss the Hoyas' recent struggles in tournament play, Thompson instead focused on Wright and Freeman. The coach struggled to contain his emotion.

"A lot will be discussed about this group and what they have and haven't done in the postseason," he said. "We'll evaluate that. Right now my thoughts are just with the four seniors that will be wearing a Georgetown University jersey for the last time. And that hurts. That hurts to see them go. That hurts them."

The shell-shocked Hoyas were clearly in agony, but on the other end of the arena, VCU's locker room was brimming with joy. It was clear these Rams weren't just playing with an edge. They're playing with supreme confidence, too.

"I'm very confident in my team," Rozzell said. "When we play our brand of basketball, I feel like we can compete with any team in the country. We can create any margin on the court."

Smart was asked if he was surprised by the Rams' dominance -- whether he really doubted that VCU could hang an 18-point win on a full-strength Georgetown team. His response, simply, was "no."

That swagger will be tested soon. On Sunday, the Rams will play 3-seed Purdue, a superior team to the Hoyas. Purdue coach Matt Painter sat on press row for much of VCU's win, and he no doubt returned to the team hotel with plenty of warnings for his players.

Even more challenging, perhaps, is the loss of obvious disrespect. The media can no longer function as the bad guy. The Rams have proven themselves, and few will doubt them now.

Can Smart find a way to keep his team confident and aggrieved? Can this ebullient batch keep its edge?

One thing's for sure: If there's a way, Smart will find it. Even if it means another video session.

"It's a very fragile thing, confidence," Smart said. "It comes and goes. ... The terrific thing for us is it's mid-March, and we're playing our best basketball, and our guys are believing in what we do.

"It really doesn't matter who we're playing against," he said. "They know if we follow the plan and they trust each other, good things will happen."

CHICAGO -- A look at the night games being held here at the United Center:

No. 14 seed St. Peter's (20-13) vs. No. 3 seed Purdue (25-7), 7:20 p.m. ET (TNT)

How they got here: Few teams have succeeded despite adversity quite as well as the 2011 Boilermakers. In October, Purdue lost star senior Robbie Hummel to his second torn ACL in eight months. Purdue coach Matt Painter was forced to recalibrate a team that had suddenly gone from a top-five national title contender to a team with two stars -- E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson -- and a lot of unheralded complementary pieces. Painter has succeeded in spades, and though Purdue fans may always wonder what could have been, it’s remarkable that this team still has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four all the same. They’ll begin that quest against St. Peter’s, who finished fourth in the MAAC but toppled Loyola-Maryland, Fairfield and Iona on the way to a conference tournament title and an automatic NCAA berth.

Players to watch: Johnson and Moore are well-known to any casual college hoops fan, and it’s no secret Purdue’s stars have to excel on both ends of the floor for Purdue to succeed. But the Boilermakers also built success on the backs of role players this season. Lewis Jackson runs the show at the point, Ryne Smith -- who suffered a mild concussion this week but will play Friday -- is a deadly long-range shooter, and D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson provide versatility and defense at the forward and guard spots.

One player missing from that list? Guard Kelsey Barlow, whom Painter suspended this week for disciplinary reasons. (Smith’s concussion and Barlow’s dismissal were not connected, as some speculated; on Thursday Painter confirmed Smith caught an inadvertent elbow from Moore in practice.) Whatever the reason for Barlow’s absence, the Boilermakers will have to spread their minutes and make up for Barlow’s unique ability to guard a variety of positions in Purdue’s pressing man-to-man.

What to look for: Can Purdue right the ship? The Boilermakers ended an otherwise peerless Big Ten season with back-to-back losses (at Iowa, to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament). Will Purdue’s shots start falling again? How will Barlow’s absence affect Purdue’s defense, if at all? The first question could yield legitimate answers; surprisingly enough St. Peter’s boasts a top 20 defense per adjusted efficiency. The second question may be more difficult to gauge, as the Peacocks are among the nation’s worst offensive teams. But the shorthanded Boilermakers could go a long way toward proving itself to suddenly skeptical fans by handling a sneaky-tough No. 14 seed Friday.

Quotable: “It's kind of cool, I guess, in a way, that the President picks us to go to Elite Eight. But it's the reason that you play the games. I guess those people that they have us beating, I know they're not probably too happy about that.” -- Purdue forward Johnson on President Barack Obama’s prediction that Purdue will advance to the Elite Eight.

No. 11 seed VCU (24-11) vs. No. 6 seed Georgetown (21-10), 9:50 p.m. ET (TNT)

How they got here: Georgetown’s path to the tournament was never in doubt. But thanks to an untimely injury to starting point guard Chris Wright, the Hoyas lost their last four games down the stretch and, averaged 51.5 points per game in that span. Wright’s injury derailed a major mid-season surge; after starting 1-4 in Big East play, Georgetown won eight straight Big East games from Jan. 15 to Feb. 13, including a reputation-making win at Syracuse on Feb. 9. VCU, on the other hand, took the long road to the tournament. The Rams were one of the last four at-large teams included in this year’s field -- much to the chagrin of those who believed Colorado and Virginia Tech were more deserving -- but Shaka Smart’s team made the most of the opportunity with its win over USC in Dayton Wednesday night.

Players to watch: “Key player” is too understated a term for Wright. “Lifeblood” is more accurate. Wright isn’t Georgetown’s best or most efficient player; that honor goes to preseason Big East player of the year Austin Freeman. But the past three weeks have offered a clear picture of how Wright’s absence affects the Hoyas, and the picture isn’t pretty. The Georgetown guard responded well to four straight days of full practice this week, and the Hoyas will be glad to have him on the court. Defensively, Georgetown will be keen to stop VCU’s Jamie Skeen, a former Wake Forest transfer who has the size, athleticism and skill to play in the post or stretch defenses with the perimeter shot.

What to look for: It’s never a surprise when a team that loses its point guard struggles to maintain its prior level of play, but it is rare to see a team fall off so far without one player. But it’s really rather simple. With Wright, the Hoyas were one of the Big East’s best teams. Without him, they were barely mediocre. Wright’s presence could be the difference between an early exit and a deep tourney run, but is he really at full strength? And if not, can the Hoyas hold off a hot VCU team that rolled to the CAA tournament final and manhandled an athletic USC team?

