For all the good feeling surrounding the 2010-11 non-conference schedule, it's time for the #9-ranked Georgetown Hoyas to put it all aside and face the gauntlet of Big East games that will ultimately define the success of the season at hand. The opener with Notre Dame is a fitting measurement for the team, both in where they were when last they met, and where they need to be.
Ten months ago, an underdog Notre Dame walked into Verizon Center without its top scorer, Luke Harangody, and pounded the ball inside on a Georgetown team that was out of sync with its leading scorer, Austin Freeman, beset with a heretofore unknown illness. The Irish, then in desperate need of a win for its post-season hopes, shot 71% in the second half, with five layups in its first seven second half baskets, and won going away, 78-64. Three unheralded starters (Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis, and Carleton Scott) combined for 57 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks.
In the 19 games since that meeting, Notre Dame has won 16 of them. With Hansbrough, Abromaitis, and Scott back at the forefront, the Fighting Irish are off to its best start in four years, and in search of its first win over a Top 10 opponent since 2009-- which just happened to be a 73-67 win against a Georgetown team also ranked #9.
Notre Dame is a rarity of sorts in that they start five seniors, four of which are 6-8, but the 6-3 guard which runs the offense cannot be overlooked. Ben Hansbrough may well be the key to ND's ultimate success this season. A 45% shooter, his 21 point effort last season (including eight straight to open the second half) served notice of his ability to be a major offensive force. Hansbrough's three point mark of 48% is seventh in the nation this season, though still trailing Austin Freeman's 49%). Of concern to ND's staff: Hansbrough has slumped a bit in recent games, shooting just 9 for 23 in wins over Stony Brook and UMBC.
With the graduation of Tory Jackson, the Irish have turned to an unlikely option: 6-8 senior Scott Martin. Martin sat out two seasons due to transfer and injury, and will have played in only one Big East game in his career before Wednesday's opener. To date, Martin has shown to be a solid contributor and a good shooter (46%) as a second scoring option when Hansbrough is defended. Of interest to Georgetown fans will be how Jason Clark and/or Austin Freeman will be able to establish position on the taller Martin in its defensive sets. Notre Dame enters Wednesday's game ranked second nationally in assist to turnover ratio (1.76) and Martin will be challenged on ball control.
ND returns its entire front line from the end of 2009-10, with forwards Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott having combined for 25 points and 15 rebounds against the Hoyas last season. Of the two, Scott is the more effective scorer, having hit in double figures in 10 straight games this season and is second on the team in rebounds. Nash's scoring numbers have fallen of late, shooting 2-7 in his last two games, but his rebounding (13 in two games) remains strong.
Senior Tim Abromaitis had the distinction of taking over for All-America candidate Luke Harangody after his injury last season and has surpassed all expectations since. After averaging just 1.7 ppg over his first two seasons, Abromaitis now leads the Irish in scoring at 16.1 points per game and has posted six games of 20 points or more this season, including each of the last three. Abromaitis is not afraid to shoot from long range, but he best suited inside where the Irish have a +10 rebounding advantage on opponents this season.
As Abromaitis goes, so go the 2010-11 Irish to date. Outside of a 1 for 7 shooting effort in its loss to Kentucky, he has been the driver behind most of Notre Dame's winning efforts. If Georgetown is able to contain Abromaitis on both sides of the ball, it could put some pressure on Scott and Hansbrough to pick up the scoring and to effectively maneuver across a Georgetown perimeter which has been particularly effective this season, combining to average 46 points per game.
ND's biggest question is its bench, or more precisely, the lack of one. Freshman Eric Atkins has been a strong contributor (7.2 ppg) off the bench, but beyond veteran forward Jack Cooley (4.9 ppg, 11.2 min. per game) the Irish bench does not appear to be a factor. Notre Dame wasn't a bench team last season (at one point ranking last in the nation in bench production) and will hope to run no more than a seven man rotation in Wednesday's game--any more time from the reserves would pose real problems in facing a Georgetown lineup that can legitimately go 11 deep.
Some keys to the game:
- Perimeter Defense: With four players at 6-8, Georgetown's defensive sets may need some adjustments. On the other side of the court, ND must maintain sound perimeter strategy to prevent Georgetown from picking it apart from three point range.
- Interior Spacing: Both teams are adept at the use of the assist and back door cuts to the basket. The efforts of Hansbrough and Chris Wright to direct traffic will be worth watching.
- Points In Transition: Georgetown should be able to leverage its quickness to get points in transition.
For Notre Dame to win, Hansbrough goes for 24 or more, Abromaitis owns the paint, while a tight defense hampers Georgetown from playing catch-up from outside. Georgetown's strengths from the outside nonetheless represent a major challenge the Irish have not seen this season, and if the Hoyas can pick up early momentum outside, it will force the Irish outside and open up opportunities for Julian Vaughn inside.
And then there's the added factor of Austin Freeman, whose condition last February cast a cloud over the Hoyas' poor showing. Now in good health and a hot hand for the season, Freeman figures to make his presence known in the game and give Coach Thompson something he has enjoyed in every year at Georgetown--an 1-0 record to open Big East play.