Another NCAA tournament loss leaves John Thompson III, Hoyas searching for answers

Jason Reid
Columnist March 22, 2013

One upset during a stretch of games could be considered a fluke. Wipe away your tears and move on. But five difficult-to-stomach defeats in as many tournament appearances is a major problem for Georgetown.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Georgetown’s most recent tournament flop also was — by far — its most embarrassing. Seeded second in the South Region, Georgetown suffered a 78-68 loss here Friday night to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

Anything less than a convincing win for the Hoyas, considering their previous troubles at the most important time of year, would have been a downer for a program eager to regain its tournament swagger.

Instead, they met disaster.

Only six No. 2 seeds had fallen to a No. 15 seed before Friday night. Georgetown became the unlucky seventh. It hardly ever happens because it’s not supposed to happen.

The selection committee strives to put elite teams on second lines. Georgetown earned a share of the Big East regular season title. It steadily climbed the national polls while reeling off 11 consecutive conference victories.

None of that matters now. The Hoyas again faded — with so much at stake.

Florida Gulf Coast clearly wasn’t intimidated. About midway through the first half, the Eagles seemed to realize there was no reason for concern. Ahead by two points at halftime, the Eagles took charge after the break.

Florida Gulf Coast sliced through the Hoyas’ defense, the foundation of their success in the regular season, and never looked back.

The Eagles led by 19.

“Extreme disappointment,” Coach John Thompson III said.

That definitely wasn’t what the Hoyas envisioned. They wouldn’t go out this way again, players vowed. Not after learning from past mistakes. They knew what needed to be done: play to their capability and advance. Instead, they played horribly.

For Georgetown, sophomore forward Otto Porter Jr., and defense provided a winning mixture all season.

The Hoyas lost the formula.

“The thing that we pride ourselves on . . . we just couldn’t get stops,” point guard Markel Starks said.

Porter didn’t make shots. He finished the season — and possibly his Georgetown career — with two of his worst shooting performances.

The Big East player of the year missed 12 of 17 field goal attempts on Friday.

He made only 4 of 13 as Georgetown lost to Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

Georgetown needed its star to pick it up. Porter had to be at his best. He wasn’t even close.

“When things aren’t going your way, winning is hard,” said Porter, who’s projected as a lottery pick if he declares for the NBA draft.

If Porter returns to the Hoyas, he’ll join everyone else in the program in trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong in March.

Since reaching the 2007 Final Four, the Hoyas been eliminated in either their first or second tournament game five times. During that span, they were seeded second, third, sixth, third and second, respectively, in their regions.

When teams fall short of expectations — especially as often as the Hoyas have — fans and the media want answers. Usually, focusing on the coach is where people start.

The easiest explanation for the Hoyas’ tournament woes is that Thompson simply isn’t very good at preparing Georgetown for the single-elimination party, Thompson’s critics would argue.

Only one flaw with that theory: He can flat-out coach, and this season Big East coaches voted him coach of the year. During 13 seasons as a head coach, Thompson has won six regular season league titles, including a share of this season’s Big East championship.

These Hoyas started 0-2 in conference play. Greg Whittington, their second-leading scorer and rebounder and best defender, was declared academically ineligible in January. Still, they rallied behind Thompson.

What does any of that have to do with the tournament? Everything.

Once the tournament starts, Thompson doesn’t suddenly forget how to coach.

Like all coaches, he adds a new wrinkle or two. But Thompson basically maintains the same routine that got him here.

It’s not Thompson’s fault the Hoyas missed many open shots. Thompson didn’t want Starks to pick up two fouls in the first half, prompting the coach to take him out, which messed up the rhythm on offense.

Thompson does have a Final Four appearance on his résumé. That’s a fact.

What’s also true is that, under Thompson, things usually go horribly wrong for Georgetown in the tournament. Lower-seeded teams always seem to improve against Georgetown. Davidson, Ohio, Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina State, Florida Gulf Coast — each booted the Hoyas from the tournament.

There’s more parity in college basketball than ever. With many of the best players bolting for the NBA after only one season, the opening rounds of the tournament have had a wide-open feel for some time.

It used to be that there was a major drop-off from the top 25 teams to the rest of the field. Generally, the teams seeded Nos. 1 and 2 were considered dominant teams. Not as much these days.

Still, Georgetown’s performance in the tournament has to improve. Thompson wants Georgetown to be a perennial power.

That can’t happen if the Hoyas only are giants in the regular season.

“More than anyone on this earth, I’ve tried to analyze it, think about, look at it, see what we could do, should do, differently,” Thompson said. “And . . . I don’t know.”

Done with work much earlier than he expected again, Thompson will have a lot more time to think about it.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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