How to fix Georgetown’s stunning string of March Madness disasters

Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 25, 2013

Anybody can lose to Florida Gulf Coast this year. They’re good and they’re hot. And anybody could have lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA basketball tournament two years ago. VCU was underrated and reached the Final Four.

But in a span of six years it should be impossible for a program as strong and as Big East-tested as the Georgetown Hoyas to lose in March Madness to Davidson, Ohio (by 15), VCU, a 12-loss North Carolina State team, and, now, Florida Gulf Coast. That’s a stunning streak of big-stage disasters.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

In every case, the Hoyas, seeded second, third, sixth, third and second, were large favorites but were beaten by teams seeded 10th, 14th, 11th, 11th and now 15th. That’s a pattern. And that’s a problem.

The dilemma on the Hilltop isn’t any one defeat in any particular year. It may be tougher than that. Georgetown’s exceptional coach, John Thompson III, may have to reevaluate, tweak and adapt the teachings of his Princeton coach and mentor Pete Carril so that Georgetown teams in the future can play up to their ability in the NCAA tournament.

Repeatedly over the last nine years, JTIII has taken his teams as far, or further, in the regular season than the experts predicted. In general, until March, Thompson’s teams have been overachievers. But, ultimately, that’s not enough if, as Thompson said after the FGCU loss, Georgetown hopes to “hang another big banner on the wall of McDonough Arena.”

Does a methodical pace, offensive efficiency and, especially, limiting the number of possessions in a game — all smart Ivy League tricks that Carril conceived to help his team beat more talented foes — carry over to the sudden-death March format that’s decimated the Hoyas five times in six years?

At Princeton, where JTIII played and was an assistant coach, Carril conceived a brilliant system that gave him the maximum chance to beat better teams outside the Ivy League and also to defeat teams of roughly equal ability within the league. Carril didn’t have to worry about upsets very much. The bad teams Princeton played were really bad.

Carril’s system works. And it has functioned exceptionally well for Thompson at Georgetown in the regular season against Big East teams of roughly equal ability, when the Hoyas’ efficiency, discipline and defense have been decisive. If Georgetown loses a few games it might have won with a different style, it all comes out in the wash.

But there may be a weakness in the Carril method, as adapted by Thompson. You can’t have everything both ways in sports. The fewer possessions in a basketball game, the more vulnerable the better team becomes to weaker teams because they have shortened the game. By reducing the data sample, you introduce more outlier results.

Also, faster-tempo games and more possessions produce more exhaustion and force the underdog to go deeper down its bench to use its seventh-, eighth- and ninth-best players who, presumably, cannot match the bench of a Georgetown. The Hoyas never really tested the depth of the Florida Gulf Coast bench. The underdog either exposes its worst players or else it runs the risk of having an exhausted team for the final minutes.

Along the same lines, faster tempo and more possessions increase the potential for foul trouble — a fate that often hurts underdogs much worse.

When Georgetown watches the tape again (and again), it will surely see that, as soon as it fell behind by 19 points in the second half Friday night and desperately upped the pace with full-court pressure, the FGCU lead fell to as low as four points.

This is only the beginning of a long discussion for the Georgetown program and its fans. No one person is likely to dope out the true nature of the problem. But, as JTIII said to The Post’s Jason Reid: “Obviously, we have to do something. . . . You have to find [what’s wrong] and fix it. . . . But I will find it.”

That could be an emotionally and psychologically tough trek for Thompson if it means revisiting Carril’s methods, which he has already altered to a degree.

Ironically, Big John had just the opposite philosophy — end-to-end pressure defense as an option when needed, plus constantly pushing for a faster tempo. The best Hoyas teams of that era thrived in a chaos that they had created. Taught by Red Auerbach as a Boston Celtic, John Thompson Jr. believed in the fast break, the spontaneous explosion of talent. And part of him just loved to raise hell and see what happened next.

No coach can deviate too far from his core personality and be successful. Thompson’s son is meticulous, unemotional and studious by nature. He’s more a teacher of techniques and, for me, probably a better game coach than his father. He’s already done far too much, including a trip to the Final Four in 2007, to require any radical makeover. And he’s run a classy program whose players graduate.

But something needs to change.

If the Hoyas could just get past the first weekend, their style of play and Thompson’s coaching instincts would probably do extremely well deeper in March because the same factors that have produced Big East success would translate to the tougher teams they’d face then. Remember how the Hoyas tore up North Carolina to reach the Final Four in ’07?

Perhaps, late in the regular season, Thompson could emphasize some faster-tempo approaches that would be options if the Hoyas find themselves in early-round trouble. The Hoyas have months to consider those, and countless other ideas. They shouldn’t change too much, because they’re closer to their goal than their March results suggest. But they haven’t just been unlucky to hit hot teams. The Hoyas have often looked lost at sea, too.

Good thing Thompson went to Princeton. If he can figure out this mind-bending puzzle, then March may become a happy month on the Hilltop. But it sure isn’t now.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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