The madness is finally upon us. After a tremendous regular season in which the Georgetown men’s basketball team exceeded every fan’s and analyst’s wildest expectations, the third-seeded Hoyas will take on 14-seed Belmont in the second round of the Midwest Regional in Columbus, Ohio on Friday afternoon.
The Hoyas secured their tournament berth weeks ago, having solidly maintained their top-25 status since the fifth week of the season. Non-conference wins against Memphis (twice) and Alabama, in addition to a strong showing against perennial powerhouse Kansas at the Maui Invitational put Georgetown on the national radar after being overlooked in the preseason polls. The Hoyas rode their momentum into conference play, with early wins against Louisville and Marquette catapulting them into the top 10. But the grueling Big East schedule eventually took its toll on the Hoyas, as they finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the conference, before bowing out in the third round of the Big East Tournament to Cincinnati.
Given their body of work, the Hoyas are pleased with their seed. Nevertheless, that number matters little to the players, who are simply eager to get their tournament run started.
“All you want is to find out where you’re playing, who you’re playing, when you’re playing,” said senior guard Jason Clark. “This team has worked hard to get to this point. A three-seed in the NCAA Tournament is really big for this team.”
The Hoyas’ opponent, Belmont, is the largely unknown champion of the unheralded Atlantic Sun Conference. Even Clark admits he has never seen them play. But the Bruins nearly defeated two-seed Duke in Durham in their opening game of the season and kept pace with Memphis just days later before letting the game slip away in the second half. Given the Hoyas recent first-round struggles against mid-major opponents, this year’s team is especially wary of the dangers posed by the matchup.
“I’m very motivated,” Clark said when asked about the team’s recent tournament troubles. “That doesn’t leave your mind at all. You can’t wait to get back to this point so you can prove yourself.”
The Hoyas will have to channel that motivation into some of their signature, first-rate defense. Belmont boasts the nation’s fourth highest scoring offense at 81.5 points per game, largely due to their army of three-point shooters. Of their nine players averaging over ten minutes a game, seven of them are threat to shoot from deep at any time, while as a team, they have attempted the sixth-most three-pointers in the nation this year. Though juniors Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark lead the team in scoring, the Bruins are extremely balanced and love to move the ball and find the open man.
“They’re a very good shooting team,” said Clark. “Their offense puts you in tough positions, so if you help, they’ve got shooters.”
Regardless of the threat posed by Belmont’s potent attack, Clark and fellow senior Henry Sims will feel added pressure knowing this is their last chance at a tournament win before they graduate in May. After falling to Baylor in the NIT first round as freshman, followed by shocking upsets to Ohio and Virginia Commonwealth in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament the next two seasons, the seniors are desperate to add a win to solidify their legacies on the Hilltop.
“It’s definitely on our list,” Sims said. “We failed at it the last couple of years. That is without a doubt on our list this year.”
If the seniors are able to check this important milestone off their list, the battle to prolong their careers becomes significantly more difficult. Looming in the third round is a matchup with either ACC squad North Carolina State or, more likely, the six-seeded San Diego State, which was ranked in the top 25 for large stretches of the regular season. If the Hoyas can overcome this hurdle, they could face a rematch with 2-seeded Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.
But all of this is pure conjecture and wishful thinking for Hoya fans unless the team can overcome Belmont on Friday. For a battle-tested senior like Clark, the mindset going in is simple.
“You have to be on your A-game,” he said. “This is really crunch time.”