That may be a relief to perplexed Georgetown followers, but it doesn't change the fact that entering the final two games of the regular season, the 11th-ranked Hoyas (19-8, 9-7 and seventh in the conference before Sunday's action) have made things hard on themselves, in a league where things are hard enough already. For example, Monday night's game at eighth-ranked West Virginia (22-6, 11-5), a team Georgetown would be either a lot closer to, or even ahead of, had it beaten any combination of South Florida, Rutgers and Notre Dame in recent weeks.
Said coach John Thompson III after Saturday's 78-64 loss at Verizon Center to Luke Harangody-less Notre Dame: "To say today is disappointing would be an understatement. It was extremely disappointing." For a variety of reasons, including the fact that Georgetown's best wins by far, against Connecticut, Villanova and Duke, have come at home on Saturday afternoons. Far more importantly, Georgetown's trend of following a big win, or at least a strong showing, with a baffling loss continued. This time it crashed badly after nearly pulling off the comeback of the year against Syracuse before falling Thursday night at home, a game which followed an uplifting second-half comeback win at Louisville.
The roots of the loss to Notre Dame appear to run deeper than the weakened state of guard Austin Freeman, their leading scorer, who did not start because of an unspecified illness and was listless whether he was on the court or the bench. Notre Dame generously gave the Hoyas a pass on that: "I'm a firm believer in survival of the fittest in this very cruel league, but they are very different without Freeman," coach Mike Brey said. Still, it went beyond equalizing the two teams; without Harangody, the Irish outshot them, dominated them on the glass and quickly and repeatedly squashed any chance of Georgetown gaining momentum in the second half. Notre Dame shot 71 percent after halftime.
It simply looked too much like previous letdowns against other teams chasing them in the standings, South Florida and Rutgers, which had closely followed energized wins over, respectively, Duke and Villanova. The reasons have been hard to pin down, and many are easy to dismiss: Georgetown has no seniors, but it is not terribly young, with Freeman, Chris Wright and Julian Vaughn being juniors and sophomore Greg Monroe, a finalist for two national player-of-the-year awards, routinely playing beyond his years.
It also has almost no depth, playing seven players frequently (and that was unmasked most by Freeman's illness), but that was not enough to impede them against the likes of Duke or Villanova. And it has become clear enough to observers that this group's mindset is far more mature than last season's team, which faded badly after the first of the year and missed the NCAAs entirely.
Without wanting to excuse his players for that, Thompson added: "They're human. Would I love to sit here and say, 'Absolutely?' They're athletes, they care about our position, they care about where we stand. So do I think they're cognizant of more of the scenarios than their coach is at this time? Some of them (are), there's no doubt about that ... But they are human.''
The usual counterargument to that -- far from exclusive to Georgetown -- is the brutal nature of the Big East schedule, which has kept nearly all of the conference from posting overwhelming overall records. It hasn't pulled everybody down, however: Syracuse has clearly separated from the pack. The Hoyas, who lost twice to Syracuse, seem by most criteria to be on the level with the three teams in the next tier, Villanova, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, until the inexplicable losses are factored in.
Georgetown's best wins (including non-conference victories over Butler and Temple) still blow away the highest-profile wins of the other teams tussling in the middle of the Big East standings. The problem is that many of the teams in that tangle are fighting for their NCAA lives; Georgetown was considered a candidate for a No. 2 seed in early February, after the win over then-No. 2 Villanova, although falling beyond a No. 4 seed would likely entail a full-out skid in the final week and at Madison Square Garden.
However, getting a double-bye into the Big East tournament quarterfinals with a top-four finish, also a solid possibility after handing Villanova its first conference loss, is an extreme longshot now; they are two games behind the Mountaineers and Pittsburgh, who are tied for third. Losing to West Virginia (in their only regular-season meeting) would all but end that. And the Hoyas are walking into an emotional cauldron, Senior Night for three players, including Da'Sean Butler. Georgetown's regular-season finale is next Saturday against Cincinnati in Washington.
The status of Freeman for Monday's game was uncertain as of Sunday afternoon; averaging 17.0 points a game overall and 20.2 in the conference, he took just five shots and scored five points in 23 minutes against Notre Dame.