The Hoya faithful, of late, had grown used to a formula: win during the regular season, then lose quickly and spectacularly in the postseason. The 2013-2014 campaign did not follow suit.
Last year’s team started the season with a confusing series of contests, including a close loss in South Korea against No. 19 Oregon, a loss against mid-major laughingstock Northeastern, and a win against No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth University, all coming in the first five games. While the loss column read a glaring “2” early in the year, there were numerous causes for optimism. Center Joshua Smith, a transfer from UCLA, was surprisingly granted fall eligibility from the NCAA and was an offensive behemoth, looking unstoppable against the Ducks in the season opener. Backcourt stalwarts Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, known to be scoring machines, looked to continue their ways. There were rumors that forward Greg Whittington, sidelined during the offseason with an ACL injury, would return to the court for the second half of the season. Despite an oscillating beginning, it was easy to believe that the Hoyas could wipe away memories of the disappointing end to their 2012-2013 season.
But things spiraled out of control quickly.When Georgetown traveled to Lawrence in late December for their matchup with the No. 18 Kansas Jayhawks, a star-laden team led by super-freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, they were thoroughly battered despite coming into the game on a six-game winning streak. The team recovered with three easy home wins, but the coming of the new year brought the realization that they would be without Smith for an indefinite period of time because of his faltering academic performance. Toward the end of the fall semester, Whittington was dismissed from the team for undisclosed reasons. Guard Jabril Trawick broke his jaw in an early January matchup against Providence. The Hoyas, lacking depth and scoring punch, lost six of their next seven games, only winning in overtime against league bottomfeeder Butler. Though wins against No. 7 Michigan State and No. 13 Creighton had many believing that the downtrodden team could find their way to the NCAA tournament, a loss against last-place DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament sent the Hoyas to the NIT, where they lost in the tournament’s second round to Florida State.
“We weren’t first,” said junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, when asked about the Hoyas finishing second in the Big East preseason coaches poll. With the most talented recruiting class in recent memory coming to the Hilltop, as well as the return of many of last year’s playmakers, it is clear that there is only one acceptable objective this season for both the players and coaches: win.
“Last year we had a lot of speed bumps, unnecessary ones, some that we could not control, but we just have to stay the course,” said senior center Joshua Smith. “This year we just need to take it one game at a time.”
Avoiding unexpected, and especially unnecessary, circumstances is the team’s first priority. The atmosphere in McDonough Gymnasium this year is one that speaks volumes about where this program has been over the past few seasons. These Hoyas have seen even their most highly-touted teams fall victim to uncharacteristic collapses. Now, even with the most readily equipped team in years looking to forget the failures of the past, this group is fully aware that anything could go wrong at any moment.
“Last season just before the break we lost Greg Whittington. Then you lose Otto. But you get Greg back and you get Josh. So we were talking about cutting down nets. But Greg has his issues and Josh has his issues. And then in the middle of all that, Jabril breaks his jaw. Moses [Ayegba] has to miss a game in the middle of the season,” says Head Coach John Thompson III. “Nate breaks his nose and is trying to figure out how to wear a mask. It ended up being a much different team as the year progressed and we had to play differently and do things differently.”
This year’s recruiting class, a quintet of notable names from across the country, holds more promise than any recent group to arrive on the Hilltop. Last year, the lone freshman on campus was forward Reggie Cameron, who struggled to find his form during a tumultuous season. The previous class, originally a group of four, yielded two transfers, and has only seen significant contributions from Smith-Rivera.
This group contains three of the top 35 players in the country according to ESPN and will likely make an immediate impact for the Hoyas. The most noted member of the incoming class is Isaac Copeland, a five-star forward with a body type similar to that of former Hoya favorite Otto Porter Jr. Four-star prospects Paul White and L.J. Peak are also expected to feature in the rotation. White, also a lanky swingman, played in the frontcourt with top prospect Jahlil Okafor at powerhouse Whitney Young High School in Chicago. Peak, a scorer with a perpetual green light, is distinctly outside of the typical Georgetown mold. If he acclimates to the system, he could be a potent weapon in an already well-armed Hoya offense. Guard Tre Campbell and forward Trey Mourning will likely need more time than the rest to earn significant playing time, but have drawn acclaim from both teammates and the coaching staff.
“It’s hard to say because I think several of them will [have an impact]. Sitting here now, we have five freshmen, and three or four of them are going to be thrown right into the mix from the beginning. I think we’ll see once we start playing games,” says Thompson. “I wouldn’t be surprised if two or three months from now it was L.J. I wouldn’t be too surprised if two or three months from now it was Paul White. I wouldn’t be too surprised if two or three months from now that answer is Isaac.”
The Hoyas will enter the season without graduated leader Markel Starks, former frontcourt presences Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba, and fan favorite John Caprio, but it will return the rest of last year’s team, which includes several players with Big East championship experience. Most notable of all returning members is Smith-Rivera, who was voted Big East Preseason Player of the Year.
After a strong sophomore season during which he averaged a team-high 17.6 points per game, the Indiana native returns as the lone surefire threat in the backcourt. Without a true point guard, aside from Campbell, on the roster, it seems likely that Smith-Rivera will have to take over Starks’ role running the offense.
Also returning are seniors Mikael Hopkins, Jabril Trawick, and Aaron Bowen. After being granted a medical redshirt year earlier during his stay at Georgetown, Bowen elected to return to the Hilltop for his final year of eligibility. In the back half of last season’s campaign, Bowen and Trawick both largely improved on their offensive contributions from their first two seasons. The two will now serve as the elder statesmen on the team and will look to extend their form from last season.
“In some ways we have a veteran team when you look at Mikael Hopkins, D’Vauntes, Jabril, and Aaron Bowen,” said Thompson. “They have Big East championship rings. They are an older team. And then you have the group that’s coming in, that’s working their way in.”
Smith, the most mercurial returning player to the team, comes back to the Hilltop as a large question mark. At his best, Smith is an offensive juggernaut, but concerns about his weight, and more recently, his academic standing, give the Hoya faithful great reason to be skeptical.
“Josh has done everything at a high level so far this year. Sitting here a year ago, I said the same thing. Now it’s up to him to maintain what he’s been doing,” said Thompson. “As of now, he’s on point with everything he’s doing on the floor, as well as in the classroom. I said the same thing as I did last year, and it’s up to him to keep doing it.”
Though Hopkins, White, and Copeland could ease the recent problems plaguing the Hoya frontcourt, an in-form Smith would give the Hoyas a compliment to Smith-Rivera that few teams can combat. The center’s ability to contribute this season will surely make the difference between the team being perimeter-oriented and being a multidimensional threat.
This year’s Hoyas are similar to their predecessors in many ways. They feel compounding pressure to not only win during the regular season, but also to make a deep tournament run. The difference is that this iteration of the Blue and Gray is teeming with all the qualities of a winner: experience, talent, cohesion, and eagerness.
“I’m focused on getting back on the right track. Last year was a down year for us, so winning is the big picture,” Smith-Rivera says.
Not since 2007 have the Hoyas managed to reach the Sweet Sixteen, but panic is nowhere to be found in the confines of McDonough. The veterans and the newcomers all seem to have the quiet determination that can only come from tasting both success and biting failure.
The Hilltop’s basketball program is not loud. It is not overstated. But there is a historic tradition of success, and Coach Thompson is not afraid to say what he and his team want.
“We want to hang that banner.”