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February 17, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
Georgetown's D Clamps Down

by John Gasaway

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Georgetown is the worst team in the Big East at beating South Florida. The Hoyas tried to accomplish that task on January 19 in Tampa, and came away with a 61-58 loss. That game marks the only win against a Big East opponent recorded by the Bulls, who are now 1-11 in conference play.

Fortunately for John Thompson III, his team has only had to face USF one time. Against the rest of the league, the Hoyas are actually very good. Their seven-game win streak since that day in Tampa has propelled them into a first-place tie, at 9-3, with Syracuse and Marquette.

Thompson's men have arrived at this point thanks primarily to outstanding defense. Over the course of this seven-game win streak, Georgetown has held opponents to just 0.88 points per possession. This has brought the team's defensive efficiency for the conference season as a whole down to 0.92 points allowed per trip, and in fact the Hoyas are rapidly closing in on Louisville (0.91) for the league lead in this category. When you think "defense" in the Big East, most people think first of the Cardinals, but Georgetown has proven it deserves mention in that same echelon.

Good fortune can happen to good teams, of course, and the Hoyas are a good team that in one respect has been fortunate. During this run opponents have made just 25 percent of their threes. Was Georgetown's perimeter defense really so much "worse" the day that Rutgers went 8-of-18 (44 percent) from beyond the arc? Certainly it's possible, but an equally if not more plausible explanation is simply that the Hoyas' other opponents have been missing many of the same looks that the Scarlet Knights converted. Still, even if GU's been getting some good breaks on the perimeter, it has allowed no breaks at all inside the arc, where Thompson's men have limited their last seven opponents to 40 percent shooting.

Georgetown's offense isn't on the same level as its D, but it can at least claim one of the Big East's top performers on that side of the ball. As a freshman Otto Porter was a role player who was tremendously efficient inside the arc but couldn't make threes. Now, as a sophomore, he's a featured scorer who's been somewhat less effective in the paint but has offset that -- entirely -- with vastly improved perimeter shooting. During this current win streak, Porter has hit 52 percent of his twos, and 48 percent of his threes, and he's done so while personally accounting for 26 percent of the shots the Hoyas have attempted during his minutes. Should he choose to avail himself of the opportunity, Porter is projected as a likely lottery pick this summer.

The Big East is inhospitable to long win streaks, and, with road games yet to play at Syracuse, Connecticut, and Villanova, the Hoyas still have work to do. I don't expect Georgetown to run the table, but a better question is whether this team can break the program's cycle of recent disappointments in March. No Hoya team has survived the NCAA tournament's first weekend since Jeff Green led the Hoyas all the way to the 2007 Final Four. Since that run, Thompson's team has squandered a No. 2 seed (in the 2008 tournament), and two appearances as a No. 3 seed (in the 2010 and 2012 brackets).

With a track record like that, Georgetown is going to face skepticism next month, no matter what seed they're assigned. And, other things being equal, a team that can outscore the Big East by 0.17 points per possession, as the Hoyas have done during this win streak, is most definitely a team that can make a deep tournament run. But the peculiar aspect of Georgetown's tournament struggles in recent years has been that those were all legitimately good regular-season teams too -- usually very good. And here come Thompson's men yet again, on track to enter the tournament as one of the top 15 teams in the nation.

The standard -- and accurate -- answer here is that history's irrelevant and each tournament affords a new and level playing surface, one upon which a team as strong as Georgetown should thrive. Hoya fans just hope their players understand that this is standard and accurate.

Colorado State faces a decisive three days.
Statistically speaking, the Mountain West is stronger top to bottom this season than half of the major conferences (the Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC), so in theory it should be a pretty big deal to be the best team from that league. And for all the preseason talk about UNLV and San Diego State, it may be the case that Colorado State -- yes, Colorado State -- is the best team in the Mountain West.

