Success is fleeting in the Big East
Louisville came in hot, Georgetown came in cold and one half changed it all
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In the bloody Big East, winning streaks have the shelf life of a week-old banana.
If you've won two in a row, throw a parade -- because that might be the end of the good feelings for a while in a league this deep. Momentum is a game-to-game proposition. Sometimes, like Tuesday night, it's half-to-half.
"The Big East is a big mess," observed Georgetown center Greg Monroe. "The only way you can stay out of that mess is to keep winning."
Easier said than done. The mess has a way of pulling you in.
After Monday's action, only three of the league's 16 teams had active winning streaks of more than two games: Pittsburgh at five straight, plus Connecticut and Louisville at three.
After tangling with the Hoyas on Tuesday night, the Cardinals must be scratched from that list.
After taking an early 11-point lead and holding a six-point edge at halftime, the Cards were buried under an avalanche of Austin Freeman jumpers in a 70-60 loss. Soft-spoken, soft-featured Freeman stroked five second-half 3-pointers on his way to a 29-point, four-rebound, four-assist performance.
And just like that, Georgetown's two-game losing streak is as over as Louisville's three-game winning streak.
This is how it goes. On Valentine's Day, Georgetown was losing to 15th-place Rutgers and Louisville was winning at first-place Syracuse. Now the No. 13 Hoyas (19-7 overall, 9-6 in the Big East) can get back to feeling good about themselves. And the Cardinals (18-10, 9-6) can get back to sweating out life on the skinnier section of the bubble.
"Across our league, the difference between the top teams and the guys who are down at the bottom is a magnification of small differences," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III.
The difference can be as fickle as the hot shooting stroke of a talented player. On Tuesday night, Thompson had that player in Freeman, a junior guard now averaging 20.2 points per game in conference play. He led a second-half onslaught that produced 50 percent shooting, 67 percent from 3-point range and 100 percent at the foul line.
Freeman scored five unobtrusive points while playing 19 of 20 first-half minutes. Then he made a 3 just 21 seconds into the second half. And a putback basket 40 seconds after that. And another trey 39 seconds later.
That gave Georgetown its first lead, and there was no stopping the Hoyas -- or Freeman -- after that. At one point in the second half, he had scored 18 points, the rest of the Hoyas had scored six and Louisville had scored three.
"When he gets hot," Monroe said, "I don't think anyone can stop him."
Monroe, meanwhile, was busy stopping Louisville's best player, Samardo Samuels.
The matchup of those two sophomores was a big draw for the 14 NBA scouts credentialed for this game. They wound up witnessing a mismatch. Monroe finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists, and his unyielding interior defense held Samuels to 11 points and 6 boards.
Monroe has a couple of inches on Samuels -- and although Samuels has vastly improved his low-post offensive repertoire, he hasn't added much shooting range or anything in the way of a head fake. Lacking that, he never got Monroe away from the hoop or off the ground. Mostly, Samuels simply turned in to Monroe, who held his ground and made the shorter player shoot errantly over his long arms.
"I think I did bother him a little bit," Monroe said.
The Cardinals, prone all season to defensive breakdowns, couldn't bother Freeman at all after halftime. He kept feathering in jumpers after his teammates kept finding him open.
The best thing about Freeman's game is his efficiency. The guy scored 29 points on 12 shots, going 9-of-12 from the field and 6-of-6 from the line. Befitting Thompson's system, he never quick-triggered a shot and never forced a thing -- even against a pressure defense designed to accelerate the Hoyas out of their comfort zone.
"I don't let nobody rush me," Freeman said.
The team that should feel rushed now is Louisville. Even with this home-court loss, the Cardinals figure to be in the tournament as of today -- but take a look at the remaining schedule: at resurgent Connecticut on Sunday, at Marquette on March 2, then Syracuse in the final game at historic Freedom Hall March 6.
Rick Pitino has been saying his team needs to get to 11-7 in league play to secure a bid, which means they'll have to win two of those three. In the course of a staggering second half Tuesday, Louisville went from striving for a top-four league finish and double-bye in the 16-team tournament to potentially backsliding to eighth.
"The thing you can't figure out is where you get a win in the Big East," Pitino said. "In the conference, we have the most grueling [final] four games."
That could be, but this also is true: Nobody has an easy run to the conference tournament in the bloody Big East. Nobody.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.