WASHINGTON (AP)—The Big East hasn’t seen a finish like this in 20 years.
Two teams tied for first place will meet on the final day of the regular season. A title, momentum, bragging rights, the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and a better seed for the NCAA tournament are all on the line when No. 11 Georgetown hosts No. 12 Louisville on Saturday.
Oh, yeah, don’t forget that it will be Senior Day for the class that vaulted the Hoyas back to respectability. Or that those very seniors will be looking to avenge a 59-51 loss at Freedom Hall on Feb. 9.
“Big game. Huge game,” Georgetown senior point guard Jonathan Wallace said. “When you look at how that first game played out against Louisville, this is what we wanted—a chance to redeem ourselves and at the same time capture that Big East regular season title.”
When the Hoyas clinched first place last year, coach John Thompson III was so excited he wanted to sneak back onto the court with his wife and children and cut the nets. Now there’s a chance for two in a row, something the storied Georgetown program never accomplished under his Hall of Fame father—or any other coach.
“This is extremely important,” said Thompson, who coached at Princeton before coming to Georgetown four seasons ago. “With my background, I’ve been socialized to think that the regular season is crucial because in the Ivy League there is no conference tournament. I’ve been programmed that way.”
On the other hand, the title wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all to this season. These Hoyas have been there, done that.
“I don’t want to get excited about accomplishments that we get this year that we did last year,” senior forward Patrick Ewing Jr. said. “We won the regular season last year. We won the (Big East) tournament last year and went to the Final Four last year. Those aren’t really things that as a team we should get excited about because we already did it. We want to get excited. We want to win a national championship.”
As for the Cardinals, a victory Saturday would be another show of resilience from a team that was ranked No. 6 in the preseason but fell out of the rankings after injuries to seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios.
“There’s so much at stake that it’s a lot of fun and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “If you gave me a choice to play it at home or on the road I would chose the road because I think that type of pressure is great for a basketball team.”
The conference’s only other head-to-head meeting between teams tied for first on the last day of the season came in 1988, when No. 7 Pittsburgh won at No. 12 Syracuse, 85-84.
This year’s matchup promises to be just as compelling. The Cardinals (24-6, 14-3) have won nine straight and 15 of 17. The Hoyas (24-4, 14-3) have won four in a row and 11 of 13. Both teams are led by their big men (Padgett and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert) and their stinginess, ranking one-two in the conference in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. Georgetown opponents are shooting just 36.2 percent from the field, best in the nation.
When the teams met earlier this season, Louisville erased an eight-point halftime deficit by holding the Hoyas to 20 points in the second half.
“Both teams will make it difficult for the opposition to get a quality look,” Thompson said. “Do we have blips? Do we have mix-ups? Yes, but for the most part I think both teams have made the opposition earn their points.”
While Louisville’s seniors have already had their special day—a 68-54 home win over Villanova on Sunday—Georgetown will be saying goodbye to Hibbert, Wallace, Ewing and Tyler Crawford. Hibbert, Wallace, Crawford and Jeff Green— who left last year for the NBA—were part of Thompson’s first freshman class, and together they turned an NIT program back into a national powerhouse.
Ewing joined the group three years ago as a transfer from Indiana. The seniors live in the same house and convene in Wallace’s room for late-night shoot-the-breeze sessions after road trips. It’s that kind of camaraderie that helped keep the 7-foot-2 Hibbert in school instead of taking the early millions from the NBA.
“This is what you live for in college basketball. This is the way to go out in my senior year,” Hibbert said. “I feel that 20 years from now, I think we’ll be remembered as that group of guys that helped bring Georgetown back.”
Associated Press Writer Malcolm C. Knox in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this story.