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The New Nova?

For the past decade, Georgetown’s been the storied program with the sorry NCAA tournament results. But a postseason-less 2015 and a national title for a conference rival may have jolted the Hoyas into making some much-needed changes.

Getty Images/Casey Moore
Getty Images/Casey Moore

There was plenty of reason for John Thompson III to be optimistic in March of 2007. Less than three years after becoming Georgetown’s head coach, he had led the Hoyas to a no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and a Final Four, the program’s first since 1985, when his father’s team fell a game short of back-to-back national titles. Thompson’s group couldn’t find its way past Greg Oden’s Ohio State Buckeyes that year, but they would return for the 2007–08 season with a similar cast and expecting a similar result. For much of the year, it looked like everything would go according to plan. The Hoyas finished atop the Big East and earned another 2-seed. They cruised through their tournament opener against UMBC. Two days later against 10th-seeded Davidson, the Hoyas led by 17 shortly into the game’s second half. But the Wildcats surged behind their point guard, a 20-year-old junior named Stephen Curry who would score 25 points in the game’s last 15 minutes. The Hoyas, stunned, would lose by four.

In 2010, when the program made its next tournament appearance, a Hoyas team seeded third in its region and led by Greg Monroe was routed by 14th-seeded Ohio in the first round. Over the next three seasons, Georgetown was seeded sixth, third, and second entering the postseason. The Hoyas’ respective losses, all in the tournament’s first weekend, came against 11th-seeded VCU, 11th-seeded NC State, and, during my first year at the school as an undergraduate, against 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. The team’s only tournament appearance in the three seasons since the Death by Dunk City again ended during the first weekend, this time with a loss to fifth-seeded Utah.

After last season, the program that radiated promise 10 years ago seemed to have bottomed out. Last season, the Hoyas lost 18 games and failed to qualify for the NIT. It was the program’s poorest performance since the 1971–72 season, before John Thompson Jr. had even stepped into the cockpit. But last year’s Hoyas weren’t a traditional bottom-feeder. They were a talented team with a rotation that went more than 10 players deep, and while the failure to make the postseason would suggest otherwise, they were the 62nd-best team in the country, per the KenPom efficiency ratings. Georgetown competed closely with opponents varying in quality from Duke and Villanova to 222nd-rated Radford. The Hoyas didn’t appear to be a team that should lose most of their games, but every coin-flip, down-to-the-wire finish seemed to end the wrong way. Each game seemed an unfortunate distillation of a season from the past decade.

When the national media covers Georgetown, the program’s series of postseason exits inevitably get a generous reference, if they don’t become the center of the narrative altogether. When millions have been watching, Thompson’s Hoyas have floundered.

With the departure of top-level programs like Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Pittsburgh to the ACC within the past three years, Georgetown has been stuck in the current, watered-down iteration of the Big East. The new conference signed a $500 million deal with Fox Sports, which allowed schools to continue to reap financial benefit, but at the cost of visibility. This year, the program is locked away, out of the rankings or even the “others receiving votes” columns and out of sight on Fox Sports 1. Georgetown doesn’t attract the very top one-and-done recruits, nor does it play most of its games with high-profile coverage on ESPN.

Then again, last year’s national champions faced similar obstacles.

“This new Big East needed that sort of injection from Villanova last year because as much as we like to think that it’s the same conference, it really isn’t,” said Andrew Geiger, who graduated from Georgetown in 1999 and runs SB Nation’s Georgetown affiliate site, Casual Hoya. (Full disclosure: I have written for Casual Hoya.)

Villanova’s championship run was not built around recruits like Karl-Anthony Towns or Harry Giles. The foundations of the Wildcats offense were players like Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, four-star prospects who both went to D.C. prep schools and weren’t pursued intently by the Hoyas. Villanova’s emergence has not been limited by the fact that the Wildcats are not Duke or Kentucky or even Connecticut. The country has seen that one of the new Big East’s small Catholic schools can succeed on a national scale. For Georgetown, a program that has been broken, or at least malfunctioning for the past few years, there’s finally something resembling a path forward.

Of course, if you want to fix something, you first have to acknowledge that it is, in fact, broken. For a long time, Georgetown basketball believed it was fine. And why not? Until last season, the program’s failures were dramatic and embarrassing, but they seemed random; flukes that came at the expense of teams that consistently placed in the top 20 of the KenPom ratings.