But to put forth the most convincing such case, the Rams will need to win two games in three days. On Wednesday Larry Eustachy's team will travel to Las Vegas to play the Rebels. Then on Saturday the Rams will return to Fort Collins to host New Mexico. At 9-2 the Lobos are currently a half-game ahead of CSU (8-2) in the Mountain West standings.

On a per-possession basis, however, Colorado State has indeed been the best team in the conference thus far, outscoring the MWC by 0.15 points per trip. That impressive figure includes road games already played at San Diego State and at UNM (both losses), and the strength of this team has been its offense. Then again you'll be forgiven if you don't necessarily recognize this strength when you watch the Rams, for in truth this is a somewhat deceiving team.

CSU's shooting from the field is just average, but this has been easily the Mountain West's most efficient offense because Eustachy's players take care of the ball, rebound their own misses, and get to the line frequently. None of the above is highlight-reel material, but it sums to an offense that scores 1.10 points per possession. In particular the Rams' relative dominance on the offensive glass is remarkable. In a league where the second-best offensive rebounding team (San Diego State) hauls in 32 percent of its missed shots, Colorado State is hauling down no less than 41 percent of its misses. Give a lot of the credit there to Pierce Hornung, who's posting one of Division I's highest offensive rebounding rates at a listed height of 6-5.

In the rankings as in the standings, the Rams are the Mountain West's No. 2 team: New Mexico is ranked No. 19 in the AP poll, while CSU clocks in at No. 24. But Colorado State now has the opportunity to prove they really are the class of the league. Keep an eye on Eustachy's team this week. To this point there's been more to the Rams than meets the eye.

Brad Stevens explains why he didn't foul up three at Fordham.
The question of whether or not to foul when you're up by three points in the game's closing seconds has triggered a good deal of discussion this season. In January, Virginia Commonwealth and Syracuse both lost road games (against Richmond and Villanova, respectively) after choosing not to foul with a three-point lead, and Shaka Smart and Jim Boeheim each came in for a healthy share of criticism fueled by 20-20 hindsight. Then again, NC State coach Mark Gottfried did have his team foul this weekend in the same situation at home against Virginia Tech, and the results were very nearly calamitous (though the Wolfpack did end up winning in overtime). So what's the correct course of action in this situation?

Butler head coach Brad Stevens enjoys a reputation as one of college basketball's more astute practitioners, so when I attended his team's game at Fordham I was intrigued to see him placed in this exact same situation. With 18 seconds remaining, Kellen Dunham missed the second of two free throws, leaving the Bulldogs with a precarious 66-63 lead. As the Rams brought the ball up with a chance to tie, I wondered whether Stevens might have his team foul. Instead, Butler played it straight, a decision that paid off when Luka Zivkovic's would-be three with 10 seconds left missed badly. BU escaped Rose Hill Gymnasium with a 68-63 win.

After the game I asked Stevens why he chose not to foul. "Too much time," he answered, with a readiness that suggested he had run through all the variables as the situation unfolded in real time and come to a conclusion that satisfied him. "What Fordham does statistically, better than anything else, is rebounding. So that's a factor. But there was just too much time, 10 seconds. Without giving away too much, I have a narrow window when I'll consider a foul."

Stevens' "narrow window" highlights an important distinction that needs to be made in this discussion but often is not. "Late in the game," "on the last possession," or even "in the final seconds" really aren't quite precise enough as descriptions. This is the one time in the game when a difference of as little as two or three seconds can be huge in terms of the implications for a coach's decision-making. Stopping the clock by fouling with two seconds remaining, for example, is more likely to place a definitive stamp -- for better or worse -- on the rest of the game than is doing so with five seconds left.

That being said, the key word here, again from Stevens, may be "consider." The coach didn't say there's a narrow window in which he will foul, merely that there's one in which he'll consider doing so. Maybe there can be no single uniformly correct answer to the question of whether a team should foul up three. Maybe the correct answer depends instead on factors that vary across games, factors like personnel (including, most crucially, the personnel wearing the striped shirts), whether you're at home or on the road, and, yes, exactly how much time is left.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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