There have been moments. Moments when we see what is possible for this Georgetown men’s basketball team.
You know what they’ve been. Isaac Copeland’s emphatic putback dunk in hostile College Park, Maryland against an explosive Terps team. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera slicing through the Duke defense for open shots and kickouts. L.J. Peak’s consecutive powerful drives to the rim against Villanova, which sliced up the formidable Wildcat defense and brought the Hoyas to the brink of an improbable victory.
But herein lies the problem: the flashes of potential that these Hoyas have occasionally displayed have been just that—flashes.
For each of the promising moments Georgetown basketball has shown us this year, there has been an equally disappointing one. When a Villanova three-pointer bounced off the rim with 37 seconds left, freshman Jessie Govan had the rebound all but secured, a sure-fire grab that would give his team a chance to make one final push to tie the game. Instead, Govan fumbled the uncontested board away and out of bounds, letting the Wildcats ice the game at the free throw line. The first three games against top ten opponents? Three losses by a combined 11 points. Worse yet, the Hoyas have dropped games that elite programs simply do not. The three home losses to Radford, UNC-Asheville, and Monmouth symbolize the 2016 Hoyas just as much as the three losses to top-10 opponents, and that is cause for concern.
That was Hoya basketball up until Tuesday afternoon.
But Tuesday night in the raucous Cintas Center against No. 5 Xavier, something changed.
Once again, we witnessed big-time moments from the Hoyas, like Smith-Rivera’s stepback three with the shot clock expiring, and Peak’s swooping block, subsequent recovery, and dunk at the other end. For Georgetown fans, these moments by themselves, in a vacuum, do not come as a shock.
Perhaps even more impressive than the moments themselves was their timing. DSR’s three came just when the Musketeers were making a run at Georgetown’s lead, cut down to two from 10 just minutes earlier. Peak’s dunk capped off a Hoya run that directly countered Xavier’s flurry. For every punch the fifth-ranked team in the nation threw, the Hoyas responded with a fiercer blow, and the result was a season-changing victory. Moving forward for Georgetown, this resiliency must become the norm, not the exception, in order for the team to make a push.
So what’s in store for the rest of the season, at this slightly-past-halfway point of the season? Let’s dive into the last two years of Hoya basketball, one which ended with an NCAA appearance, and another which did not, in order to get a better sense of what trends Georgetown is up against.
In 2013-14, the Hoyas were 11-8 after 19 games, which included a 3-5 record in the Big East. The Blue and Gray had just dropped their fourth conference game in a row, and were still struggling to fill the hole of departed NBA lottery pick Otto Porter Jr. That team would eventually finish 18-15 with a loss in the second round of the NIT, and as the 65th best team in the nation according to KenPom.com.
Last season, the Hoyas were 14-5 after 19 games and had gotten out to a 6-2 start in the Big East, including a 78-58 domination of then-No.4 Villanova. The Hoyas had proven they could hang tough with the big boys, dropping close games to Wisconsin, Butler, and Kansas, and had cleaned up against inferior competition, with no losses to non-NCAA tournament teams. The Hoyas would hit a few bumps in the road, but played their way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and a Round of 32 appearance to finish out the year. The Hoyas ended as the 24th best team in the country, according to KenPom.com.
So far in 2015-16, the Hoyas are 12-7 and 5-2 in the Big East. With the triumph over Xavier, Georgetown now has one win against a team bound for the NCAA tournament, but also has dropped a trio of games to unranked, non-power five teams at home, including Radford (202nd according to KenPom.com) and UNC-Asheville (129th). The Hoyas have also narrowly escaped games against UNC-Charlotte (217th) and UNC-Wilmington (101st).
What does this all mean? Are this year’s Hoyas more like the 2015 version that showed spirit in a close third round NCAA tournament loss, or are they closer to the 2014 version that lost its footing early in Big East play and never recovered? So far, the numbers would suggest this team is somewhere in between.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Georgetown’s resume is not the lack of several marquee victories, but the ugly performances against unranked, non-conference opponents. Consider a Hoya squad that took care of business against the teams they “should have,” whom we’ll say are Radford, UNC-Asheville, and Monmouth. Instead of an 11-7 team that can only afford a few more losses in Big East play, those Hoyas would be 14-4 and heading into a stretch of conference play where they could snag some marquee wins over opponents such as No.16 Providence and No.18 Butler, both of which the Hoyas play twice. Splitting those games and dropping a game or two to unranked conference opposition would have been compatible with an NCAA tournament team’s resume. But now, with those early-season losses, the Hoyas only have “room” for a couple of losses total before the Big East Tournament, in order to keep alive any hopes of an NCAA tournament run.
The term “must-win” can be overused in college basketball, especially for teams in the Big East where the potential for quality wins is all-around. But there is no mistaking that for the rest of the season, every game is a must-win for the Hoyas if they hope to keep NCAA Tournament dreams alive. Starting with Tuesday night’s conference home game against a Creighton team they have already lost to, Georgetown faces a significant uphill battle in their quest to return to the Big Dance. With 12 games remaining in conference play, the Hoyas would have to win somewhere in the range of eight to ten more in order to give themselves a shot heading into the Big East Tournament. Unlike last year, when Georgetown lost only against quality opposition, the Hoyas this year have put themselves behind the eight-ball with lackluster outings against B-level opposition. Even an impressive shelf-life victory against Xavier doesn’t wash away the stain of ugly early-season losses.
Strong teams are never asked questions about their identity, which is what raises the most concerns about this group heading into the thick of their Big East schedule. Are the Hoyas a defensive-minded team, or do they just try and outscore the opposition? So far, neither option is an answer for a team that is 51st in Offensive Efficiency and 66th in Defensive Efficiency. For a team that doesn’t force many turnovers, doesn’t dominate the glass, and doesn’t shoot a high percentage from the field, the Hoyas have to consistently show another gear in order to make some noise. Tuesday’s victory will go a long way in the eyes of the tournament selection committee (the win scooted the Hoyas’ RPI over 25 spots), but it will be moot unless that effort can be replicated.
What is the resolve of this team? How will they respond to adversity? Was Tuesday night’s stalwart performance a turning point for these Hoyas, or was it just a relative peak in a season of valleys? We will know the answers to both of these questions in a matter of weeks, when the Big East standings will be all but finalized. Until the improbable events of Tuesday, the 2015-16 Georgetown Hoyas had been a string of moments, moments that painted an incomplete and disappointing picture. But now, frankly, we don’t know what they are.