“That’s the objective,” Starks said in a recent interview, speaking about the importance of a strong NCAA tournament run after never getting past the second round in his tenure on the Hilltop. “Obviously it’s good to look that far, but you also have to focus on the here-and-now. Just because you’re looking that far doesn’t mean you’re ultimately going to get that far.”
The here-and-now at Georgetown is a 7-2 record entering Saturday’s game at No. 18 Kansas. The Hoyas’ first true road game of the season will also be the first visit in team history to Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks enjoy arguably the greatest home-court advantage in college basketball.
The game will hold special meaning for Starks, whose father is from East St. Louis and who expects to have several relatives on hand. But as he well knows, the Kansas game is one among 30 regular-season contests and comes relatively early in a season in which the Hoyas are learning to score, and win, without do-it-all forward Otto Porter Jr., chosen third overall in the NBA draft.
Through the Hoyas’ nine games to date, both Starks and squad have had impressive stretches and puzzling lapses. Their 85-76 victory over Elon was a testament to both, with Georgetown falling behind in the first half due to lax perimeter defense and suspect shooting, then clamping down on defense and hitting 65 percent from the field in the second half. Starks scored 16 of his game-high 21 points in the late-game rally.
Coach John Thompson III chafes when asked to rate Starks’s performance to date, arguing that there’s no value in early-season analysis. But the coach has unequivocal confidence in Starks as his proxy on court.
“He understands what we’re trying to do; he understands the bigger picture,” Thompson said of Starks, who is averaging 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game. “The sense of urgency of seniors is heightened as it relates to the freshmen who think you’re going to be in college forever. Markel has that sense of urgency. He knows everything must be right, and he has a way of conveying that to his teammates.”
Leadership is a skill Starks has cultivated since childhood, working on it as assiduously as his free-throw shooting (currently 90.9 percent), which has bailed the Hoyas out of tight games more than once this season.
It started with lessons from his father, who taught him from age 9 to be comfortable shaking hands and introducing himself to adults. At 13 and 14, the Accokeek native soaked up life lessons about the pitfalls to avoid from Washington basketball legends Stacy Robinson and Ed Swells, his mentors as a young AAU player in District Heights.
“They’d always talk to me about mistakes they made that they didn’t want me to make,” Starks says, recalling the sandwiches they’d share throughout an adolescence devoted to basketball.
And as a standout at Georgetown Prep, Starks estimates he didn’t go more than 12 days over his four-year career without talking to his coach, Dwayne Bryant, a former Hoya point guard.
“It was constant dialogue: on being a better point guard, being a better player, better teammate, better person,” recalls Starks, who took part in Prep’s debate team his junior year. “I was always fiery because the coaches I had growing up were always fiery. Coach Bryant always told me, ‘There is a time and a place for everything.’ And he told me, ‘You’ve got to know how to talk to guys when you need them to do certain things.’ You can’t talk to everybody the same way; certain guys you wrap your arms around. And I’m still learning.”
His efforts show on the court, where he stands much taller than his 6-2 height among his teammates, whether that’s calming down Jabril Trawick at the split-second a particularly volatile exchange could have escalated into something more or cutting a glance at 6-10 center Joshua Smith after a technical foul triggered a 7-0 run by Elon with less than two minutes remaining.
“The game is mental,” notes Starks, an avid chess player. “When you have a lot of alpha-males around, you want to keep everybody level-headed. The moment you blow a fuse could be a turning point in the game. Passion is great. But there is a time and place for everything.”
And as a senior, Starks knows this is his time to be great — and his last chance to lead the Hoyas back to the Final Four.
“In some shape or form, you want to be remembered,” Starks said. “You don’t want to be just a guy who played here. When people speak of Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Othella Harrington, they run off all these because of how far they went in the tournament and the success they had. I know myself and the guys on the floor right now. We work too hard not to share those same stories. I think we’re good enough. But until we actually go out and do it, it’s just talk.”