A story in Monday’s Washington Post by veteran Hoya beat reporter Ken Denlinger quoted “a university source” saying that Men’s Head Basketball Coach Craig Esherick was on the verge of getting a contract extension from the university that would potentially keep him on until the end of the decade.

Not surprisingly, this was a story, as they say, with legs.

People in New South were talking about it. Fan message boards went absolutely bonkers. My dad called. I got in fights with more people than I care to remember about the success or failure of Esherick’s leadership of the Hoyas.

The main questions on everyone’s mind, it seemed, was “why now?” Why in the middle of a run that has seen the Hoyas go under .500 since Christmas? Why now with more than two years remaining on his current contract? After three-plus seasons with just one NCAA Tournament appearance, has he earned it yet? The Hoya’s Editorial Board, of which I am a member, wrote an editorial today asking some of these questions; for the record, I voted against writing that editorial.

On the surface, these questions seem innocuous enough. Personally, I don’t know why the university would create the off-the-court controversy that inevitably surrounds a contract extension in the middle of a season that still has the potential to be successful. But looming just below the surface of these questions was the real heart of the matter; most people seem to think that, no matter when, Esherick doesn’t deserve a contract extension at all because he has done a bad job as the coach of the Hoyas.

And if you ask me, that’s just not true.

This is not to suggest, of course, that I think Esherick has been flawless as head coach. He hasn’t; it’s been a bumpy four-year ride for the Hoyas, to put it mildly. Last season, for example, was a series of one disappointment after another. My blood still boils any time I think about that Notre Dame game. I mean, come on coach, letting Kevin Braswell dribble around and chuck a three-pointer three times is not exactly demonstrating your X’s and O’s acuity. And two years ago, when the Hoyas put up 40 points against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament, I thought I was going to be forced to transfer. Watching that game was like watching a tape of your own eighth-grade graduation speech; it was embarrassing and seemed to go on forever. There are times this season when the offense looked like it was being run by a CYO team. Esherick is not a great coach, at least not yet.

But there have also been times when Esherick has looked pretty good. He guided the team to the Sweet 16 in 2001, albeit by beating a No. 7 seed and a No. 15 seed in the process. His record against the Hoyas’ biggest rival, Syracuse, is impressive, including his current run of four out of five against the Orangemen. And in one of those games, in the 2000 Big East Tournament, he absolutely, indisputably out-coached Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim, allowing the Hoyas to upset a much more talented Syracuse team in a thrilling victory at Madison Square Garden.

And, as I’ve written before, Esherick is held to what I think are unreasonably high standards. In 1980s, the Hoyas were the cream of the college basketball crop; they went to three Final Fours in four years. They were coached by the legendary John Thompson, whose ability to recruit talented players and educate them while teaching them basketball at the same time, made the Hoyas a premier destination for top-ranked recruits. Besides Thompson’s departure, think about what else has changed about college basketball since the 1980s. Teams wanted to play in large, professional arenas and nearly every player stayed for four years. Those trends played directly into Georgetown’s hands; it had no plausible on-campus arena and its academic standards mandated that it have players who would graduate.

When those two trends reversed, a lot of the wind went out of the Hoyas’ sails. The MCI Centers of the world became undesirable places to play and the Hoyas couldn’t recruit the upper echelon of talent without compromising on academics. It’s not surprising then, that the Hoyas are not what they once were.

But don’t blame it all on Esherick; the world changed around the Hoyas and unless Georgetown gets a viable on-campus arena and/or drops its academic standards, the basketball program is not going to reclaim its spot in the national spotlight.

That’s why Athletic Director Joseph Lang told The Post that making the NCAA Tournament every year isn’t a reasonable expectation. Maybe he shouldn’t have said it to a reporter from one of the largest newspapers in the country, but Lang was dead-on correct. That’s why Esherick will get his extension, because the university powers that be are probably the only ones holding him to plausible standards.

Early though it may be, Esherick has done a good enough job to remain at the university he has called home since the mid-70s.

Esherick was mum on the subject of his contract status yesterday but said “I plan on being here for a while, longer than anybody sitting in front of me,” referring to the student reporters in McDonough Gymnasium. That’s fine by me, as long as this soon-to-be-extended contract doesn’t let him think he doesn’t have to produce now.

And that starts with the rest of this season.

Heading into the Pittsburgh game tomorrow, the Hoyas are 10-4. Esherick said yesterday that he’s not thinking about how many regular-season wins it’s going to take to get into the NCAA Tournament, but I sure am. The way I see it, given their relatively strong schedule, the Hoyas will be in with 20 wins overall, including the Big East tournament. So if they head into the Garden with 18 wins, for example, they will need two wins in New York. If they have 19, they will probably only need one win, etc.

Of course, they could always win the Big East Tournament, too. The sun could rise in the West tomorrow, too, but I for one am not banking on it.

So let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the Hoyas can win two games in New York, meaning they need eight wins down the stretch to give them a chance to make the Big Dance.

Lets start with the gimme games, by which I mean Seton Hall at home, UCLA at home, Virginia Tech on the road and Providence at home. There is no excuse for the Hoyas to lose these games, but knowing this team, they could blow one of them. But lets give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they win those four games. They then need four more wins.

Then comes Rutgers, Miami and West Virginia on the road. Those are three tough games, and hapless Rutgers is included because of their dominance at home in recent years. I think the Hoyas would be lucky to get two wins, and they are more likely to get one. That makes 15 wins so far.

And then, of course, there are the Big East heavyweights Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse, all in the Top 25 right now. The Hoyas play all of them twice, for a total of six games. So that means in order to get to 18 regular season wins, they need to go 3-3 against numbers 2, 12 and 26, respectively according to the current coaches’ poll. Yikes. That is a lot to ask.

Of course, this analysis is based on the Hoyas playing up to their talent. They’ve shot themselves in the foot twice already by losing games to Seton Hall and St. John’s that would have been nice come Selection Sunday. If the Hoyas play like that, you should get the rosary beads out, because that would be the only way they would make the tournament.

And, of course, the Hoyas could go on a hot streak and beat some quality teams. The above analysis, though, is a pretty middle-of-the-road analysis.

You can look at it another way, too; right now, in a weak Big East unlikely to get six slots in the tournament, the Hoyas are by record the sixth best. That puts them in a very precarious position. It makes them the mayor of Bubbleville and facing an uphill battle. If they don’t put together a string of quality wins, it could be another disappointing season in which the Hoyas don’t make the tournament, despite the presence of a potential lottery pick in junior forward Mike Sweetney.

Ask me what I think about Esherick then.

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