Saturday March 13th, 2010

NEW YORK -- There was a moment with about with about seven minutes left in Friday night's Big East Tournament semifinal between Georgetown and Marquette when Hoyas big man Greg Monroe showed exactly why his team is so scary.

One second, he stood near the end of the baseline holding the ball, not sure what exactly he was going to do next. The next, he had blown by Eagles defender Jimmy Butler as if he'd never been there to throw down a monstrous slam.

They're like that, these helter-skelter Hoyas. They don't always pounce. They're kind of maddening that way. But when they do -- heaven help the other guy.

"We're playing very well right now," said their perennially understated coach, John Thompson III.

Georgetown (23-9) -- somehow simultaneously the No. 8 seed in the Big East Tournament and No. 9 team in the RPI ratings -- drubbed fifth-seeded Marquette 80-57 to advance to Saturday night's championship game. The Eagles, mind you, hadn't lost a game by more than five points since Dec. 12. The Hoyas' clinic came just a day after bouncing regular-season champion and likely NCAA No. 1 seed Syracuse in a quarterfinal matchup.

Is this really the same team that lost to Old Dominion, South Florida and Rutgers?

"The season, it's a grind," said junior guard Chris Wright. "We're a young team [with] no seniors. You've watched us mature. Everything that's happened this year was leading up to this moment."

The Hoyas have continually demonstrated they can play with just about anyone. They crushed one potential NCAA top seed, Duke, on Jan. 30, and knocked off another, Syracuse, on Thursday. They've beaten five of the top six teams in their own conference as well as other league champions Temple (Atlantic 10) and Butler (Horizon). They've notched nine wins over RPI Top 50 foes, more than any team in the country besides No. 1 Kansas.

But, oh yeah -- they also went just 10-8 in the Big East during the regular season.

This tournament has clearly brought out the best in these Hoyas. Friday night, they outscored Marquette 23-6 over the final 10:38, shooting 60 percent in the second half and flat-out dominating inside, outrebounding the Eagles 44-24 and outscoring them 46-22 in the paint.

By no coincidence, Monroe put on a display that presumably wowed courtside spectator Spike Lee (donned in a Georgetown sweatshirt) and had writers breathlessly bringing up comparisons to the many decorated Hoyas big men before him. The silky 6-foot-11 sophomore scored 23 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished seven assists, befitting his rep as a particularly skilled passer.

Shortly after his aforementioned baseline slam, which put Georgetown up 64-51, the big man drained a 3-pointer to make it 67-52. Moments later, he grabbed teammate Julian Vaughn's blocked shot, raced down floor and hit streaking Austin Freeman in stride for a 3-point play.

"It's nothing new," said Wright. "We all know Greg is a phenomenal player. It's not like he just started doing this in the Big East Tournament."

Monroe has been a fairly consistent scorer and rebounder; where he gets into trouble sometimes is turnovers. In eight of the Hoyas' nine losses, Monroe had four or more turnovers. He's had two apiece in the wins over Syracuse and Marquette. Thompson's Princeton-based offense is dependent in large part on Monroe and Vaughn knowing when to kick it to open shooters Wright, Freeman and Jason Clark and when to take it to the tin.

"As the team has progressed, our guys have done a better job of looking for the second, third or fourth options," Thompson said. "We're doing a better job of being aggressive but also making good decisions."

This is why none of the top teams will want to see Georgetown anywhere near them when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed Sunday.

The Hoyas may be one of the toughest teams in the field for the selection committee to seed. They finished tied for seventh in their own conference but boast as many big-time wins as other major conferences' champions. They sustained nine defeats while playing the toughest schedule in the country -- but some of those losses were pretty bad.

Coming into this week, most projections had the Hoyas somewhere between a No. 4 and 6 seed. They weren't far removed from blowout losses to West Virginia and Notre Dame sustained when Freeman was sidelined by a then-undiagnosed illness. (It would soon be revealed that the junior has diabetes, a stunning pronouncement that hasn't seemed to faze him in the slightest since returning last Saturday.)

Should it win Saturday night's championship game -- which will require winning four games in four days, all against teams it lost to during the season -- you might end up seeing Georgetown's name as high as a No. 2 seed.

"We can win a national championship if we put our mind to it," Wright said. "It's a tough task, but if the pieces fall together, we can do it."

Yet based on other results, they could just as easily fall in the second round, which is why some aspiring Cinderella may actually welcome an early-round pairing with the Hoyas. Even Wright concedes: "We can beat anybody, we can lose to anybody."

If there's one overriding reason to put faith in the Hoyas, it's that they seem to thrive in big-game situations -- and every game is big in March.

Monroe practically beamed from ear to ear at the postgame dais Friday night talking about the Madison Square Garden atmosphere. "We feed off the energy of our fans," he said.

Pack your bags, then, Georgetown faithful. Your team may need you for an extended period over the next several weeks.

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