Quotable: “Stairmaster. I think I was on a stairmaster, which is probably harder than anything I’ve ever had to do. That's very hard. I don't want to do it anymore.” -- Georgetown guard Chris Wright, on what he did to stay in shape during rehab.

Casting our ballots: Big East

March, 2, 2011
A quick look at the player and coach of the year races in the Big East:

Player of the Year

[+] EnlargeDwight Hardy
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireSt. John's guard Dwight Hardy is averaging 17.9 points per game.
Of course there is no runaway favorite for Big East Player of the Year honors. This topsy-turvy, brutal league has been too wildly entertaining for that. I’d argue there are three front-runners and two darkhorses who are likely to split up the votes.

For much of the season, Connecticut’s Kemba Walker was (and perhaps still is) on everyone’s short list for national player of the year. While he might have been Jimmered from that trophy, he remains very much in play for Big East honors. In conference games, he’s second in the league at 20.9 ppg (22.8 overall), and perhaps more impressive in the brutal league, he’s slogging 38.8 minutes per game and has carried a team with zero expectations into a near-season-long spot in the rankings.

Once Tyler’s little brother, Ben Hansbrough has morphed into his own phenomenon. In the past 11 games, of which the Irish have won 10, Psycho B is averaging 22.5 points per game, including a 30-point, 10-assist show against Villanova. I like Hansbrough for his intangibles as much as his scoring. He’s brought a snarly edge to the Irish.

And then there is the Johnny-come-lately, Dwight Hardy of St. John’s. During the Red Storm’s surge to the top 15 and into the national conscience for the first time in more than a decade, Hardy has been unstoppable. Since the Duke game, the line of demarcation for the Storm, Hardy is averaging 25.1 points per game. He dropped 33 on Connecticut, and 34 on Villanova.

Two others who could get consideration: Scoring machine Marshon Brooks of Providence, who averaged 30.9 points in February and is at 26.8 in Big East play. Oh, and the nation’s second-leading scorer also set a conference record with 52 points against Notre Dame. And don’t forget about preseason POY Austin Freeman, who has been a savvy leader for a thriving Georgetown team. His scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are all higher than last season.

I won’t be upset if any of the guys listed here take the honor, but my pick is Hardy, who has resurrected a dormant program and turned it into a force to be reckoned with.

Coach of the Year

The Big East has brought us four of the biggest surprise teams nationally, and those four coaches -- Rick Pitino, Steve Lavin, Jim Calhoun and Mike Brey -- headline the candidates for coach of the year.

When Louisville trounced Butler to open the season, most everyone interpreted it as a fluke, a feed off the frenzy of the brand new arena, a one-time rush. Well, we’re still waiting for the Cards to crash. Louisville is 22-7, 11-5 in the Big East. Pitino’s lone returning starter, Jared Swopshire, hasn’t played a game because of a groin injury, and nine others have missed at least one game with an injury. Yet the coach has pushed all of the right buttons to keep the Cardinals, picked eighth in the preseason, in the top 25 and among the league’s top four.

Lavin had a nice roster to work with -- nine seniors returned to the Red Storm -- but that roster was more or less the same roster that barely scratched .500 last season. Now the Johnnies are ranked 15th in the country and have a mind-boggling six wins against top-15 teams. With a much-heralded recruiting class coming, next season was supposed to be the start of something big for St. John’s. Lavin instead fast-tracked the plan.

The sight of Connecticut sitting at the No. 10 spot in the Big East preseason poll, barely ahead of Seton Hall, was pretty stunning. But where else to put a team that had lost three of its top four scorers and would rely heavily on its freshmen to win? How about among the most surprising teams of the season? Certainly Walker has a lot to do with the Huskies’ success, but it is Calhoun who has guided UConn’s young roster to success. Three of the Huskies’ top five scorers are rookies, yet Connecticut has 21 wins and is ranked No. 16 in the country.

Brey has done the impossible, making his team better after losing a three-time All-Big East player and one-time player of the year in Luke Harangody. The Fighting Irish are 13-4 in the Big East (compared to 10-8 last season), and the team that could never win a road game won the ultimate road game, at Pittsburgh. Notre Dame is No. 7 (and rising) in the country? No one saw that coming.

My vote? I’d go with Pitino. Nobody has started with less and done as much.

Click here to find out who our panel of 15 experts picked in each of the nation's 10 best conferences.

Rejuvenated Kemba Walker leads Huskies

February, 16, 2011

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kemba Walker picked up his dribble, had no play and decided to do something he hadn’t done since he was a teenager in the Bronx.

He threw the ball up at the backboard, caught it and laid it in the bucket.

Walker has hit game-winning shots this season and scored more than 30 points seven times now, but never has he converted such a highlight in a college basketball game.

“I had never done that in a game,’’ Walker said. “I had seen Kobe and LeBron do it and at that moment it was my only play. The middle was wide open so I had to make a play.’’

But it was just one bucket amid his 13 field goals en route to a 31-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound effort for the Big East player of the year favorite in Wednesday night’s 78-70 victory over No. 9 Georgetown at the XL Center. He also turned it over just twice in 40 minutes of play.

[+] EnlargeConnecticut's Kemba Walker
David Butler II/US PRESSWIREKemba Walker had 31 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in UConn's win over Georgetown.
As much as Walker struggled shooting the ball over the past few weeks, he seemed to erase any doubt that he is indeed the frontrunner for conference POY.

“He’s back,’’ said Walker’s father, Paul “Kenya” Walker. “I saw LeBron do that last night. I’ve seen Kobe do that all the time. [Kemba] has done that on the playground. And they throw him out, talk about that he’s not the best player in the nation. You see all these defenses out there? Just because he had two or three bad games, he’s out? No. He’s back, he’s back, tell them he’s back. Trust me, he’s back.’’

The discussion as to whether or not Walker was indeed the league’s best came about when he struggled during a stretch in which he went 5-of-16 at Marquette (0-5 from 3), 7-of-23 in a home loss to Louisville (2-10 from 3), 3-of-14 in a home loss to Syracuse (1-6 from 3), 7-of-19 in a win at Seton Hall and 4-of-16 in a blowout loss at St. John’s.

But Walker found his stroke against Providence Sunday night, scoring 22 points and making an efficient 7 of 10 shots, 3 of 4 from deep.

