An Instagram post should have changed everything; at least I thought it would.
On April 7, 2015, a week after Georgetown issued a press release announcing that guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera would declare for the NBA draft, Smith-Rivera posted an Instagram saying that he, in fact, would return for his senior season. It was an announcement that Georgetown fans needed.
What caused him to change his decision remains uncertain. Some suggest it was because of his bleak draft status. Smith-Rivera, however, suggested an alternate reason — namely, graduating.
“Over time I had thought about some things, like finishing school,” Smith-Rivera said in an interview with The Hoya in October. “I’ve come this far — to not finish would be disappointing to my family more than anything. I’m a first generation for my family to go to college and I’ll be the first to graduate, so that was a major factor.”
Regardless of his motivations, Smith-Rivera’s return restored hope for the 2015-16 season.
Yes, the Georgetown team had lost key contributors, including forward Jabril Trawick, center Joshua Smith and center Mikael Hopkins, to graduation. But these losses were matched with a strong group of underclassmen, incoming transfer forward Akoy Agau, and the return of its leading scorer — Smith-Rivera.
“As far as a team expectation, I think everyone had an expectation of making it to the tournament and making it far in the tournament,” senior center and co-captain Bradley Hayes said.
In short, there was only reason to believe that it would improve from its 2014-2015 finish, and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
This quest for the Sweet 16, however, took a hit before the season even started.
In October, Agau, who was expected to receive significant playing time and help fill the void left by Smith and Hopkins, tore his ACL, and it was announced that he would miss the entirety of the 2015-2016 season.
“With the injury with Akoy, that was the very first major injury that we had,” Hayes said. “I mean, he brought a motor to the team. Just his motor by itself would have brought the team a lot further than we made it so that was a really big loss there.”
However, there was still reason to be hopeful.
A Georgetown team with Smith-Rivera was perceived to be a dramatically different than a team without. After the 2015 NCAA championship game and following Smith-Rivera’s initial announcement, CBS Sports released an early ranking of the top 25 teams for the 2015-2016. Noticeably absent? Georgetown. However, after Smith-Rivera’s announced return, Georgetown appeared at No. 17 in a revised version of the rankings.
Moreover, Hayes had showed promise in the 2015 NCAA tournament. In his two games against Eastern Washington and Utah, Hayes averaged 8.7 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds in 21.9 minutes a game — a drastic improvement from his 0.9 points and 1.4 rebounds per game junior year.
Despite this seemingly strong team, the propensity to lose close games and lose to inferior teams continued.
First, there was Radford (16-5, 9-9 Big South) — an 82-80 double overtime loss in the home-opener. Then the Hoyas fell victim to Monmouth (28-8, 17-3 MAAC) and its charismatic bench. Then University of North Carolina–Asheville (22-12, 12-6 Big South).
But sandwiched between these losses, the Hoyas teased their fans and showed their potential.
In its second game, Georgetown challenged then-No. 3 Maryland (27-9, 12-6 ACC) for the entire game. Although the Hoyas led for the majority of the second half, the Terrapins ultimately prevailed, 75-71, after a late run with less than five minutes remaining.
This loss was followed by a convincing win over Wisconsin (22-13, 12-6 Big 10) and an 86-84 loss to Duke (25-11, 11-7 ACC). Then the Hoyas rallied off five straight wins, including 79-72 win against Syracuse (23-14, 9-9 ACC) in the much-anticipated renewal of the rivalry.
“From my standard I have for the team, I feel like we had some great moments, the Syracuse game, Wisconsin who beat us the previous year was a good bounce back game,” Smith-Rivera said. “Throughout the year we kind of jelled together from the tough losses we had so I think it brought the team back together, I think it helped them bond a little bit better.”
Georgetown’s Big East schedule followed a very similar script. There were close losses to good teams — the Jan. 16 loss to Villanova (35-5, 16-2 Big East), the Feb. 13 loss to Providence (24-11, 10-8 Big East) and the Feb. 27 loss to Butler (22-11, 10-8 Big East). There was January’s 81-72 win over Xavier (28-6, 14-4 Big East). But there were also the losses to Creighton (20-15, 9-9 Big East) and Marquette (20-13, 8-10 Big East).
Yes, Georgetown dealt with injuries to key contributors. Senior center Bradley Hayes, who established himself a crucial component of the Georgetown offense, missed six games with a broken hand. Sophomore forward Paul White, who was expected to contribute, missed all but seven games with a hip injury.
“With Paul, he’s really smart with the game,” Hayes said. “He has a high IQ and we missed that on the court. He sees things that other people don’t see and we kind of needed that out there.”
And both Hayes’s and White’s absences hurt — Georgetown lost every game in Hayes’s absence — but there seemed to be a greater issue at hand.
Throughout the entire season, one thing was always missing: an emotional leader. And this was why the 2015-16 team missed the presence of Trawick. It was not so much his 9.1 points per game, but his consistent leadership, especially in times of adversity, that made a difference.
“You know Jabril brought that [spark] to the court. … I think that where he left, other people tried to step up. I tried to take a little bit of his energy for the game, emotion for the game,” Hayes said. “But you can never find the exact same type of thing from another player that has left before. Everybody brings something different.”
Smith-Rivera also acknowledged the loss of Trawick’s emotion.
“I don’t think we showed enough emotion,” Smith-Rivera said. “That was the thing about it, when you get into tough situations you get emotionally, or you’re supposed to anyways.”
It is no secret that this season was disappointing. It was Georgetown’s first losing record in John Thompson III’s tenure and the first since the 2003-04 season — former Head Coach Craig Esherick’s last season before he was fired.
It is not the way that I thought he would end his career and neither did Smith-Rivera.
“It’s his senior year and I know he wants to go out with a bang,” Campbell said in an interview with The Hoya in October .
Unfortunately, though, there was no such script in place. Having ended the regular season with a 14-17 record, the Big East Tournament represented the Hoyas’ last opportunity to make the NCAA tournament.
In the first round of the tournament, Georgetown handled DePaul (9-22, 3-15 Big East), earning them a matchup with top-seeded Villanova. Against the Wildcats, there looked as though there would be a potential upset.
Instead, Smith-Rivera and the 2015-16 team went out with a whimper and without receiving an invitation to postseason tournaments.
Next year, there will be yet another unexpected return: center Bradley Hayes.
“I’m excited I got [an extra year of eligibility] and I’m fortunate I got it,” Hayes said. “[I’ve got] to make the most of it.”
Maybe 2016-17 will be the year. The painful optimist in me wants to say yes. But Georgetown fans have come to know better.
Carolyn Maguire is a senior in the College.
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