By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009
It could have been perceived as a snub when Big East basketball coaches met behind closed doors last fall and picked Georgetown, the league's two-time defending regular season champion, to finish seventh.
But in interviews immediately afterward, coaches cited two factors behind their mediocre expectations: the key starters that Georgetown had lost; and the number of established teams with key players returning, such as Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Marquette.
In retrospect, the coaches were more right than wrong -- erring, if at all, in giving Coach John Thompson III the benefit of the doubt in projecting his team's ability to contend despite a major overhaul of its roster.
With four games remaining in the regular season, Georgetown stands 12th in the 16-team Big East, solidly outside even the most generous cut-off for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament.
The latest setback came over the weekend at Verizon Center, where the Hoyas didn't lose a single game last season. On Saturday, they lost their fourth at home since the start of the year, falling to 10th-ranked Marquette, 78-72.
And the manner of the defeat encapsulated the very argument Thompson's Big East rivals had made in so dramatically lowering expectations for the 2008-09 Hoyas before the first ball was tossed up.
In the season's second loss to Marquette, as in so many losses that preceded it, the Hoyas were undermined by their lack of poise down the stretch and outplayed by the savvy of a more seasoned team.
"I don't want to oversimplify it, but in many ways it's experience," a grim-faced Thompson said afterward. "I don't think we played poorly today. We showed improvement in a few areas. But coming down the stretch in these tight games, we have to execute better than the other team. And [Marquette] -- and they're all seniors -- executed better at the key stretches."
Tonight's game against seventh-ranked Louisville (21-5, 12-2) offers the Hoyas a chance to build on that incremental improvement. But it's unclear where even a resounding upset would leave Georgetown (14-11, 5-9) at this point, with only a slender thread of hope remaining for an NCAA berth.
Two scenarios remain: sweeping the four remaining games or winning the Big East tournament. And both are remote.
Georgetown has beaten only three ranked teams this season (then-No. 17 Memphis, No. 2 Connecticut, and No. 8 Syracuse) and none since Jan. 14, when its downward spiral began.
Tonight's game against Louisville won't crackle with the electricity of last year's finale, when the regular season Big East title was at stake.
Georgetown won, 55-52, on a three-pointer by DaJuan Summers with 40 seconds remaining. And the reward was the school's first back-to-back league titles, a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament and loads of confidence and momentum heading into the postseason.
This season's trajectory has gone the opposite direction. And it's not simply because of specific players lost. Freshman center Greg Monroe may not be as tall as 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, but Monroe is more versatile and agile than Hibbert was at this stage in his development. Sophomore guard Chris Wright may not boast the three-point shooting accuracy of Jonathan Wallace, but he's far quicker and more explosive.
More than any given player, the loss that cost the Hoyas most dearly was the loss of chemistry and familiarity among the starters.
That's the edge that Marquette had when it took the court against Georgetown on Saturday.
With four seniors in the lineup, it didn't matter than Marquette was shorter at every position than the Hoyas. The Golden Eagles didn't get rattled when Georgetown went on a 9-2 run in the first half. Their coach, Buzz Williams, didn't even call a timeout during the stretch, confident that his players knew intuitively, after four seasons together, how to reclaim the momentum.
"I have great trust and great faith in our players," Williams said.
Williams limited his halftime speech to two salient points: Defend Georgetown's three-point shots and work harder on the offensive boards.
His seniors took it from there.
Georgetown made seven three-point baskets in the first half, one in the second half. And Georgetown grabbed seven offensive rebounds in the first half, only two in the second half.
"It's difficult," said Wright, who led the Hoyas with 17 points, in the somber postgame news conference. "We were in this game again. We had another great opportunity to come out with a win. But it's over. We've got to go on to the next game."