“I’m just having fun out there,’’ Walker said. “I had a big talk with [my dad] during my slump and got back to my old self. I just stopped thinking and had a good game.’’

Georgetown coach John Thompson III said that the Hoyas did a poor job defensively and didn’t help on the ball when Walker was coming to the hoop. Austin Freeman was just 4-of-13 from the field, but the Hoyas’ issue wasn’t on offense as Chris Wright made five 3s. The problems came while trying to stop the ball.

Walker had help again from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who despite averaging 4.1 points a game, had his second straight 20-plus scoring output on 8-of-11 shooting. He scored 25 against the Friars and 23 against the Hoyas.

Coombs-McDaniel and UConn coach Jim Calhoun haven’t always been on the same page, but the sophomore is buying into the total team concept now and it has paid off for him.

But the Huskies still need Walker in order to win these sort of games.

“He wasn’t making shots, but my belief in Kemba never wavered,’’ Calhoun said. “This was big for us.”

The Huskies desperately had to win this game to stay in the hunt for a double-bye in the Big East tournament. The top four only have to win three games in New York next month, instead of four. The loss snapped Georgetown’s eight-game winning streak as the Hoyas dropped to 9-5 in the league, two games behind second-place Notre Dame and a half-game ahead of a slew of teams. Louisville lost at Cincinnati on Wednesday and is now tied with UConn, St. John’s and Villanova for third at 8-5, but only one is going to get a first-round bye if Pitt, Notre Dame and Georgetown can hold the first three spots.

“”We’re in a fine place, but I can’t worry about it,’’ Thompson III said. “The margin is so thin in the Big East.’’

In the standings he’s right, with the difference between third and eighth just one game. But the margin for Big East player of the year probably isn’t as close as it appeared a week or two ago. This is still Walker’s to lose, as he proved once again on Wednesday night.

Video: Georgetown holds off Marquette

February, 13, 2011

Austin Freeman scores 17, leads No. 11 Hoyas to eighth straight win.
If you look up "impressive conference road win" in the imaginary multimedia dictionary I just made up in the confines of my own brain, you would be immediately greeted by an replay of Georgetown's 64-56 win over Syracuse.

The Hoyas were never fully in control of the game. Syracuse had plenty of opportunities to take the upper hand, not to mention 27,000 orange-clad maniacs screaming their brains out at every turn. But the Hoyas poked and prodded, found ways into and behind Syracuse's 2-3 zone, stayed focused, got big buckets at key moments, avoided late turnovers when Syracuse had to turn up the pressure, and locked in defensively in the final moments when it mattered most.

[+] EnlargeGeorgetown's Chris Wright
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliChris Wright worked his way into the Syracuse zone and dished out nine assists as Georgetown won its seventh straight game.
No, Big East road wins don't get much more impressive than that. The fact that we just saw this Syracuse team go to Connecticut and get a win makes this win all the more noteworthy. And speaking of noteworthy, there's this: After a 1-4 start in the Big East, the Hoyas have now won seven in a row. That stretch includes a home win over Louisville, a win at Villanova, and now this big-time win in the Carrier Dome, a place they hadn’t won in nearly a decade. Pittsburgh is still the best team in this conference. But at this point, if any team can challenge the Panthers, that team appears to be the Georgetown Hoyas.

Some assorted bullet-point thoughts about the game:

  • When you play a 2-3 zone like Syracuse, and your opponent is one of the most efficient teams in the country both beyond the arc and inside it, you have to have length. The Orange do. They had 11 blocks in this game, a product of some tremendous zone extension and interior presence by Jim Boeheim's team. Rick Jackson had three of those, but the majority of the rejections came from freshmen C.J. Fair, Baye Moussa Keita and Dion Waiters, who combined for eight blocks on the night. Keita, who had five, was especially impressive. This is why Syracuse's zone has been, and can be, so very tough this season. The Orange are just long.
  • That said, there are still plenty of flaws in this zone. Georgetown's guards presented serious matchup problems for Syracuse, especially when Chris Wright worked his way into the middle of the zone and got inside-out looks for Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. Georgetown was also able to get big buckets on baseline action, especially on backcuts late in the game when Syracuse defenders lost their baseline assignments and no one in the middle of the zone was able to help in time. Georgetown's backcuts, which you frequently see in the Princeton offense against man-to-man defense, worked just as well against the zone. And with all those guards on the floor, the Hoyas were able to pass effectively through the zone, much more effectively than anyone might have expected. It takes a lot of guts to try and match up with the Orange with four guards, but it paid dividends for Georgetown on the offensive end.
  • And yes, even with all that length, Georgetown still got plenty of good looks from 3. The Hoyas were shooting 38.5 percent from long range coming into tonight's game; they made 42.9 percent (9-of-21) Wednesday night.
  • [+] EnlargeGeorgetown's Julian Vaughn
    Mark L. Baer/US PRESSWIREJulian Vaughn scored 12 points and pulled down eight rebounds for the Hoyas.
    Still, despite Georgetown's effective ball movement and shooting, it's not like the Hoyas lit it up. No, the Orange’s loss came on the offensive end. Syracuse has struggled on the perimeter throughout the season, and those struggles (4-of-16 from 3) were evident again Wednesday night. In recent seasons, Syracuse has always had at least one (and often multiple) knockdown shooters. Gerry McNamara. Eric Devendorf. Andy Rautins. Wes Johnson. This team doesn't have one. It struggles at the guard position in a variety of ways -- perhaps no player frustrates Syracuse fans more than Scoop Jardine -- but the biggest problem area remains perimeter shooting. Until someone proves capable of knocking down shots, it would probably be wise to cut down on the 3s going forward.
  • It might also be wise to get Fair a greater share of the offensive load. Fair scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and grabbed five rebounds in the process. He was opportunistic and intuitive; he read rebounding angles correctly, found space against Georgetown's interior, and finished his chances when he got them. For as much as Boeheim's freshmen have struggled at times this season, this was a good game for all but Fab Melo.
  • And, not to pile on, but Melo is still a massive disappointment. The highly touted center prospect started but played a mere three minutes. He was 0-for-1 in that span. Melo's simply not there athletically right now. Maybe next year?
  • Speaking of four guards, one of those "guards" was frequently forward Hollis Thompson, who has the size to be a forward but the range to stretch defenses out to the 3-point line. John Thompson III got the perfect type of contribution from Thompson on Wednesday night. The forward had a very efficient 11 points -- 4-of-5 from the field, 3-of-3 from long distance -- and added five rebounds, two assists, two steals and zero turnovers. I'm not sure an off-the-bench role player could have a better, more important game than that. He was huge.
  • Same goes for Julian Vaughn, who went 5-of-8 for 12 points and eight rebounds. Austin Freeman didn't have a great shooting night. Nor did Chris Wright or Jason Clark. That made it all the more crucial for Georgetown's role players to come up with efficient supporting efforts, and Vaughn and Thompson did so.
  • If ever there was a time you thought Georgetown was going to take control of this game, it came when Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 14:40 left in the game. That didn't really happen. Instead, Boeheim got big contributions from the three aforementioned freshmen. Keita grabbed offensive rebounds in bunches, Fair got a pair of buckets and Waiters came up with two steals to keep Syracuse from falling too far behind while Jackson waited on the sidelines. Even in the loss, it was good to see those players step up at a crucial time in the game. But Georgetown did pull away eventually, and the Hoyas get credit for doing what so many teams struggle to do in the Big East: win big games on the road. Tremendous win for Georgetown.

