Since conference play has started, the Hoyas have been consistently inconsistent.
Georgetown (18-6, 8-5 Big East) has yet to lose back-to-back games, but they also have yet to string together three straight Big East wins. Right as the Hoyas begin to pick up steam, they always seem to suffer another setback. None was more disheartening than last Sunday’s loss to Rutgers.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” junior forward Julian Vaughn said. “We’re definitely capable of much more. We’ve got to focus on Thursday now. We learned from [Rutgers], and it’s over now.”
That Thursday would be today, when No. 10 Georgetown takes on No. 5 Syracuse in what may be the Hoyas’ most important test yet. Georgetown has always been able to bounce back after a defeat this season, but they have not been forced to recover against a squad as talented as the Orange.
Of course, the storied rivalry between the two schools will also heighten the atmosphere tonight in the Verizon Center. So will the fact that the Orange dealt the Hoyas their worst loss of the season back in January, a 73-56 drubbing that came after Georgetown jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.
“I just think we lost focus, we lost intensity. We relaxed,” sophomore center Greg Monroe said of the game at Syracuse. “And when you relax and someone turns it up, that’s the outcome: you lose.”
Head coach John Thompson had a slightly different interpretation of the loss.
“I would think I disagree with Greg on that,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think there was a dip in focus or intensity. I think they made some adjustments to how they were playing their zone and we didn’t do as good of a job as we can attacking how they made their adjustments.”
Syracuse, who lost just their second game this season on Sunday, is unquestionably one of the nation’s best teams. The Orange can score in bunches, but the reason they’re a Final Four contender is their suffocating zone defense.
The 2-3 zone is a staple of head coach Jim Boeheim’s teams, but what makes this squad special is its overwhelming size.
“That defense this year is as good as I’ve seen it,” Thompson said. “Most of the time people talk about their back line, where you have Arinze [Onuaku], [Rick] Jackson, and Wes [Johnson]. But you look up front and those two guards are 6’5” and 6’6” too. They cover ground. The shots that are open for a second quickly go away.”
The zone can also easily shut down opponents’ interior game. That was the case when the Hoyas were at Syracuse last month. Of course it didn’t help matters that Monroe was hampered by foul trouble and fouled out with six minutes to play.
Monroe is the key to the Hoyas’ chances tonight. If he can stay on the floor and continue to contribute like he has the past two games, Georgetown can send its hated rival home with a loss. However, he knows from previous experience how challenging that will be.
“It is kind of hard to establish yourself in the zone,” Monroe said. “It’s not really like man-to-man, it’s not like they’re going to be feeding you down low a lot.”
Thankfully, Monroe is not the kind of one-dimensional inside banger that is usually shut down by the zone. He has a reputation as one of the country’s best passing big men, and he’s more than justified it over the past few games. Against Providence, Monroe had 12 assists, a career-high, and the most for a Hoya since 2002.
After being reduced to a nonfactor in the first game against Syracuse, Monroe knows the pressure is on him as the Hoyas look for revenge. But no matter how high the stakes, the big man is not going to break from his unselfish ways now.
“I can’t go out and think I have to make every play or score a lot of points to help us win this game,” Monroe said. “I’m not going to go out and force anything or try to prove a point. I’m just going to go out and do whatever Georgetown needs me to do to win.”