PHILADELPHIA — A full year later, Markel Starks still recalls the miserable feeling in the locker room after Georgetown fell to North Carolina State in the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament.
So does Jabril Trawick, who remembers the devastating realization that he’d never again play alongside seniors Jason Clark and Henry Sims.
Even freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who hadn’t enrolled at Georgetown, felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. In a matter of months, he was going to be a Hoya, too. As the game slipped away, the Oak Hill standout wanted to crawl through the TV screen and onto the court to spark the come-from-behind rally that never came.
No one needed reminding this week. But as the Hoyas prepared for Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, Coach John Thompson III asked his players how they felt one year ago, when their postseason ambitions came crashing down at the hands of a No. 11 seed.
“We didn’t make the winning plays down the stretch,” Starks, a junior, recalled of that 66-63 loss to the Wolfpack. “I think that has been a recurring theme throughout my tenure here: We didn’t make the winning plays in those extremely tough games.”
It’s a pattern that this Georgetown team — which earned the No. 2 seed in the South Region — is committed to breaking.
In their four NCAA tournament appearances since reaching the 2007 Final Four, the Hoyas haven’t advanced past the first weekend — falling each time to double-digit seeds. In 2011, 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth pulled off the first-round upset en route to its stirring Final Four charge. Last year, after defeating Belmont in their opener, the third-seeded Hoyas fell to the hot-shooting Wolfpack.
“We knew we could have gone farther,” junior forward Nate Lubick said. “We should have gone farther, we had an opportunity to go farther. It’s really about putting that behind us. We’ve got to be able to move on.”
If there’s a silver lining to a six-year pattern of under-performing in the NCAA tournament, it’s that the Hoyas aren’t likely to take little-known Florida Gulf Coast lightly.
The latest addition to Florida’s public university system, FGCU (as the school prefers to be known) didn’t open its doors until after the current Georgetown lineup was born. But since admitting its first student in 1997, the Fort Myers-based campus has grown rapidly. And basketball has served as both a rallying point and marketing vehicle.
“It’s really a chance for us to put our best foot forward,” says Douglas Harrison, president of FGCU’s faculty senate and a member of its Board of Trustees.
The Eagles clinched their first NCAA tournament berth in just their second year of postseason eligibility by winning the Atlantic Sun tournament. That has done wonders for building name recognition for the school, according to second-year Coach Andy Enfield, who worked overtime last season convincing prospective recruits that FGCU wasn’t a community college.
Georgetown, by contrast, is making its 29th NCAA tournament appearance.
That’s one of many respects in which Friday’s opponents differ.
Georgetown’s school colors, blue and gray, date from the post-Civil War era and were chosen to symbolize unity between the North and South. FGCU’s Gulf Coast’s colors, emerald green and cobalt blue, were chosen to symbolize earth and water at a school that has made environmental stewardship a core value. Its president drives a Chevy Volt, its electric charging station prominently located outside his office, Harrison notes.
Georgetown sits on a hilltop in the nation’s capital; FGCU abuts the Everglades, with wild boar and alligators apt to wander across campus.
But on the basketball court, the differences between the tradition steeped Hoyas and nascent Eagles aren’t so pronounced.
Under the tutelage of Enfield, a former NBA shooting coach who set the NCAA record for free throw shooting percentage (92.5) as a player at Johns Hopkins, the Eagles average 73 points.
They play a dizzying array of defenses designed to flummox opponents. They have the size and length to match up with just about any Division I power. And they beat ACC champion Miami earlier in the season and acquitted themselves well in losses to Duke and VCU.
“As fans, as reporters, as writers, we’ve been forced to categorize teams — ‘This is a power six, this is a high major, this is a mid-major, this is a low major’ — so we walk in with these labels,” Thompson noted Thursday. “But then you take away the label, you take away the names on the jerseys, you put 10 bodies on the court, it’s close. I mean, everybody is pretty much the same.”
For the Hoyas to advance, they’ll need to defend as fiercely as they have this season, trust one another and channel that bad feeling from one year ago to a constructive end.
“At the end of the day, there’s going to be one team that’s happy,” Thompson said. “I think this group understands that feeling [of losing early] and understands what we need to do. Now we just have to go out and execute.”