By now, everyone has taken off the rose-colored glasses. Fans and pundits alike see the Georgetown men’s basketball team’s (14-14, 7-8 Big East) season for what it truly is — or perhaps more aptly, was — and recognize that the postseason is all but a pipe dream. No. 8 Xavier (24-3, 12-3 Big East) came into Verizon Center on Saturday and shredded the nets in the second half to the tune of 77-percent shooting from the field. The student section, a shell of what it was just a few weeks ago, nearly completely emptied itself by the under-four-minute timeout in the second half en route to an 88-70 blowout loss.
“To be honest, it’s hard to sit here and find some positives,” Head Coach John Thompson III said after the team’s loss at home to Seton Hall (19-7, 9-5 Big East) last Wednesday — a sentiment reinforced after Saturday’s loss.
The Xavier press conference was as honest and brutal as any in recent Georgetown memory. Not only was Thompson more evaluative of the Hoyas than usual, but the Musketeers were as well.
“They’re a good team; they kept going,” Xavier sophomore guard J.P. Macura said. “But at the end we had too much talent and we were playing together and we ended up winning the game.”
Too much talent. Playing together.
Given last season’s Georgetown team — a team that rallied around four seniors and fresh, young talent — it seems bizarre to see comments that Georgetown is both outmatched and outplayed.
The narrative of this season’s disappointment has long revolved around player development issues or coaching miscues, rather than a deep-rooted assessment that the team is of lesser talent than its Big East rivals. Surely a team projected to finish second in the conference should be loaded with talent and promise, but much of this season has been spent searching for the former and clinging to the latter.
The Hoyas have one home game left — a Saturday matchup with the Butler Bulldogs (18-9, 7-8 Big East) on Senior Day. With senior center and co-captain Bradley Hayes out indefinitely with a broken hand and senior guard Riyan Williams relegated to benchwarmer minutes, guard and co-captain D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will be the only senior playing significant minutes.
While fans struggled to cope with the idea of a Georgetown team without Smith-Rivera while the senior guard toyed with NBA draft aspirations before this season, pundits and fans alike anointed him the missing piece of a team that many thought was bound for the Sweet 16 — the best and deepest Georgetown team since Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark teamed up with Greg Monroe, Henry Sims and a young Hollis Thompson in 2009-10.
When Smith-Rivera tabled his draft entry to return for his senior season, the puzzle was complete in the eyes of the media, the fans and almost anyone with a finger on the pulse of Georgetown basketball. The expectations were set. The bar was high.
The team boasted an improved sophomore core: up-and-coming point guard Tre Campbell, a true floor general who could set up Smith-Rivera for easy looks; two elite and versatile scorers in forwards Paul White and Isaac Copeland; and a wrecking ball to the rim but a brick wall on defense, guard L.J. Peak.
The incoming freshman class featured guard Kaleb Johnson, an athletic finisher and long, quick defender — a player in the same mold as Patrick Ewing Jr. and Aaron Bowen. It also featured stretch forward Marcus Derrickson, a strong presence on the boards who also doubled as the team’s best three-point threat, and a skilled center, Jessie Govan, who could control the game and stretch the floor like Monroe did years before him. Not to mention transfer and sophomore forward Akoy Agau, a player in the Jeff Green mold — quick and athletic enough to play on the wing, but strong and long enough to bang down low.
The puzzle seemed to fit too perfectly. On paper, the team was electric, a mismatch problem all over the court, led by Smith-Rivera, one of the greatest scorers in program history. All the Hoyas had to do was go out on the court and play. Media Day was a buzz. Players sung the praises of their teammates. Smith-Rivera talked of big aspirations for the team and aspirations he wanted to keep to himself. Thompson, however, slipped in a disclaimer at the start of the season.
“I’ve told our sophomores we need them to perform like seniors, as it relates to production, but more importantly in understanding and caring. I’m putting a lot on their shoulders, but I think they can handle it,” Thompson said at the season’s start. “You have some seniors up there … who have been very good. But the sophomore class is going to have to make huge strides and maintain the consistency.”
In conventional college basketball terms, performing on the level of a senior is showing consistency, a trait that represents years of experience and playing time. As the team sits at 14-14 with just three games left, consistent is the polar opposite of what the Hoyas, particularly the vaunted sophomore class, have been this season.
Campbell, outside of scoring 21 points against Xavier in January, has scored in double figures in just one other game. He has recorded five or more assists just once as well.
White has been injured virtually the entire season, playing just seven games due to a hip injury for which he successfully underwent surgery in January.
Copeland has been an enigma since the start of conference play. After scoring in double figures in 12 of the first 14 games and leading the team in per-game scoring average, the forward took a step back, scoring in double figures just once in the next eight games. Copeland has since rebounded, notching 10 or more points in five of the last six games, but the forward’s resurgence came during a stretch where the Hoyas were 1-5.
Peak might be the only sophomore to make Thompson’s senior-level production mark, but it initially came at a cost. Peak fouled out five times in the team’s first 11 games and has been disqualified seven times in total this season. However, despite the guard’s early-season troubles and inconsistencies, he has since found his rhythm, scoring in double figures in each of the last ten games while doubling as the team’s best defender and best three-point shooting guard.
So in the end, only one sophomore has made the leap, a leap that Thompson asked his players to make — a leap that, for all intents and purposes, was necessary for this team’s aspirations. Yes, the expectations were cemented by a flurry of media outlets, starving fans and hopeful Big East supporters. But the expectations came laden with many assumptions — assumptions that just because Smith-Rivera returned for a final year that the team would do something special. Georgetown would finish second, maybe even first, in the conference, make the tournament and advance to the second weekend of the big dance for the first time since 2007. The team would give its fans a storybook season. But it won’t, and it can’t.
Smith-Rivera, however, still can end his senior season in a storybook fashion with a win on Senior Day. To go from aiming to make a deep tournament run to just striving to win the final home game of the season is indeed a far drop in expectations. But these expectations, while justified and reasonable, are mostly manufactured. This iteration of Georgetown basketball is coming off losing four seniors from last year who played regular minutes and combined to score over 40 percent of the team’s points last season — not to mention the leadership and consistency that Thompson needed from this year’s sophomores.
While it is easy to play the blame game, point fingers and dissect everything that has gone wrong this season, the bottom line is that fans have had to readjust their expectations once again. After eight years without advancing past the second round of the tournament, Georgetown is in a precarious position as a program. The Smith-Rivera era is coming to an end. The future looks as uncertain as ever, and all signs point toward another year with Thompson at the helm. And despite this season’s potential for the first time under Thompson that the team will miss the postseason altogether, the team’s young core’s potential to mature and to develop the consistency that Georgetown so desperately needed this season is still a reason to believe that this season is but a one-off.
With the younger players’ future progress, however, there will be fewer defenses for poor performance. And just as the team’s tournament chances dwindled with every home loss this year — seven, the most during Thompson’s tenure — so has the fans’ patience with this team and with this program. And after this season, that patience will have dwindled down to almost nothing.
Georgetown will face off against Butler on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 12 p.m., and the game will be televised on CBS.
Paolo Santamaria is a sophomore in the College.
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