Forgrave: Hoyas determined to battle unfamiliar adversity
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week I watched Georgetown drop another heartbreaker, a home loss to No. 9 Villanova that was decided in the final minute. The loss took the Hoyas’ losing streak to five, matching their longest losing streak in John Thompson III’s decade on The Hilltop.
A team that one year before had the second-ranked defense in the nation, a team that one year before had torn off an 11-game winning streak to climb into the top five in the AP poll, was now hemorrhaging. The Hoyas matched their loss total from last season on Jan. 20 in an overtime loss to Marquette. They were in the Big East’s cellar, decimated by injuries (starting guard Jabril Trawick had missed five games with a broken jaw) and classroom issues (the team had gone 1-6 since starting big man Joshua Smith was declared ineligible for the remainder of the season because of academics).
After the Villanova loss, you could sense in the press conference room the frustration of a team whose season was spiraling out of control. Senior Markel Starks, who has experienced only success during his time at Georgetown, answered reporters’ questions perfunctorily. It was as if he knew that if he talked too much, he might reveal the inner turmoil of this team’s struggles.
"Coach already talked about it," the usually colorful Starks said to reporters’ questions, maybe a half-dozen times.
What a difference one win can make.
I get that Georgetown’s win this weekend over seventh-ranked Michigan State comes with a few asterisks attached. The first and most obvious asterisk is that Michigan State is decimated, too. Starting center Adreian Payne, the central cog in coach Tom Izzo’s system, is still out with a sprained foot, and Branden Dawson, who averages nearly a double-double, is out with a broken hand. The other asterisk is that this was a non-conference game tucked inside Georgetown’s Big East schedule, meaningless as far as this team’s 3-6 record at the halfway point in the Big East.
But to a team that’s gone through a month of adversity, this win meant a confidence boost, an RPI boost, and perhaps most important of all, a mood boost.
"It’s a relief to get a win," Starks said after the Michigan State win.
"That’s a good win, and I would feel that way regardless of who the opposition was, to tell you the truth, the way we’ve been going," Thompson said.
When I hung around the Georgetown program for a day between the Villanova loss and the Michigan State win, it struck me that the upperclassmen hadn’t experienced this sort of downturn at any point in their careers, and they were struggling to deal with it. Senior forward Nate Lubick told me he didn’t think he’d lost more than three games in a row in anything he’d done in his life. Going into the season, they knew they’d be a different team without do-it-all forward Otto Porter, who went third overall in the NBA Draft, but could never have anticipated having to reinvent themselves first going into the season and then for a second time in January after losing two starters.
"Yeah, it has been tough," Lubick said. "The main reason for that is this is Georgetown, it’s the program. This isn’t a program that’s built or has anything to do with moral victories. We haven’t really lost like this since we’ve been here. This is an adjustment period. We have to figure out how to get out of this hole. We know we can do it."
"Walking back to the tunnel after the (Villanova) game, most people are thinking, ‘I know this did not just happen again,’" said junior forward Mikael Hopkins, who has been elevated back to a starter’s role after Smith was suspended. "The second loss, then the third one – this can’t be real. Knowing that each game, we definitely should have won. We put ourselves in the position to win. That has been the most frustrating part."
Being around a big-time college program that suddenly is experiencing adversity for the first time can be a jarring thing. It’s not like a professional team that has been through the grind and knows how to weather the ups and downs. In college a conference season is only two months long. In the 18-game Big East season, a five-game skid like Georgetown’s can be fatal for its March aspirations.
I made the mistake of asking Lubick if the team was already experiencing the sensation of trying to salvage this season.
"When I think of something being salvaged, I think of something being totally lost, gutted, having no hope," he said. "And this team does not have ‘no hope.’"
"Looking at it as something that needs to be salvaged is exactly what we can’t do," he continued. "We have to realize every game presents an opportunity to get better. Every game presents an opportunity for us to get back on course. Every game presents an opportunity for us to rack up wins. That’s what we have to do at this point. We haven’t been outmatched talent-wise in any of our games. We have to believe we are able to win every single game we go into."
Sure, there’s a little bit of sports psychologist-style forced optimism there. But I do think this is how Thompson runs his program. He’s an even-keeled, philosophical coach, in many ways the opposite of his intimidating, scowling father. Thompson makes a point of keeping his hands in his pockets when he’s coaching, figuring flailing his arms at officials would make him more likely to get a technical. It works; he’s only gotten two Ts in his decade at the helm.
So is Georgetown going to suddenly turn things around and tear off an 11-game winning streak like last year, or surprisingly win the Big East tournament? No. The Big East team most likely to do that this year is St. John’s, which won impressively over Marquette on Saturday. This is a hugely different Georgetown team than last season. If Porter had stayed and Smith were eligible, we’d be talking about another top-5 Georgetown squad. As it stands, the Hoyas feel NIT-bound. Their RPI is hovering around 60, which isn’t an impossible number to overcome, and KenPom.com has them ranked at 59th.
But I no longer will think of this Georgetown season as something that needs to be salvaged. With a coach like Thompson, the Hoyas might struggle, but the morale won’t spiral out of control.
"In sports there’s a time you can win a bunch of games, there’s a time you can lose a bunch of games," Hopkins told me. "When you lose, you can’t just give up. You need to fight harder. It’s not like the season is going to end. You’d rather finish 20-8 than 15-15."
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.