Meghan Kelly/The Hoya
Meghan Kelly/The Hoya

Although Georgetown’s season ended in an all-too-familiar fashion — at the hands of a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament — the feeling was undeniably different from past years.

Picked to finish 10th in the conference by Big East coaches in the preseason poll, the young Hoyas went 24-9, finishing fifth in conference thanks to a 12-6 record in Big East play. The reward for their stellar regular season was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region and a matchup with Belmont, which the Blue and Gray won handily. The win broke an embarrassing three-game tournament losing streak for the program and was arguably the crowning achievement of a season that saw the Hoyas exceed the expectations of all but the most optimistic Georgetown fans.

And precisely because of the team’s relatively surprising success, the Hoyas’ heartbreaking 66-63 loss to NC State in the next round of the tournament was less disappointing than the upsets of years past. In the moment, as time expired and senior guard Jason Clark’s off-balance attempt at a game-tying three sailed past the rim, the result was upsetting. After all, the loss marked the fourth time in Georgetown’s last four tournament appearances that Head Coach John Thompson III’s team had been sent packing by a double-digit seed. But, in the big picture, the Hoyas had a season that can only be judged an unqualified success.

The Blue and Gray crushed their preseason expectations for the first time in five years, and got the tournament win that Clark and fellow senior Henry Sims so richly deserved. Beating the No. 14 seed Bruins before falling in the next round might not be a noteworthy accomplishment for most teams, but this year’s Hoyas were no ordinary No. 3 seed.

The burden of repeated postseason failures weighed heavily on the team, and this year’s iteration of the Blue and Gray wasn’t expected to even earn a chance to get rid of that baggage. So when the Hoyas finally won, the sense of relief was palpable.

“I think [there] was definitely a sense of urgency, not just for me but [for] the whole team,” Clark said after defeating Belmont. “We’ve known what we’ve done in the past. So it was a big thing for us to get this win today.”

“[We] finally got the monkey off our back,” said sophomore guard Markel Starks.

The groundwork for the success of the season was laid in China, as the team and the media noted throughout the year. The ugly preseason brawl with the Bayi Rockets may have gotten the Hoyas into the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but it bred a toughness and togetherness that no amount of practicing could have.

The regular season started normally enough, as Georgetown crushed Savannah State and UNC-Greensboro by a combined 70 points. A four-point loss to then-No. 14 Kansas in the first round of the Maui Invitational was the first indication that these Hoyas might be a little better than initially thought. When they beat then-No. 8 Memphis in the fifth-place game two days later, that suspicion was confirmed. Sims’ 24-point, eight-rebound, five-assist performance against the Tigers was an early sign of things to come for the Hoyas. The senior center enjoyed a breakout season after three largely ineffective years on the Hilltop.

Sims and the rest of the Hoyas kept rolling when they returned to the continental 48, ripping off nine straight wins after returning from Maui. By the time the winning streak ended on Jan. 7 against West Virginia, the Blue and Gray were no longer sneaking up on anyone. Ranked No. 9 in the country, thanks to impressive wins over top-25 foes Alabama, Louisville, Marquette — ranked No. 12, 4 and 20 respectively at the time of their losses to the Blue and Gray — plus a second defeat of Memphis, Georgetown had arrived on the national scene.

Unsurprisingly, the strength and depth of the Big East took its toll on the Hoyas, as they won ‘just’ nine of their last 15 regular-season games after taking 13 of their first 14. Arguably the worst moment of the season came during this stretch, when Seton Hall blew out Georgetown by 18 points in February. Worse still, Starks and Thompson III were reportedly involved in a heated argument as the team walked off the court. Starks was benched for the entirety of the next game — a 21-point thrashing of Villanova — and came off the bench for the rest of the year.

Starks’ replacement in the starting lineup in some ways epitomized the Hoyas’ year. Freshman forward Otto Porter came out of seemingly nowhere to lead the team in rebounds (6.7 per game) and contributed nearly 10 points per contest, providing an unexpected source of offense for Thompson III’s team. Porter’s considerable defensive impact was at least matched by freshman forward Greg Whittington, whose offensive capabilities became obvious only at the end of the year but who served as a defensive stopper for the Hoyas from day one. Those two, along with fellow freshmen Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins, displayed maturity well beyond their years throughout the season and were vital to the team’s overachievement.

As for next year, they’ll be looked at to contribute even more, as the team’s three leading scorers are departing the Hilltop. Junior forward Hollis Thompson has declared for the NBA draft, while seniors Sims and Clark are set to graduate. Their leadership and scoring will be sorely missed next year, but, if nothing else, the returning Hoyas will have ample experience in defying expectations. If they duplicate the formula that brought them success this year — a swarming, stifling defense coupled with timely, efficient scoring — this space next year could very well be recapping a season that includes more than just one NCAA tournament win.

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