Twenty-seven years of tradition dribbles down the drain

By the

April 4, 2002

For the past 27 years, most people could count on three things occurring in life: death, taxes and Georgetown making a men’s postseason basketball tournament. On March 10, 2002, the list was down to two when Georgetown decided not to participate in the National Invitation Tournament.

The 2001-02 season for the Georgetown Hoyas began with great optimism. The Hoyas had two outstanding players, senior point guard Kevin Braswell and sophomore forward Mike Sweetney, returning from a team that had made the Sweet 16 the previous year and were almost universally picked for a repeat appearance. However, the year ended with Georgetown watching the familiar postseason games on television and not participating.

A look at the Hoyas’ season game by game can help explain what occurred during the year, along with the transfer, the injuries, the heartbreakers and the unreasonable expectations that forced Georgetown to end its postseason streak

The Season

In past years past, Georgetown has been criticized for its weak non-conference schedules. Not so this season, as Georgetown played a much stronger bracket of opponents before heading into Big East play, including Southeastern Conference foes South Carolina and Georgia and preseason top-15s Virginia and UCLA.

Still, like the majority of teams in the power conferences in college basketball, the Hoyas beefed up their early season record by preying on small-conference patsies from around the country. The Hoyas opened their season defeating one such patsy, Division III opponent Marymount, 108-47 on Nov. 16. Although technically the game was part of the regular season, it is important to note that in the eyes of NCAA Tournament’s selection committee, the game had no impact on the Hoyas’ standing at the end of the year. The committee does not consider games against non-Division I opponents when choosing its field of 65 for the NCAA Tournament.

The Marymount game was supposed to be a tuneup for the Hoyas’ matchup three days later against Georgia at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. At this point in the season, however, Georgetown’s inexperience showed as a smaller Georgia team out-rebounded them by 15 in a 73-59 Hoya loss.

Nevertheless, Georgetown bounced back from the this loss and won eight straight games, defeating Coastal Carolina, Towson, Grambling, Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State, Norfolk State, Howard and most importantly SEC opponent South Carolina. In the South Carolina game, Braswell hit a last-second jumper to push the Hoyas ahead of the Gamecocks 70-68.

Following the 99-80 victory over Howard on Dec. 17, the Hoyas began their worst four-game streak of the season losing to Virginia, UCLA and Big East opponents Miami and Rutgers.

“I don’t think there was any one issue that you could point to across the losing streak,” said Head Coach Craig Esherick in the postgame press conference. “During this entire run of games, I have not ever thought that the team just quit on the court. They are always fighting. We just need to turn the corner.”

Georgetown’s loss against Rutgers during the streak was especially disappointing since the Hoyas at one time held an 18-point lead, yet still wound up losing 89-87 in overtime. This game was the first of six during the season that Georgetown lost by either one point or in overtime. After the Rutgers game, Georgetown dropped from the Associated Press’ Top-25 rankings and did not return for the remainder of the season.

Despite the four losses, the Hoyas were able to seemingly resurrect their season in their next two games, playing their strongest contests of the year, a 70-43 beat down on then-No. 12 Boston College on Jan. 12 and a 84-58 thumping of Seton Hall on Jan. 16.

However, these two wins did not produce the consistency that many were hoping for: The remainder of Georgetown’s season was a roller coaster ride. The Hoyas followed a heartbreaking home loss against Pittsburgh with a solid road victory against Notre Dame. A second loss to Pittsburgh was accompanied by strong wins against then-No. 10 Syracuse and West Virginia.

Then came the game at home against Notre Dame on Feb. 9. The Hoyas and Fighting Irish battled it out for four overtimes, the longest and highest-scoring game in Big East Conference history. Eventually, the Irish prevailed, 116-111.

“I have never been in a crazier game,” said Esherick in the post-game press conference. “There are so many points I could discuss, so many times when the game swung one way. All I know is that we played our hearts out.”

The game in many ways epitomized the Hoyas’ season: At the end of regulation and at the end of each of the first three overtime periods, Georgetown had the ball with the game on the line, but the Hoyas could never finish off the Irish.

After the Notre Dame loss, the Hoyas came back with a second victory over Seton Hall, but then suffered two more close defeats: an overtime loss at Villanova and a one-point loss at home against Connecticut to fall to 6-7 in the Big East.

Just when the situation seemed its absolute grimmest, Georgetown pulled off three straight victories, a hard-fought contest at Syracuse, a 10-point victory at West Virginia and a solid 88-69 win against Rutgers to end the regular season. The Hoyas’ end- of-year push placed them third in the Big East Western Division, with an overall record of 18-10 and 9-7 in the conference and a date with the Big East Eastern Division’s sixth seed, Providence, in the first round of the Big East Tournament.

Like many of Georgetown’s earlier games, the game against Providence came down to the last second. Unlike many of those games, Georgetown pulled this one out, winning 68-67 after a dunk by junior center Wesley Wilson put the Hoyas ahead with 3.8 seconds left. With this win, the Hoyas seemed to have stopped their streak of end-of-game failures and were primed to make a run at the Big East Championship and the NCAA Tournament.