Except, Georgetown often succeeded despite neglecting its obvious flaws. The Hoyas, for years, struggled to inbound the ball when faced with a full-court press, even against lowly opponents. Their offensive system was stagnant and failed to empower the platoons of athletes that lined the roster. Rumors often swirled that conditioning was not emphasized in the team’s practices.

Debatably, Georgetown’s best group this decade, the 2012–13 team, lived and died with eventual lottery pick Otto Porter. The roster and half-court offensive system were not built to succeed on days when he wasn’t able to fulfill his role of one-man zone buster. In most games that season, Porter shined. But against FGCU, Porter had an off night, and the team had no backup plan.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Before he took the job at Georgetown, Thompson was the head coach at Princeton, his alma mater. The offense which has incubated there over the years is a slow, highly structured system that emphasizes backdoor cuts and frequent passes. Although Thompson is reluctant to call Georgetown’s system the “Princeton offense,” its offensive plan emphasizes all of the same principles. The system is built to accommodate Ivy League players competing against faster, more athletic competition from other conferences. But it seems out of place in a robust program that can recruit top athletes.

The teams of the past three seasons did not have a Porter-level talent to supercharge the Hoyas’ antiquated strategy. After repeated failure last season, it became clear that the team didn’t gain anything from running an offense made for programs that couldn’t take advantage of opportunities in transition. The Hoyas could have waited for another Porter to come along and carry the team with odds-defying play, but a faster, more mobile offense would allow for instant change by creating more opportunities, especially against less athletic opponents.

“I’ve gotten different lines of questioning about last year. Do you just forget about it? Not at all,” Thompson said at the team’s preseason media day. “I’ve said that we’re not going to keep picking that scab, but we’re not going to say, ‘Hey, let’s just forget about it, let’s just throw it away.’”

Thompson would not have kept this style of offense for so long if he didn’t believe in its merits, but last season’s struggles were impactful enough to encourage meaningful tweaks on the court — along with what was already coming off of it.

Traditionally, Georgetown basketball’s preseason media day has taken place in McDonough Gymnasium. But this year, Thompson and his players addressed reporters from the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, a gleaming, imposing new practice facility tucked into the corner of Georgetown’s tiny campus on the edge of Northwest Washington, D.C.

McDonough, where the team had practiced in past years, is 65 years old. In a generous light, the building is historic if unimpressive. But most would likely see it as something less favorable: a facility completely insufficient for the needs of a serious Division I program. The men’s and women’s basketball teams shared use of the building’s only court, which was also used by the Georgetown volleyball team. If conditioning was really not a priority in past years, it may have been because there wasn’t even enough time on the court to make it an emphasis. Plus, if the building didn’t deter recruits outright, top prospects were certainly not wowed by McDonough’s drab interior.

On the other hand, the Thompson Center, a massive $60 million, 144,000-square-foot building, especially impressive in its position directly adjacent to McDonough, contains two basketball gyms, one on top of the other, as well as other training facilities, locker rooms, offices for coaches, and almost anything else the program could conceivably need — aside from seating for spectators. (The men’s basketball team plays its home games at the Verizon Center in D.C.’s Chinatown, about 40 minutes away from campus via public transport.) Conditioning, or whatever else was excluded due to limited practice time, can now be a priority for the team. The gym is undoubtedly a valuable asset for the team from a functional perspective.

“We have 24-hour access to a gym, which was not the case before. … The effect that this building has is multifaceted,” Thompson said. “It does have all the bells and whistles. … It’s the nicest in the country. That’s a good thing.”

But what Thompson is slightly hesitant to acknowledge, potentially because of the project’s cost and scale, is its value as a recruiting tool. Now, blue chippers and, perhaps more importantly, the D.C. area’s best prospects will be hard-pressed to find a smoother, more impressive training experience at another school in the area. If the Hoyas roster doesn’t grow substantially stronger in the future, it surely won’t be because the school’s infrastructure was insufficient.