Don't forget about Austin Freeman

January, 29, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- You forget.

With Kemba Walker trying to outjimmer the Jimmer every night and the topsy-turvy Big East spin-cycling teams into a muddled mess, you forget that Austin Freeman was named the league’s preseason player of the year.

Then the senior comes along and shakes the cobwebs from your brain with this performance on Saturday: 30 points, six assists, 10 of Georgetown’s final 12 points, and the assist on the other basket in a gut-check 69-66 Hoya win against Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center.

[+] EnlargeAustin Freeman
Rich Barnes/Icon SMIAustin Freeman's 30 points and last-minute heroics helped key Georgetown's victory over Villanova.
Now let’s get this out of the way. Freeman isn’t going to be the conference’s player of the year. Barring a cataclysmic disaster in the next month, Walker is the surest bet since Secretariat at the Belmont.

But one shining star doesn’t necessarily eclipse all of the others and there’s no way Freeman ought to be in anyone’s backseat.

“Austin Freeman in most situations is unflappable,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “So the last three minutes of the game were only indicative of what he’s done the last four years. They’re running, trapping and making it hard to do what you want to do, so you put the ball in his hands because good things happen.”

The Hoyas were in need of some good things. Georgetown started the league season 1-4, and even though they have ripped off three victories in a row, they were wins with an asterisk. Three of the four came against the league’s bottom-feeders -- Rutgers, DePaul and Seton Hall -- with sliding St. John’s being the lone exception. Those four teams compiled a combined record of 35-21. The teams that beat Hoyas, on the other hand, boast a 60-20 record.

In other words, not much to hang your hat on.

But the same team that nosedived into disaster two seasons ago -- from 10-1 to 16-15 -- has learned not to fret.

“They realize now that there is time to climb out,” Thompson said. “There’s no panic.”

They take the cue from Freeman. The guard won the game not once, but twice for Georgetown.

Buried in the corner, and practically sitting on the laps of his walk-on teammates, he buried a jumper with three seconds left on the shot clock and 43 ticks on the game clock to put the Hoyas up two.

And Freeman’s reaction? We’re still looking for it. Unflappable doesn’t do the senior justice. Flat line may be better.

Thirty points in a hostile environment against your longtime rival? Accounting for 43 percent of your team’s offense?

He shrugs.

“I just want to play well in every game,” he said. “It isn’t about Villanova or Syracuse or anybody. I just want to play well.”

Playing well is the formula that Villanova is searching for right now. After starting 16-1, the Wildcats are now 17-4. Philadelphia fans have started to collectively gasp and are muttering, "not again."

In the previous season, Nova started 20-1 and finished 25-8. The early expectations built on a ranking that soared as high as No. 2 fizzled into a coughing and sputtering finish. A year after their Final Four run, the second-seeded Wildcats barely escaped Robert Morris in the first round and were quickly sent packing by Saint Mary’s in the second.

This season, Villanova has partnered an eye-opening win at Syracuse with back-to-back losses at Providence and at home to Georgetown, losing three times in the past 12 days.

“I don’t know if this team has a personality yet,” Nova coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve got to get one but I do think we’re in a better place than last year. We’re closer to being the kind of team we want to be. We just have to get there.”

What Wright wants Villanova to be, what he always has wanted Villanova to be, is a team that relies on its defense and not on its offense. The Wildcats have gotten away from that a little bit in the past two seasons. The D is better but the Cats are still fairly easy to figure out: when they don’t shoot well, they don’t win.

That may sound simplistic -- score more and you win, duh -- but it’s not. In the past Nova could win games when it didn’t score well or easily, using its scrappy defense to keep things together.

This season that hasn’t been the case. In the Wildcats’ 17 wins, they are averaging 78.5 points and shooting 46.8 percent.

[+] EnlargeVillanova Wildcats
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAfter starting 16-1, Villanova has now lost three of its past four games.
In their four losses, they’re scoring only 65.2 points and shooting just 35.7 percent.

“We’ve got to bring it with our defense,” guard Corey Fisher said. “If we can do that, the rest will take of itself. We’re a good team and to be a good team, you have to be able to win when you’re not shooting well.’’

Fisher, though, insists he’s not worried.

He and the Wildcats are no more wringing their hands over their skid than the Hoyas are celebrating their win streak.

You can’t.

Not in the Big East.

The league is smoke and mirrors, what you think is real isn’t.

Just as Villanova was losing to Georgetown, Connecticut was going down at home to Louisville, two games after Louisville lost to Providence.

Syracuse looked unbeatable and then it looked awful.

Pitt never loses at home -- except when Notre Dame, which never wins on the road, comes to town.

“Jamie Dixon said last week, and he’s right, that in the first part of the season, Big East teams beat up on the rest of the country and then we beat each other up,” Thompson said. “People start questioning and thinking, what’s wrong with this team? There’s nothing wrong. This league is outstanding. It’s crazy.”

So crazy and so outstanding that you can temporarily forget about someone as good as Freeman.

