Voices echoed down hallways and balls bounced in the background in McDonough Arena. It was Media Day in October, and the outlook for the Georgetown men’s basketball season was strong.
“As many players as we have returning and with the group we have, I think we’re better than people perceive us to be. And we just got to go and prove that,” senior guard and co-captain D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said of the team’s potential at the beginning of the season. “I’m not really going to say too much of what we can do, but you’ll see when the games come around and the teams that we play.”
Now with the NCAA tournament just starting, as well as the National Invitational Tournament, the Hoyas’ season is over. They won just one game in the Big East tournament, finishing 15-18 on the season and 7-11 in conference play.
Seniors Smith-Rivera, center and co-captain Bradley Hayes and guard Riyan Williams have played their last games in Georgetown uniforms.
“You feel bad as a coach — as much as you want the big-picture look, okay, how the season went, is the season over, is it not over?” Head Coach John Thompson III said after the Hoyas lost to Villanova (29-5, 16-2 Big East) in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. “You just wish it could end different for these guys because of all they’ve given to me and to Georgetown.”
The season relative to preseason expectations was a failure. Pundits and fans expected Georgetown to be a top-25 team and to finish in second in the Big East standings. It finished eighth.
The Hoyas had two major problems: fouling and turnovers.
Of the 351 teams in Division I, the Blue and Gray had the 345th worst fouling rate in the entire country. They ranked 244th in turnover rate, turning over the ball on offense over 19 percent of the time.
Many pundits and fans consider Thompson to be in the hot seat. Social media now clamors for his firing. But Thompson offers something Georgetown cannot easily replace on the coaching market — stability.
His recruiting pipeline and the influence he has in the D.C., Northern Virginia and greater Maryland area is matched by few. While the Hoyas’ lack of a true point guard this season hurt their ball control skills, Thompson has recruited guards for the next two classes and offered scholarships to even more, including Keldon Johnson, the younger brother of freshman guard/forward Kaleb Johnson.
Furthermore, the season and the team saw its share of crippling injuries. Sophomore transfer forward Akoy Agau missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Sophomore forward Paul White missed all but seven games with a hip injury. Hayes missed a key stretch of games at the end of conference play with a broken hand.
Agau showed great promise in summer play and the Kenner League, showing an outside touch and a great rebounding presence. White was the team’s leading scorer off the bench last season. Hayes averaged 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game over the season and provided much-needed defensive presence down low.
The team, in addition to missing three key contributors for long stretches, was also the youngest team Thompson has coached in years. Smith-Rivera was the only player who had seen more than a season of significant minutes.
Still, the season was nothing short of disappointing no matter what angle or analysis it is broken down into.
“One of the hard things — it’s every year except for whoever the team is that is going to cut down the nets in a couple of weeks — is to get this point,” Thompson said of the season ending. “You realize that it’s finite. It comes to an end.”
And Thompson is right: 350 teams’ seasons come to an end short of the ultimate goal of Division I basketball — the NCAA championship. But far fewer than 350 teams end their seasons in total disappointment, falling well short of the expectations set for them at the start of the season.
Georgetown managed to reach as high as 35th in the rankings after an early-season top-30 ranking — 23rd in ESPN’s power rankings — gaining a couple votes in the AP poll. For a team that expected to dwell in the top 25 for the majority of the season, Georgetown hardly played to its statistical projections.
What is perhaps even more disappointing is that the Hoyas performed worse according to what is known as the “eye test.” The team would barely cling to leads, almost losing games down the stretch due to fouling and carelessness with the ball.
Development and player growth, often times the only saving grace in losing seasons, was lackluster to say the least. Sophomore forward Isaac Copeland and freshman center Jessie Govan moved back and forth between consistently good and consistently poor. Sophomore guard Tre Campbell exploded for a career-high 21 points against the Xavier Musketeers (27-5, 14-4 Big East) before scoring just 52 points over the next 14 games.
Only sophomore guard L.J. Peak took the leap, scoring in double figures the last 15 games of the season and remaining the team’s best on-ball defender. He also became the only player on the team to adjust to the NCAA rule changes that restrict hand-checking and discourage a more physical style of defense. Peak, in most circles of pundits and fans, became Georgetown’s best player and looks to continue that role next season.
Smith-Rivera, in his swan song and much-anticipated return from the NBA, broke records and finished as the fifth all-time scorer in Georgetown history and the all-time leader in three-pointers made. But those records came at a cost. The senior guard shot the lowest percentages since his freshman season from the field, three-point line and free-throw line — all in a losing season.
Some analysts described Smith-Rivera’s record-breaking season as “a looter in a riot” — the team’s leader made out okay, but what does that even matter? Peak’s season is cast in a similar light — that is, unless he can repeat and build upon his progress next season. The team, however, has much less to build on. In fact, it will likely need to rebuild. With the departure of Smith-Rivera, Georgetown is in a position in which it has not been in years. The team has no definitive leader to step up in Smith-Rivera’s absence and its coach is one of the most polarizing figures in college sports.
Though there is much uncertainty surrounding the team, one thing does remain certain: The team is losing support. Attendance numbers are lower than ever. Fox Sports 1 is hemorrhaging money as the Big East’s television network. Georgetown, after the formation of the new Big East, was supposed to be the conference’s flagship program. But instead of sailing the flag as a national contender, Georgetown is sinking faster than ever.
Paolo Santamaria is a sophomore in the College.