Although Georgetown has not attracted a McDonald’s All American since Monroe in 2008, its current team is still almost entirely comprised of former ESPN 100 prospects. In fact, last season’s team was exceptionally well-staffed with top athletes; the recruiting classes that grew up to be the team’s freshmen and sophomores were ranked 26th and seventh in the country, per ESPN. With then-senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the fifth-highest scorer in program history, and a handful of other upperclassmen with solid spots in Thompson’s rotation also in the mix, Georgetown’s worst team in 44 years was also its deepest.

But, the reins of the Princeton offense often caused the team to encounter long scoring droughts. In critical stretches of games, the Hoyas would go scoreless for five and six minutes at a time. And in a season splattered with tight losses, these stretches were instrumental in restricting the team’s success. During many of those mini-droughts, the ball would fall to Smith-Rivera, who would take an off-balance jumper with the shot clock winding down.

AP
AP

Smith-Rivera has since graduated, and now plays for the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s D-League affiliate. But with an influx of new guards, including graduate transfer Rodney Pryor, who averaged 18 points per game last season for Robert Morris, the speedy Jonathan Mulmore, who was the nation’s second-leading junior college scorer last season, and freshman Jagan Mosely, now the team’s starting point guard, the program is looking to jump-start the glacial play of a team that ranked 185th and 168th over the past two seasons, respectively, in adjusted tempo.

“Playing fast is part of the offense,” junior forward Isaac Copeland said at media day. “You know, you need defense to do that but, I mean, playing fast, pushing on the break, and being aggressive the whole entire shot clock.”

Thompson echoed Copeland, but not before emphasizing rebounding and defensive intensity, which have been Georgetown’s hallmarks since before Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams made slow play hip.

“We want to run,” Thompson said, “but we have to get stops and we have to rebound the ball.”

Of course, the only constant during this era of postseason disappointment is Thompson and his system. He’s come under plenty of criticism for not optimizing the team’s performance, but this year, the on-court approach seems set to change. For Georgetown’s critics, this season will be a fresh Rorschach test. For the team, it will be a chance to exorcise the program’s demons.

“We just stop and from top to bottom look at everything, how you do things, how you approach things, how you should change things, how you should alter things,” said Thompson. “You’ve heard me use the phrase ‘How are we going to skin the proverbial cat?’ We [had] to make some changes on how things were done.”

On Saturday, in the team’s season opener against South Carolina Upstate, the Hoyas flew. Early on in the game, Georgetown instituted a full-court press and grabbed points in transition. USC Upstate, admittedly, is less than a formidable opponent, but Georgetown’s 68 first-half points were the most in school history, and the final score, a 105–60 win, was only the fifth time that the team had broken 100 points under Thompson. In last year’s season opener against the similarly unintimidating Radford, the Hoyas scored only 80 points in a game that required two overtimes.

Pryor, rumored before the season to be the team’s sharpest weapon, was the focal point of an offense that looked like it had been injected with lightning. Pryor scored 32 points on 13-for-16 shooting from the field, including a 6-for-8 performance from 3. Four other Hoyas reached double digits. Still, the old-school Thompson said that he expected more from Pryor, who failed to notch a steal or an assist, and grabbed only one board. As good as the Hoyas looked, Thompson’s comments would imply that their ceiling is even higher than indicated on Saturday.

Tuesday, the Hoyas will face Maryland. Next Monday, they’re scheduled to play no. 4 Oregon in the first round of the Maui Invitational, a tournament well-stocked with top opponents. A matchup with rival no. 18 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome will come a month later. If this team is markedly different than last year’s edition, there will be no line of cupcake opponents prolonging its coming out party.

Junior L.J. Peak, the team’s second-leading scorer last season, offered a laugh-worthy line at media day when asked by reporters about his prediction for Georgetown’s performance in the Big East this upcoming season. The guard said that he expected the team to “destroy everybody.”

That’s taking the optimism surrounding the team to an absurd extreme, but fans are hesitantly hopeful.

“I don’t think any Georgetown fan can be faulted for being skeptical about the promise of suddenly playing faster and how this is going to change everything,” Geiger said. “But it goes beyond words when you look at the actions that the coaching staff has taken. Their roster is set up differently.”

Georgetown has gone through its tune-up. The Hoyas have finally made changes after a decade of refusing to admit that anything was wrong, and the machine looks as good as it can just one game into the season. But the Hoyas won’t play last season’s champion until early February. The progress toward redemption may have begun, but until then, we won’t know how much further the program has to go.