Dana O’Neil covers college basketball for and can be reached at
When even the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks are eliminating the reigning Super Bowl Champs in the first round of the playoffs, you know it's been a crazy day.

Such was the case in college hoops Saturday, too. When you play 139 games in one day, there are always going to be wild finishes, unexpected results and upsets. But this was something else entirely. Seven ranked teams lost to unranked teams. To wit:

(There was also a genuine thriller, UConn's 82-81 overtime win at Texas. My postgame analysis on that classic can be found here.)
    [+] EnlargeColorado's Alec Burks
    Ron Chenoy/US PRESSWIREColorado's Alec Burks scored 36 points and had eight rebounds in an upset of Missouri.

  • Colorado 89, No. 8 Missouri 76. It's never easy to win on the road, sure, and you can argue that Colorado is the perfect team (great guards, no big men) to match up with Missouri's guard-heavy style, but considering Mizzou's consistently impressive play to date -- and Colorado's blowout loss to Harvard, among other questionable results -- this still counts as a major upset. Alec Burks played like the future NBA lottery pick he's slated to be, scoring a career-high 36 points on 12-of-19 from the field, 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line.
  • West Virginia 65, No. 13 Georgetown 59. According to the AP recap at that link, Bob Huggins has begun giving his players pop quizzes before games, making them come up to the chalkboard and diagram plays to test whether or not they've been paying attention. Apparently, they have. Either that or Georgetown's guards, who played phenomenally in the Hoyas' nonconference schedule, continued their shooting woes from outside. Georgetown's offense is pretty simple: Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark get open looks and make them. At least, that was the case when Georgetown was stacking up nonconference wins against tough opponents (ODU, Missouri, and so on) during November and December. The Big East has been less kind, and Georgetown is now 1-3 in the league with a questionable home loss on its résumé.
  • Penn State 66, No. 19 Michigan State 62. I'm not sure this was a court-storm-worthy effort from Penn State (not that it stopped Nittany Lions fans from basking in the moment), but it certainly fits the day's upset-heavy theme. Penn State guard Talor Battle, who struggled from the field all day, sealed the win with a leaning jumper that put Penn State up by three with 18 seconds remaining. The loss does even greater damage to Michigan State, which was already looking shaky and is now a long shot to win the Big Ten and an even longer shot to get a favorable NCAA tournament seed in March.
  • Oklahoma State 76, No. 17 Kansas State 62. I'm not sure this counts as an upset. After all, Kansas State is still missing forward Curtis Kelly due to suspension, and the Wildcats have struggled to score throughout ... well, now that I think about it, pretty much the entire year. But you get the point: The Wildcats are still in a major swoon, one of those will-they-figure-it-out-in-time rough patches that every program has to confront from time to time. The problem for K-State is that the time to figure this stuff out -- whether we're talking about the team's offense, Jacob Pullen's adjustment to the point guard spot or intangible stuff like leadership -- is starting to run out.
  • Georgia 77, No. 11 Kentucky 70. No offense to the AP -- I'm a huge fan, guys! -- but the use of the word "stun" in the aforelinked headline is a little bit questionable. Georgia, in addition to being at home, is also a pretty good team. The Bulldogs' only two losses this season came in double overtime to Notre Dame and by seven points to Temple all the way back in November at the Old Spice Classic. Otherwise, this Bulldogs squad has been playing just fine, thanks. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie remain underrated; Thompkins scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Leslie put on his trademark dunk show on the way to his 15-and-eight afternoon. Good win for Georgia, but this one is probably about as much of an upset as Kansas State-Oklahoma State. Which is to say, not much of an upset at all.
  • Houston 76, No. 18 UCF 71. It was only a matter of time until UCF -- which came into Saturday having won their last two games (over Princeton and Marshall) in sketchy fashion -- lost. Still, few would have predicted this game being the one that cost the Knights their undefeated record. Without the second-half run that put them within striking distance of the Cougars late, this could have been much worse; Houston led by as many as 17 in the first half. Marcus Jordan, who has become a star in UCF's undefeated run, went 3-for-9 from the field and ended up with 10 points.
  • South Carolina 83, No. 24 Vanderbilt 75. Vandy has been one of the best 10 or 20 defensive teams in the nation thus far this season, but you wouldn't have known it today. South Carolina had four players reach double figures in scoring, including freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, who probably deserves to be considered among the 10 or so best newcomers in the nation. Ellington had 24 points, seven boards and four assists in the win. It's hard to say whether this is a genuine upset on the Michigan State-Penn State side of the spectrum, or just another case of a good team succumbing to a conference opponent on the road i.e. Kentucky and Kansas State, but either way, it's a big win for the Gamecocks.
  • Arkansas 68, Tennessee 65. This is nothing new with the Volunteers, of course. Tennessee seems uniquely capable of beating ranked teams but uniquely unable of getting up for games so-so opponents. Tennessee's last game? A blowout of No. 22 Memphis. Arkansas' last game? A 33-point loss at Texas. Yes, Bruce Pearl was sitting out the first game of his SEC-mandated eight-game league suspension. Still, there's no reason why Tennessee should lose to Arkansas. UT is now 3-0 against ranked teams and 7-5 against unranked teams. Another baffling chapter in the already mind-blowing 2010-11 Vols' story.

Guard trio carries Nova over UCLA

November, 25, 2010

NEW YORK -- Scottie Reynolds got Villanova back to a Final Four with an epic, game-ending layup to beat Pitt in the 2009 Elite Eight.

The shot will forever be etched in Nova lore.

But Reynolds' influence on the Wildcats is now gone and it shows.

A trio of Villanova guards -- Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns -- don’t mean any disrespect by this, but they feel they leaned too much on Reynolds last season. They looked for him to constantly bail them out of a bad situation.

Now they’ve all moved on.

“Ever since Scotty’s freshman year, he had the ball in his hands,’’ Stokes said. “The team relied on Scotty. He was one of the greatest players in Villanova history. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but we can all score. It doesn’t matter who has the ball. Coach [Jay Wright] feels comfortable with either me, Maalik or Fish with the ball in his hands.’’

