From the day he enrolled at Georgetown, Markel Starks has practiced in the shadow of greatness, reminded of the Hoyas’ glory days by the 1984 national championship banner that hangs on the south wall of McDonough Arena, just above NCAA Final Four banners from 1982, 1985 and 2007.
On the eve of the 2013-14 season, Starks spoke eloquently about his desire to add to that proud collection, never having advanced beyond the NCAA tournament’s second round in three seasons on the Hilltop.
That goal out of reach, the senior co-captain has made his peace with a season that fell short of expectations but remains equally committed, he says, to adding to Georgetown’s postseason achievements when the Hoyas resume pursuit of the 2014 National Invitation Tournament title with Monday’s second-round game at top-seeded Florida State (20-13).
“I don’t think we’re done playing basketball at this point, and hopefully I’m not the only one that feels that way,” said the 6-foot-1 Starks, who has started every game this season. “We still have a lot to play for. As one of our coaches said, ‘Obviously, we’re not in the NCAA tournament, but we can still be a national champion.’ ”
It will likely take the full complement of Hoyas to topple the Seminoles, who are expected to start both of their shot-blocking 7-footers — Boris Bojanovsky (7-3, 240 pounds) and Michael Ojo (7-1, 290) — and boast shutdown defenders and double-digit scorers in the back court.
“They are so balanced at a high level,” Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. “You can think about their back court; you’ve got to go in and shut those guys down. You can accomplish that, but they have a front court that can kill you, and their wings can kill you.”
The winner of Monday’s game in Tallahassee takes on No. 3 Louisiana Tech in an NIT quarterfinal on Wednesday.
The last time the Hoyas were in the NIT, in 2009, they didn’t get past the first round, falling at Baylor. But in Tuesday’s opener against West Virginia, they made a strong statement against their former Big East foe, rallying for a 77-65 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak to Bob Huggins’s Mountaineers.
Though not as tall as Florida State, West Virginia shares a similar, tough-nosed defensive mind-set and knack for rebounding.
With the Hoyas’ front court struggling, Georgetown (18-14) was carried at both ends of the court by its guards. Sophomore D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera scored a season-high 32 points and combined with Starks and Jabril Trawick to account for 21 of the Hoyas’ 34 rebounds.
Thompson was blunt about the need for everyone to shoulder the rebounding load against Florida State. “We can’t be going into it depending on your back court to get 17 rebounds,” Thompson said. “Keeping them off the boards is very important.”
The Hoyas’ front court, around which so much of the season was built, suffered two major setbacks this season: The November dismissal of junior forward Greg Whittington, last season’s second-leading scorer, who was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament; then the announcement in late January that 6-10 center Joshua Smith had been ruled academically ineligible.
Starks dismissed any implication that Georgetown’s season was derailed by factors beyond its control.
“It’s still inexcusable,” Starks said. “What you put into it is what you get out of it. Our coaching staff does an excellent job of preparing us, but you also have to have some personal responsibility within yourself to say: ‘You know what? I’m going to do extra. I’m not going to rely on one of my teammates.’
“We always say, ‘Have your teammate’s back.’ But at the end of the day, in order to have your teammate’s back, you’ve got to have your own back. I think a lot of guys coming into the season were [thinking], ‘We were so good last year, I’m going to take a day off here, take a day off and not work as hard today.’
“I think across the board, as a collective, we had a lot of days like that.”