When I first saw Georgetown’s draw for the NCAA Tournament, I thought to myself that the Hoyas could beat any team in their path. Then I had that second thought, and it was the same one that seemingly every pundit had this week—there’s a serious chance that they will lose to Belmont.
Selection Sunday is a special time for irrationality and speculation, but even now, a few days later, I feel mostly the same way. And really, I believed the same thing last week, when the Hoyas were knocked out of the Big East Tournament by Cincinnati, and even two months ago, when they first lost to the Bearcats. The Hoyas are good enough to beat any team in the country, but they’re capable of losing to pretty much everyone.
Saying that would count as damning the Hoyas with faint praise, except since it basically makes them a fringe Final Four contender this season. Besides Kentucky (and maybe Syracuse, before news of center Fab Melo’s ineligibility broke), every top team has plenty of losses next to its name, and many have one or two to non-tournament teams. No one is invulnerable, meaning that the volatility of the tournament’s single-elimination format should victimize even more teams this year—and perhaps benefit a hot (or lucky) team even more.
This kind of parity has been increasingly common for a long time now, with the ubiquity of early-entry to the NBA leaving less talent to go around. Lottery-pick talent still carries teams to the top of the polls (Kentucky, North Carolina), but the inexperience of their future All-Stars allows veteran teams with a slightly lower tier of talent (Missouri, Syracuse) to be just as competitive. Then there are teams like Georgetown and Marquette, without a sure-fire first-rounder on their roster and just three upperclassmen apiece, that defy both conventions yet nonetheless spend time in the top 10. Very few of the best teams can dominate based on ability alone, which means results more often than not come down to execution. And for one game, a mid-major can certainly out-execute a top team.
Which brings us back to Belmont. The overwrought echo chamber that is the professional bracketology circuit has used this same logic to make the Bears a favorite upset pick. Some of the talk is justified—Belmont’s sharpshooting is a classic Cinderella trait—but the piling on has become excessive (check out Casual Hoya for an exhaustive rundown of the media’s Belmont picks). If the Bears can knock down their threes on Friday and keep the game at the same pace that allowed them to score the fourth-most points in the country, I have no doubt they can beat the Hoyas. What I doubt, however, is that it will be easy for Belmont to execute that game plan.
Georgetown is a flawed team. The pundits don’t have that wrong. The Hoyas turn the ball over, Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark disappear at inopportune times, and they can’t hit their free throws. These aren’t always problems, but inconsistency has been at the root of most of Georgetown’s losses this season. However, these are far from the only qualities that define Georgetown. The Hoyas have been one of the best defensive teams in the country, and despite a blip against Marquette or an impressive performance by Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates, they still are. In one aspect, they are the best defense in college basketball—Georgetown has the nation’s best three-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 27 percent from beyond the arc.
Conveniently, Belmont likes to shoot the three. They’ve been pretty good at it too, hitting 37.8 percent from long-range. Of course, that’s mostly come against the weak competition of the Atlantic Sun conference, not the lengthy Georgetown defense. In fact, against Duke and Memphis, the only two major-level talents the Bears faced, they could only manage about 31 percent from downtown.
If there’s anything Georgetown fans have learned over the past few years, it’s that bracket prognosticating is a fool’s errand. You can look at the numbers, you can look at which team is hot or has more experience, but neither statistics nor heuristics can answer the question of who is going to win this Friday, let alone who’s going to be cutting the nets down in three weeks. It’s frustrating to us as spectators, because we’ve spent five months watching games and still can’t answer that simple question.
After Ohio and VCU, I’m well aware that Belmont could win. They could, but they shouldn’t, because Georgetown is very good at stopping teams from doing the things Belmont is good at. It’s not as reassuring as predicting a win, but at least I can take solace in that.