[+] EnlargeCorey Fisher
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesCorey Fisher scored 26 points in the win over UCLA.
And so the baton has been passed from Reynolds to the trio of Stokes, Fisher and Wayns. The Villanova guards dominated the ball in an 82-70 NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal victory over UCLA Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will play Tennessee in Friday's championship. The three guards combined for 45 of the Wildcats’ 62 shots. They made 17. And didn’t hurt that they were a combined 22-of-24 at the free throw line. Fisher finished with 26 points, Wayns with 19 and Stokes with 16.

Nova has Mouphtaou Yarou inside (13 points and 16 boards vs. UCLA) and if a Villanova student code of conduct committee gives suspended freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston a chance to play sometime this season (he’s facing simple assault charges for a punch on another Villanova student at a party earlier this month), then there will be even more balance. Wright said earlier Wednesday that the committee could hear Pinkston’s case next week. He is allowed to practice with the team but can’t represent the university and sit on the bench.

Seeing Pinkston in practice Wednesday, it was clear that he would have a major impact on this squad at both ends of the court. But instead of waiting on the legal case, the team will wait on the school's verdict since this was a student-on-student crime.

For now and the foreseeable future, Nova will be driven by its guards, much like it was on that 2006 Elite Eight team led by Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry.

“That’s our offense,’’ Wayns said. “That’s the way coach Wright tells us to play. We’re not where those guys were [Foye, Ray and Lowry] since they’re all pros. But we’re aggressive and we’re giving our team the best chance to win. Last year, if things got bad we turned to Scottie. We leaned on Scottie. Now it doesn’t matter since any of us can make a play.’’

UCLA’s trio of Malcolm Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had their moments, but weren’t in the same level on a consistent basis as Nova’s guards.

The Wildcats don't have the one star like Connecticut’s Kemba Walker. A more appropriate comparison might be the tandem of Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs of Pitt or Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark.

“We’ve had more time together,’’ Fisher said of his senior classmate Stokes. “Maalik played with us last year too. We had time to watch Scottie and learn from him and we’ve had time to gel.’’

What Villanova has this season -- something that was lost at times last season in falling flat against Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- is a cohesion among the guards.

“We’ve got great chemistry,’’ Stokes said. “We’re always together off the court and it translates on the court. It should be like this the whole year.’’

Summer Buzz: Georgetown Hoyas

August, 3, 2010
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Georgetown. Insider Up next? Villanova.

The Georgetown Hoyas will miss Greg Monroe. That much is easy.

[+] EnlargeGreg Monroe
AP Photo/Nick WassGreg Monroe's departure will hurt the Hoyas more on defense than on offense.
After all, it's not every day you send a surefire lottery pick to the NBA draft. Monroe was a unique player, a center-sized lefty with small forward skills who created off the high block in John Thompson's offense with preternatural vision. With few viable candidates ready to take his place immediately -- Greg Monroes are tough to find -- Georgetown will suffer from his departure. Duh.

There is good news and bad news for Georgetown here. The good news: The Hoyas will still be a very good offensive team without their talented center. The bad news: What about defense?

Since John Thompson III took over at Georgetown, his teams have played with a specific identity. Thompson likes to slow the game down, wear opposing defenses down, and bank on the fact that his team will be able to create good looks from a half court set. Thompson's best teams have complemented that style with defensive rigor. The Jeff Green- and Roy Hibbert-led 2006-07 team played at a glacial pace -- 59.9 possessions per game -- but had the second-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country and the 20th-best adjusted defensive efficiency. A year later, Georgetown's defense was its primary strength. A year after that, the same rule applied (though Georgetown lacked the hyper-efficient offense to go along with it.)

In 2009-10, Georgetown's defense slipped. The Hoyas were very good on the offensive end, scoring 1.17 adjusted points per possession, good for a No. 9 national ranking in the category. But their defense, which gave up .926 adjusted points per possession, was the worst it's been since 2004-05, Thompson's first year with the program.

Naturally, Monroe had plenty to do with Georgetown's offensive success. He played a ton of minutes and took a lot of shots, and his ability to score from inside gave the Hoyas an inside-out combo most teams spend years trying to put together.

But Monroe's absence stands to hurt Georgetown's offense far less than it hurts their defense. Consider the players staying in D.C. There's guard Austin Freeman, who had one of the Big East's highest offensive ratings (119.7) among players with at least 20 percent of his team's possessions used. Freeman was among the best shooters in the country last year.

There's guard Chris Wright, whose offensive rating was five points higher than Monroe's (111.7 to 106.2). And there's guard Jason Clark, the team's best shooter, who ranked No. 34 nationally in effective field goal percentage.

Is this a case of Monroe creating opportunities for players to get wide open looks? Or of Monroe's offensive capability being slightly overrated?

Meanwhile, back on the defensive end, the Hoyas were merely average for a couple of reasons. For one, they rarely forced opponents into turnovers. But perhaps more importantly, they allowed offensive rebounders to grab 32.1 percent of their misses, which put them just above average in all of Division I. Why does this matter? Because Monroe accounted for 25.2 percent of those available defensive rebounds, the 26th-best personal mark in the country. No one else on the Hoyas even came close.

Georgetown was always going to be a guard-heavy team in the wake of Monroe's departure; he was their featured big man, and with the possible exception of a few recruits, there isn't anyone capable of filling his large shoes.

But even without Monroe, Georgetown still returns huge chunks of its offensive skill in 2009-10. Where they'll miss Monroe is where they need him most: defense. If Georgetown can recalibrate its defensive style -- maybe utilize a four-guard lineup and press out to 35-feet, which would hopefully force more turnovers -- they could possibly escape last year's fate.

As it stands, the Hoyas seem primed for another season of offensive mastery complimented by just-OK defensive play. Which could be worse, considering last year's season. But without Monroe, "could be worse" could quickly devolve into "just OK," and few Georgetown fans would be quite so happy with that.
NEW YORK -- Terrific first half worthy of the Saturday night bright lights of New York City. I'll be surprised if this doesn't go down to the wire. The teams are both playing too hard and too well for anyone to break ahead by much.

