For Georgetown, the Agony of Defeat Exposed Weaknesses

By Sean P. Flynn Hoya Staff Writer

The 1998-99 campaign ended much like it started for the Georgetown men’s basketball team. Against Princeton on March 10, the Hoyas seemed almost clueless on offense. Horrid shooting, caused in a large part by a lack of quality shots created, canceled out whatever gains had been made by the usually stifling defense. In the end, the Hoyas’ season fizzled out in a 54-47 loss to the Tigers.

It was almost exactly five months earlier that the Hoyas had opened the season with similar difficulty, shooting horribly and being schooled by eventual Sweet 16 team Temple, , at the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament.

But in between was a tumultuous season that included disheartening losses, encouraging performances against NCAA teams and the resignation of Georgetown icon and Head Coach John Thompson. Through it all, the Hoyas earned their 25th consecutive trip to the postseason but ended the season 15-16, their first losing record since 1972-73.

Year of Uncertainty

What the Hoyas showed is that they could play with anyone in the Big East, playing close games with – but losing to – the league’s NCAA teams: St. John’s (twice), Villanova, Syracuse, Miami and Connecticut. At the same time the Hoyas showed inconsistency against the league’s lesser teams, losing games to West Virginia and Providence in the last second. Even in the wins, the Hoyas had trouble putting together two quality halves.

Gone from last season was leading scorer Shernard Long, a guard who had become the Hoyas offensive leader during the last seven games of the 1997-98 campaign. Out for one semester because of academic problems and the breaking of a team rule, Long was expected back for the second semester. But Long was not invited back and decided to transfer to Georgia State, where he will be eligible next December. Without a leader on offense, the Hoyas struggled, especially late in games.

But the biggest loss was that of Thompson, who announced his resignation on Jan. 8 because of problems stemming from his divorce. Twenty-six years after building a national powerhouse, Thompson handed the reins to long-time assistant Craig Esherick.

Twenty-six hours later, the Esherick-led Hoyas overcame their emotions for an impressive win against Providence at MCI Center. Two days later, the Hoyas traveled to Madison Square Garden, where they nearly pulled off an upset against St. John’s but lost by two when a Dean Berry 30-footer fell short. Later that week, the Hoyas pushed Syracuse to the brink before falling by two again. Things were looking good for the young Hoyas.

Then, in the next game, Georgetown took two steps back after their step forward. Against a depleted and undertalented West Virginia team, the Hoyas played lackadaisically, and once again poorly on offense, and lost to the Mountaineers, 55-54, when Nat Burton was called for a foul with one-tenth of a second remaining.

A week later, the Hoyas lost again in the last second, this time at Villanova. In one of the most difficult losses in Georgetown history, the Hoyas overcame a 17-point deficit, took the lead and had several chances to win but lost when Villanova scored six points in 2.4 seconds.

Despite ensuing wins against Pittsburgh (twice), Rutgers and Notre Dame, the difficult losses, like one against St. John’s at home and Providence during the season finale, kept coming. After scrapping for a win at the Big East Tournament before bowing out, and then losing at the NIT, the Hoyas had finished with a losing record.

Now what?

On campus, there is more skepticism than ever about the team. Attendance levels, especially among students, suffered except when the big-name teams came in. And after losing so many heart-wrenching games, the team seemed to be struggling more than it had in years.

So what are the problems that hold back the team?

1) Offense – With no true scorer and inconsistent play from the two big men, the holes in the Hoyas were gaping. Georgetown was dead last in the Big East Conference in shooting percentage at 37.3 percent. While the players and coaches constantly sang the same chorus – “We need to learn how to win close games” – it was the usually horrendous shooting that did Georgetown in in its losses.

Rarely running set plays, the Hoyas were far too often forced into poor shots. Sophomore guard Anthony Perry, who missed last season with eligibility problems, made only 33. 8 percent of his shots. Freshman guard Kevin Braswell made only 33.5 percent of his shots.

Down low, freshman center Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje proved himself one of the league’s best shot blockers in his rookie season. But on offense, he was far more erratic, sometimes showing spurts of greatness but too often missing close shots and being bullied down low.

When it came down to it, the Hoyas did not have the quality plays or the playmakers to be able to pull it out against a good team late in a close game. Even against the poorer teams, the Hoyas had trouble pulling it out, including the three-point win at Bethune-Cookman, the home loss against West Virginia and the home win vs. Boston College.

The fact of the matter is that this horrible offense is a holdover from the Thompson era, who preached defense first. With a brutish defense, the Hoyas were able to win games by relying on the play of the storied big men, like Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning, or (in recent years) on the play of guards like Allen Iverson and Victor Page who could create points almost solely on athleticism. But without the playmakers or, just as importantly, the mystique of Thompson, the Hoyas’ offensive woes are more glaring than ever.

The 1998-99 Hoyas proved defense will get the team in position to win games, but without a quality offense, it made winning difficult.

2) Continuity – In the last three and a half years, the Georgetown roster has been decimated by departures. Since December 1995, eight Hoyas have left school early – Eric Myles, Allen Iverson, Jerry Nichols, Shamel Jones, Victor Page, Ed Sheffey, Kenny Brunner and Shernard Long.

While Iverson found himself a successful career in the NBA, most of the departures have been embarrassing to the school and hurtful to the team.

The result is a cynical fan base and an inexperienced team. With the precarious nature of the roster, the promise of potential is not worth as much to the observer of the Hoyas, especially if that potential goes to waste. The three rookies – Braswell, Perry and Boumtje-Boumtje – showed raw potential this season, and the Hoyas’ recruiting class is supposed to be among the nation’s best.

If they’re given time to grow.

3) Coaching certainty – As of now, the Georgetown administration has not announced the signing of Esherick to a long-term deal, something that has been promised since Thompson’s resignation. As important as continuity among the players, ensuring certainty in the coaching role is just as important.

Under Esherick, the Hoyas were 8-10. But when Thompson resigned, the Hoyas were poised and ready to play. On the short term, the Hoyas responded to Esherick. In the long term, Esherick, like the young players on his squad, needs time to develop as a head coach. His advantage is Thompson’s successful system that has made Georgetown a national powerhouse.

Whether or not the school wants to devote the time to Esherick, the decision needs to be made soon.

“Close”

All season, both Thompson and Esherick have reminded everyone that “We’re close,” and this season the Hoyas proved they were against several teams that eventually went to the tournament. But after all the last three years departures and the horrible losses of this season, it’s easy for a Georgetown fan to be disheartened.

As close as they are, the Hoyas are still far from being dominant in the Big East like they once were. The defense is there, but with such a suspect offense, winning against the league’s top and mid-level teams has proved itself a huge difficulty.

Five freshmen are coming to Georgetown next year to form a recruiting class some critics have placed among the best in the country, so there is hope. But there is also plenty of work to be done.

 

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