“I thought we closed the game like we knew what we were doing,” said Esherick in the post-game press conference.

Georgetown’s second round matchup against Miami, however, was a flashback to the Georgetown team that had lost those six games by either one point or in overtime. Although the Hoyas led by eight with five minutes remaining, they squandered the lead, turned the ball over with the game tied and 16 seconds left and wound up losing in overtime 84-76. The Hoyas ended their season with a record of 19-11.

On Selection Sunday, March 10, the Hoyas first sweated through the NCAA Tournament’s release of the brackets. The Hoyas, probably the odd-team-out from the a Big East Conference that received six bids overall, did not make the cut.

“I could have pointed to four or five games where you say, ‘If you win this game we’re in the Tournament,’” said Esherick. “If we would have won the Miami game, we’re in the Tournament, but you don’t know that either. You don’t know what was on the committee’s mind either, if anything.”

Esherick added, “The thing that galled me about not making the NCAA Tournament is we didn’t have one bad loss, we were 7-4 our last 11 games, we were 6-4 on the road and every team we lost to made the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.”

He continued, “I defy anybody to take a poll of some of those teams in the NCAA Tournament and ask their coaches whom would they rather play: Georgetown or [the team they were playing]. I defy you to tell me that they would have rather played Georgetown; there’s no way.”

After learning that they had not made the NCAA Tournament, the Hoyas received an offer to participate in the NIT. Georgetown initially accepted the bid, but wound up declining the NIT’s invitation after realizing that they would not have gotten a home game or even a game close to home, due to TV scheduling and the NCAA Tournament’s use of the Hoyas’ home court, the MCI Center. Without a home game, Georgetown’s players, assuming the Hoyas went far into the tournament, could have missed up to two and a half weeks of classes.

“I didn’t want to make the decision, but I had to. I feel that it was the correct one,” said Esherick. “After 30 games, I clearly came to the conclusion that it would benefit us more to stay in class than to play any more games even though we’re a young team.” (Voice requests for interviews with players were declined to allow players to concentrate on their studies.)

As a result, Georgetown did not participate in any postseason tournament this year for the first time in 27 years. The Hoyas’ streak had previously been the second longest in Division I, behind North Carolina’s 35 year streak (which also ended this season).

Although most did not realize it at the time, the seeds of this failure were planted as early as August.

The Transfer

Last season, guard Demetrius Hunter was an excellent complement for Braswell. Hunter started every contest and averaged almost 26 minutes and 9.2 points per game. Hunter was known as a great defender and was the best three-point shooter on the team, shooting 38.9 percent from behind the arc. In August, Hunter decided to transfer to UNLV in order to be closer to his infant daughter.

“We wish Demetrius all the best,” Esherick said in an Aug. 15 press release. “He’s leaving in good academic standing, and although we’ll have to adjust the plans for the team involving him, we understand and support family responsibilities being taken seriously.”

Had Hunter stayed, he would have been one of the focal points on the offense, serving as someone to whom Georgetown’s inside players could kick it out for a sure jump shot. Also, Hunter would have improved the team’s defense, which Esherick said was not as good as last year’s squad.

“I thought from a defensive and rebounding standpoint we weren’t as good a team as we were the year before. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that we weren’t as old,” said Esherick.

Most importantly, Hunter’s presence would have allowed first-year guards Tony Bethel and Drew Hall to ease themselves into the Georgetown rotation, rather than the baptism by fire they were subjected to this season.

The injuries of sophomore guard RaMell Ross and Bethel for six games, combined with Hunter’s absence, put a lot of pressure on Georgetown’s healthy guards to produce.

“People say that teams will go as far in the Tournament as their guards take them. Well, if that’s true ? then Kevin had a hell of a lot of pressure on him because of the loss of RaMell and the loss of Demetrius,” said Esherick.

The Injuries

The number of Hoyas missing time this year for various ailments was substantial. Ross was the first casualty, fracturing his foot during practice on Oct. 19. He missed the entire season. Bethel contracted infectious mononucleosis in November and missed six games as well as a bevy of practice time. Junior starting forward Victor Samnick, generally recognized as the Hoyas’ best defensive player, injured his foot in the South Carolina game on Dec. 6 and eventually had to have season-ending surgery. Also, first-year forward Harvey Thomas missed the first two games of the year due to academic ineligibility and Sweetney missed one game with a foot injury.

In addition, although junior forward Courtland Freeman didn’t miss any games due to injury, he played banged up, with hip, back and head pains throughout the year.

According to Esherick, the injuries were one of the primary reasons why Georgetown did not live up to expectations.

“RaMell, Victor, Courtland, all those [injuries], I think had something to do with our season and were things that I wish hadn’t happened and were things that were beyond our control and we had to deal with,” he said.