Some quick thoughts about an entertaining 20 minutes:

  • West Virginia's ability to own the boards is the slim difference between the two teams. The Mountaineers have 19 rebounds to Georgetown's 11, but more critically WVU has nine offensive rebounds. That's equated to 10 easy points.
  • The Mountaineers are getting a well-played game from just about everyone in uniform. I doubt even hard-to-please Bob Huggins will have much to pick apart here. Wellington Smith leads the Mountaineers withe nine points, Joe Mazzulla is directing the offense with authority and Devin Ebanks is commanding the backboards. He has four rebounds already. And of course Da'Sean Butler is doing everything else. He has seven points, two offensive rebounds and an assist.
  • The Hoyas aren't as deep, but if anyone thought they'd be tired playing their fourth game in as many days, guess again. With Greg Monroe and Chris Wright leading the push, Georgetown is doing a terrific job running the floor. Monroe's pretty one-handed bounce pass for a crowd-pleasing Wright jam epitomized the level that the two are playing at. Wright has 12 early, Monroe 5 points, 3 rebounds and two assists.
  • Georgetown, a better shooting team, hasn't been able to take advantage of its edge at the arc. The Hoyas are 1-for-7 from the arc and Austin Freeman is still looking for his first made 3-pointer of the Big East tournament. He's 0-for-2 tonight. The Hoyas need him to be a threat to stretch the Mountaineer defense.

Michael Heiman/Getty Images/Howard Smith-US PRESSWIREGeorgetown's Greg Monroe or West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler: Who will walk away as the Big East tournament's most outstanding player?

NEW YORK –- A good friend pulled John Thompson III aside after Georgetown ousted Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

“He told me, ‘There’s nothing better than Friday night in New York City other than Saturday night in New York City,’’ Thompson said.

Bright lights, big city, two teams and only one trophy as West Virginia and Georgetown go head-to-head for the coveted Big East championship tonight at 9 p.m. on ESPN.

Here’s a championship rundown:

Numbers: West Virginia has only appeared in one Big East Conference Championship but has never taken home the hardware. The Mountaineers, in fact, haven’t won any conference tourney titles since 1984. Georgetown has played for the title 13 times and won a record seven crowns.

One or the other: Barring an unexpected 50-point barrage from someone else, either Greg Monroe or Da’Sean Butler will leave New York as the tournament’s most outstanding player. In two games, Monroe is averaging 19 points, 11.5 rebounds and seven assists while Butler chimes in with 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, three assists and one banked in, buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer.

The last time: West Virginia thumped Georgetown, 81-68, in Morgantown but the result might as well come with asterisks for all the sub-plots that affected the game. The Mountaineers rode the high of an emotional senior night for Butler; the Hoyas endured the emotional low of playing without Austin Freeman, who was out with the flu (and a week later would be diagnosed with diabetes). Georgetown fell behind by as many as 27 before trying to mount a comeback, but WVU’s pressure led to 20 turnovers, which led to 27 points, which led to disaster.

New York State of mind: There aren’t a lot of similarities between Morgantown and New York City, which is what makes the Mountaineers’ roster so confounding. Six of WVU’s players, including all five starters, are from the New York-New Jersey area. What circuitous twists led them from the streets of Gotham to the country roads of West Virginia? Simple: the Big East and Bob Huggins. “It’s the Big East and with anybody from the Big East, people in New York are going to listen,’’ Huggins said. “If we weren’t in the conference, can’t recruit these guys.’’ Huggins’ track record helps, too. The coach has a reputation for developing players evidenced by the 15 NBA draft picks he’s coached, including four lottery picks.

Is that a yes? Syracuse 73, Georgetown 56. Syracuse 75, Georgetown 71. Marquette 62, Georgetown 59. West Virginia 81, Georgetown 68. The Hoyas came to New York City with one primary goal: to win another Big East championship. But they also packed a little extra motivation: revenge. Asked if beating teams that had topped them during the regular season put a little extra kick in their step, the Hoyas didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Yes,’’ said Chris Wright loudly and quickly into the microphone.

“Yes,’’ said Austin Freeman, almost simultaneously.

“For the record, that’s a yes,’’ Greg Monroe deadpanned.

For West Virginia: True to form, Bob Huggins didn’t mince words: "Quite frankly, people with size bother us,’’ the coach said. “We’re not that big.’’ That’s a short way of saying the Mountaineers will have to work hard to stop Monroe. Huggins seconded Jim Boeheim’s assessment that Monroe is the “best skilled big man in the country.’’ Even in the Mountaineers’ decisive victory, Monroe got his, finishing with 22 points nine rebounds.

The Mountaineers also need to overcome themselves a little bit. Against Notre Dame, WVU almost blew a 10-point lead. They nearly coughed up a late 9-point advantage against Cincinnati the night before and in the regular-season finale against Villanova had to dig out of a 13-point hole to win.

For Georgetown: Thompson didn’t want to entertain questions about his championship game opponent on Friday night. “Can I wait until we see who we’re playing?’’ the Georgetown coach said with a laugh. A little later Thompson expounded on what his Hoyas have to do: “We have to play the way we play,’’ he said.

It sounds simplistic but it’s really the right remedy for the Hoyas. They have been winning here in New York because they have been playing their brand of basketball: feeding the ball to Monroe and then letting him direct the offense.

That’s not to say Georgetown doesn’t have to do anything to stop the Mountaineers. They do. Despite its lack of size, West Virginia works the boards with a vengeance. They clobbered Notre Dame in rebounding, 35-18.

Hoyas' Monroe in a league of his own

March, 12, 2010
NEW YORK -- John Thompson III played his college basketball for a man who thought there was nothing a big man couldn’t do.

[+] EnlargeGreg Monroe
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comGreg Monroe has proven he can do it all for the Hoyas. He had 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks against Marquette.
In Pete Carril’s offense at Princeton, centers were expected to score down low, bounce a perfect backdoor pass and step out and sink a three. He called them point-centers, treating them as equal parts point guard and post player, and with such reverence his entire Princeton offense was predicated around their abilities.

Carril groomed some good ones in his day, but the hoops yoda never saw anything quite like Greg Monroe.

The Georgetown sophomore unleashed his stat-stuffing repertoire on a Marquette team that was helpless to contain him. Monroe racked up 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks to take the Hoyas to an 80-57 win over the Golden Eagles, and into the Big East tournament championship for the third time in four years. With seven titles, Georgetown has won more Big East crowns than any other league member.

“We see it everyday,’’ Thompson said. “But what’s commonplace to us, the rest of the world gets to see every now and again.’’

