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Game Preview: ‘Nova, Georgetown to renew rivalry on Sunday

Last year, Villanova won both meetings by a combined 56 points. What can we expect this time around?

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Classic Big East rivals will meet for the first time this season, when the Georgetown Hoyas (14-7, 4-4 Big East) come to the Wells Fargo Center to take on the Villanova Wildcats (17-4, 8-0 Big East).

The Hoyas lead the all-time series, 43-38, but you wouldn’t have guessed that with the way things have been going since conference realignment. Villanova has won 10 of the last 11 meetings since the “new” Big East formed, including a streak of eight-straight victories.

The Wildcats enter Sunday’s showdown with a nine-game winning streak. Since losing back-to-back games to the Kansas Jayhawks and the Penn Quakers, they’ve elevated their play, first blowing out the UConn Huskies at Madison Square Garden before starting conference play with an unblemished 8-0 mark. Most recently, they beat the DePaul Blue Demons, 86-74, to complete the regular season series sweep. They’re on pace to be the first team since the 1998-99 UConn Huskies to begin Big East play with a 10-0 mark, but first they’ll have to go through the Hoyas.

As for Georgetown, it’s on pace to finish above-.500 for the first time since the 2014-15 season. The Hoyas are coming into Philadelphia after beating both the St. John’s Red Storm and the Xavier Musketeers this past week.

Tip-off is scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday.

Georgetown’s Blend of Old and New

Barring a major collapse, this is looking like a much-improved season for the Hoyas. They should surpass last year’s mark of 15-15 with ease. One of the reasons for this improvement is their balanced offense. After dwelling in the middle of the pack last year, Georgetown has risen to the top of the Big East, posting a conference-high 83.2 points per game. A huge chunk of the Hoyas’ offensive production comes from the big man in the middle, Jessie Govan. The 6-foot-10 senior is continuing his growth as an all-around big, expanding his game to the perimeter. He’s proven capable down low and on the glass, but this year he’s getting his three-point shot going. He averages a team-high 19.4 points per game, shooting 52.9 percent overall and a solid 45.9 percent from long range. Just like last year, he’s a prominent part of their attack, but the Hoyas are glad to know they don’t have to solely rely on the frontcourt or getting him going in the paint. It’s because he’s getting some help from promising freshmen guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo.

McClung, who captivated the country with his high-flying dunks and athleticism coming out of high school, is proving that he’s more than just the flashy plays that made him a social media phenomenon. He can score from anywhere on the floor (13.8 points per game)--although his three-point shot is a bit inconsistent--and is growing as a secondary playmaker to Akinjo. Akinjo serves as the team’s primary point guard. He’s athletic, can knock down threes at a steady rate, sees the floor well, and is active on both ends of the floor. As solid as he is now--averaging a tad under 14 points and five assists per game--he makes many freshman mistakes. At times he can be a bit too ambitious with the ball, taking ill-advised shots, forcing passes which lead to turnovers, and going for the ‘big’ play instead of the ‘right’ play.

With that said, it looks like Georgetown has a solid core of promising players for the next few years. McClung and Akinjo are performing a lot better than expected entering the season and quickly dethroned some of the more experienced guys that were originally expected to take starting roles. They’ve added some stable contributions from the backcourt, something Georgetown didn’t have last year. With their presence on the floor, the Hoyas are a lot less one-dimensional offensively.

’Nova’s time to bring out the heavy artillery

While the Hoyas have added some exciting firepower, they might not be able to take it when their opponents fire back--and so far, no Big East opponent has been able to handle Villanova’s shooting. The Wildcats have drained at least 12 three-pointers in each of their last six games. This week has been particularly kind for the ‘Cats, who obliterated Seton Hall with a barrage of 17 made threes on Sunday, before following up with another big 15 treys against DePaul on Wednesday.

12 seems to be the magic number for the Wildcats, who are 12-1 when they are able to reach or surpass the mark. (In case you’re curious, the one loss was against Furman where ‘Nova made 14 threes. In the Wildcats’ other three losses, they didn’t even hit double digits.)

So far this season, Georgetown is ranked 209th in the NCAA for three-point defense, allowing opponents to cash in on 34.8 percent of their long-range attempts. On Thursday night, the Hoyas even let Xavier’s interior-focused offense hit an uncharacteristic dozen shots from deep.

With all that said, all indicators seem to be pointing towards another hot-shooting night for the ‘Cats. Since the New Year, Phil Booth is shooting at an impressive 32-of-68 clip (47.0 percent) from long range. Sprinkle in some Eric Paschall, who’s shooting a respectable 21-of-55 (38.1 percent) over the same time frame, and the Hoyas should have some trouble.

Meanwhile, Collin Gillespie has also been shining as of late. Although it’s not to the same length as Booth’s shooting streak, Gillespie is riding in with considerable momentum from deep. Over the last five games, he’s converted on a combined 15-of-31 (48.4 percent) from beyond the arc.

In Villanova’s previous outing at the Wells Fargo Center--against the Pirates--it felt like the Wildcats couldn’t miss. It’s likely there’s a repeat performance exactly one week after that.

Patrick Ewing’s second go-around against the Wildcats should fare a bit more competitively than last year’s blowouts, but the odds are very much still in Villanova’s favor.