“Tony never really practiced a full practice for probably a month after he actually came back [from mono] and started participating in games,” Esherick continued. “And that month of practice he lost, along with the six games he did not play in at all, along with the practice he missed during the course of those six games, affected our team.”

The Heartbreakers

Last season, the enduring image of the Hoyas’ season was senior guard Nat Burton’s last second lay-up at the end of Georgetown’s first-round NCAA Tournament victory over Arkansas. This year, the enduring image was Georgetown’s failure to score in three separate game-winning situations in the four-overtime contest against Notre Dame.

On six occasions this season, the Jan. 5 game at Rutgers, the Jan. 19 game against Pittsburgh, the Feb. 9 game against Notre Dame, the Feb. 16 game at Villanova, the Feb. 19 game against Connecticut and the March 7 game in the Big East Tournament against Miami, the Hoyas lost by either one point or in overtime. A win in one or two of these games would have probably ensured the Hoyas an NCAA berth.

Furthermore, at times during these six games, the Hoyas looked absolutely lost on the court. For example, in the game against Villanova, Georgetown led by two with 2.5 seconds remaining when Wildcat sophomore guard Derrick Snowden breezed through the surprisingly lazy Georgetown defense for a game tying layup. Another example occurred in the following game against Connecticut. The Hoyas trailed by one with six seconds left and had the ball coming off a rebound, yet were not even able to get off a shot. Finally, in the Big East Tournament game against Miami, the Hoyas were baffled by Miami’s full-court press defense and threw the ball away with 16 seconds remaining and a chance to win.

Esherick feels that the Hoyas’ struggles in these close games were due to inexperience. “This season we had many close losses and I think that though I got frustrated with the close losses, I never got discouraged,” he said. “I think experienced teams win close games. I think that inexperienced teams, for the most part, have to learn how to win close games. I’m hoping that the amount of competitive games we had this season will pay dividends next year.”

Although it is correct to point to the Hoyas’ naivete, as Esherick did, as the primary reason for the close losses, one would think that a coach, recognizing his team’s inexperience would call a timeout in these situations to calm the team down and/or diagram a play. Esherick, however, did not call such timeouts during the year.

Esherick declined to comment about his end-of-game decision-making process.

The Expectations

At the end of last year, the Hoyas had reason to be optimistic. The Hoyas had made it not only to their first NCAA Tournament since former Head Coach John Thompson left the program, but they also made the Sweet 16. Also, although Georgetown was losing five seniors, including NBA Draft pick Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, returning for the Hoyas was one of their most prolific steal-and-assist men in their history, Braswell, and one of the best first-years in the country, Sweetney. In addition, Georgetown had a solid recruiting class with guards Bethel and Hall and forward Thomas. There was little turning of heads when the Hoyas were ranked in the preseason top-15 in the Associated Press poll and were selected first in the Big East Western Division by the coaches in the Big East.

However, when Hunter transferred and Ross became injured, the recruiting class that was supposed to have spent a year on the bench learning, was now thrust into the spotlight. Also, while last season Georgetown began the year unranked and surprised a lot of teams early, winning its first 16 games, this year everyone was gunning for the Hoyas. As a result, the expectations for this year’s Georgetown team may have been too high.

“The only thing that I thought was unreasonable about the expectations is the fact that we lost five seniors,” said Esherick. “I want there to be expectations, and I don’t want to run from expectations, but the thing that concerned me about this team is the number of young kids we have in positions where they are going actually to play a lot.”

The Future

Fortunately, for Georgetown the future looks very bright. The Hoyas will only lose one senior albeit a major player from this year’s team, in Braswell. In his four-year career, Braswell averaged 13.5 points per game and is seventh on the all-time scoring list with 1,735 points. Also, Braswell also leads the Hoyas in both career steals and career assists.
However, next year joining the Hoyas is 6-foot-8 sharpshooting forward recruit Brandon Bowman from California state champion Weschester High School. Bowman chose Georgetown over Maryland, Stanford, Virginia, Connecticut, Kansas and Tennessee.

Still, the question on most Hoya fans’ minds is whether Sweetney will be around to see the future of the Hoyas, or whether he will he instead make a jump to the NBA as some have speculated. According to Esherick, the decision has already been made: “As of today, Mike is not going to leave; he is going to graduate from Georgetown. He’s going to play two more years and graduate from Georgetown as a senior,” he said.

In addition, next year’s Hoya team will have the benefit of leadership from four seniors, four juniors and one year of experience under the belts of Bethel, Hall and Thomas.

“Getting back to the NCAA Tournament is clearly going be a goal of next year’s team,” said Esherick.

  • * *

Although to most the Hoyas’ failure to make the postseason will be considered the ultimate in disappointments, Esherick does not feel the year was as much of a failure.

“With everything I said about losing the five seniors and the injuries and all of that I was very encouraged by the intestinal fortitude of team the whole season,” he said. “Winning 19 games is not something that is going to make me say that we had a bad year, and I’m never going to say that, particularly with what we had to deal with this year ? I’m not apologizing to anyone for going 19-11 this season.”

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