Good big men are hard enough to find at this level. Exceptional ones are rarer than yellow diamonds.

A guy like Monroe might as well be preserved next to Walt Disney and Ted Williams.

He has the sound fundamentals of an Ivy Leaguer and the skill set of a McDonald’s All-American, a deadly combination of smarts, savvy and strength that is unlike anyone currently in the college game.

Monroe’s dad, Gregory Sr., insisted his son learn to pass the ball as a kid, reminding him that passing big men are harder to guard. The dribbling followed the passing and the rest just came thanks to the good graces of good genes.

In one two-minute span against Marquette, the nature/nurture benefits were on full display. Monroe drained a 3-pointer (taking a moment to strike a hand-flick pose like a guard), blocked a shot, took an outlet and dribbled the length of the floor like a gazelle, bouncing a perfect pass to Austin Freeman for an and-one play.

“It is unique because he can dominate in his own way, but like a point guard, he an also make everyone else better,’’ Thompson said. “That’s what he’s learned, when to turn it on and when to take a step back.’’

Which is exactly what he did against the Golden Eagles. Monroe was everywhere in the first half, taking 14 points, five boards and three assists into the locker room.

He stepped off the gas to start the second half, but instead of growing frustrated as Marquette packed in to contain him, he simply bided his time and fed picture-perfect passes to Chris Wright, Freeman or Jason Clark.

And then when the Golden Eagles threatened to make it interesting, there was Monroe again, scoring eight in the final 10 minutes when the game went from 56-51 to over.

“Sometimes in the huddle, the guys will tell me, ‘It’s time for you to take over,’’’ Monroe said. “If it’s there, it’s there. That’s how I play. My nature is to win. That’s all I care about.’’

Monroe is at a school, of course, that has produced its fair share of talented – and successful – centers.

He refuses to put himself anywhere near the pantheon of the best ones and isn’t terribly interested in comparing his successes, either.

“The history here with big men is very rich,’’ Monroe said. “I’m just trying to do what I can in my time here and make my mark.’’

Certainly a good first step would be a Big East tournament championship.

Final: Georgetown 80, Marquette 57

March, 12, 2010
NEW YORK -- Georgetown advanced to the semifinals via an upset. But the fact that the Hoyas are in the Big East tournament finals after an 80-57 win over Marquette isn't a shocker. One of the conferences original members, the Hoyas have made 12 appearances in the title game, including three in the past four years.

They've won a record seven trophies. On Saturday night they'll go for number eight.

Here's how they got there:
  • Greg Monroe constantly redefines what a big man can do, or at least what extraordinary ones can do. The junior swished a 3-pointer, ran the floor like a gazelle (while dribbling!) dished backdoor passes and blocked shots in a 23-point, 13-rebound, 7-assist and 2-block game that looked almost effortless.
  • When Monroe wasn't scoring, the Hoyas didn't miss a beat. They simply reconfigured when Marquette tried to pack in on Monroe. Enter Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright, who carried the load through the first part of the second half. Freeman grabbed eight of his 12 points in the second, Clark scored 11 of his 15 and Wright 14 of his 15.
  • Marquette, which hadn't lost by more than nine all season and lost its 10 previous games by a combined 35 points, ran out of gas. The Golden Eagles mounted one final charge midway through the second half, but then the needle finally reached E. After making it 56-51, Marquette scored just six points in the final 10:50.
NEW YORK -- Rise and shine, hoops heads. Time for the official tip of college basketball. The mid-majors are fun and the Tuesday warm-up at the Garden is a good appetizer but today it’s officially on as the Big East revs up with its four-game platter of hoops.

At least three teams are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives today, two more are working to remove any gray area from their own status and one is trying to secure its head coach’s future.

Game 1: South Florida vs. Georgetown

What’s at stake: The Bulls are in the conversation but a long way from in the tourney. A win here won’t put them in but will put them in the conversation.

What has to happen: Dominique Jones dropped 29 on the Hoyas in a February upset. He’ll need to do the same for the Bulls to have a chance plus negate Georgetown’s guard tandem of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright.

Something else to watch for: The play of Austin Freeman. Diagnosed last week with diabetes, the guard didn’t seem fazed in his first game back. He had 24 points in 30 minutes of an emotional senior night.

Game 2: St. John’s vs. Marquette

What’s at stake: For the Red Storm, it could be Norm Roberts’ job. The coach said he’s not concerned and the university hasn’t offered any indication but certainly after another disappointing season in the Big Apple, he’s at least on the hot seat. For the Golden Eagles, their NCAA spot would appear secure thanks to nine wins in their last 11 games.

What has to happen: Another breakout game for Sean Evans would be helpful. The junior had 19 points and 10 rebounds against Connecticut in the opening round, giving the Red Storm a needed and somewhat unexpected injection of offense.

Something else to watch for: The Red Storm again will be without Dwight Hardy. The junior has a sprained left knee. That’s 10 points that St. John’s needs to make up.

Game 3: Seton Hall vs. Notre Dame

What’s at stake: The Pirates are on the very soft bubble but not in the tournament. A win against the surprise Irish could be enough to push them among the last four in. Notre Dame’s stunning Harangody-less rally has put them in the bracket but another win would only make their spot more secure.

What has to happen: The Pirates need Jeremy Hazell to play within the context of the game and not take foolish shots.

Something else to watch for: Points and lots of 'em. Both teams like to score and neither is a fan of defense. The Pirates average 81 points per game, the Irish 77.9.

Game 4: Cincinnati vs. Louisville

What’s at stake: Interstate bragging rights for starters. The two schools are only separated by 90 minutes of highway. Cincinnati is a long way from in the NCAA field, but after a dismal finish to the regular season (losing five of their final six) a strong finish would be good. Louisville secured its spot with a victory over Syracuse to close out Freedom Hall. Wouldn’t be a bad idea for the roller-coaster Cards to get some momentum going.

What has to happen: Edgar Sosa has to play smart. The point guard can giveth and taketh away. Sometimes he’s brilliant. Sometimes he’s awful. The Cards need his A game to stave off an upset.

Something else to watch for: Lance Stephenson's return to the Big Apple. The Big East’s rookie of the year didn’t fare so well in his first visit, with just seven points against the Red Storm.