Hoyas just miss again in near-upset of No. 9 Villanova
Something is not quite right on the Hilltop this season.
I would like you to read that last sentence with the emphasis on the word "quite." Because I don’t think Georgetown is a vastly different team — minus, of course, NBA lottery pick Otto Porter Jr. – than last season, when the Hoyas shared the Big East regular-season title.
Because despite Georgetown’s 3-6 record in Big East play, despite its current five-game losing streak that has every chance of becoming six when the Hoyas face Michigan State on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, despite Georgetown losing its big man for the season due to academic troubles a few days back and then losing a nail-biter to Villanova on Monday night, I don’t think this is a bad team.
Not at all. It’s just that they’re not quite a good team, not quite an NCAA tournament team, and not quite the type of team we’ve come to expect from head coach John Thompson III.
And it’s not really his fault.
This is a team that really is almost there, as the Hoyas showed Monday by taking ninth-ranked Villanova to the wire before losing 65-60 in the final minute, but simply doesn’t have the personnel to get all the way there.
Since UCLA transfer Josh Smith, a 350-pound immovable tree in the paint that Thompson had game-planned around, has been shelved for the season because of academic issues, Georgetown has gone 1-6.
But two of those games were overtime losses. Monday’s defeat was a hard-fought, old-school Big East game that Georgetown easily could have won. The team I saw was literally one piece away from being mentioned among the Big East’s best. That piece might have been Porter staying for his junior year. Or Smith giving this team the post presence it so clearly lacks. Or a healthy Jabril Trawick, who played 12 minutes Monday in his first action since breaking his jaw six games ago.
Or maybe it was simply having 6-foot-9, 13-minute-a-game senior Moses Ayegba on the floor Monday. In another of the Hoyas’ line of bad breaks, Thompson learned a few hours before game time that Ayegba was suspended for one game by the NCAA because of an old pre-enrollment issue from several years ago.
It just shows how much one or two players can mean to a college basketball team.
"They’re missing two starters, and they’re in every game," Villanova coach Jay Wright said, referring to Trawick and Smith. "They’re right there. It’s such a fine line between winning and losing. Not having two starters and being in a game like this, it’s amazing that they’re doing what they’re doing."
You can diagnose the many problems of the Hoyas, but most of them come back to the paint. The Hoyas are next to last in the Big East in scoring and rebounding. The difference on Monday might have been getting to the foul line; Villanova shot 28 free throws, Georgetown only nine. The Hoyas still have the most dynamic backcourt duo in the Big East in senior Markel Starks and sophomore D-Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The two have been beasts, playing 474 out of a possible 490 minutes the past six games. Starks has played 90.8 percent of his team’s minutes, according to KenPom.com; that’s good for 33rd in the nation.
But when two guards combine to score nearly 50 percent of a team’s points, that’s not typically a formula for success.
So what’s the formula for success going forward, when the only chance at making the NCAA tournament seems like the Hail Mary shot of winning the Big East tournament?
After Monday’s game, I asked Thompson how he manages the morale and the confidence of a team that’s been so close so many times.
"We’ll see," Thompson shrugged. "We haven’t been in this situation too often. Don’t plan on being in it too long."
The upcoming stretch after Michigan State is an opportunity, as Georgetown will face perceived weaker Big East teams in four of its next five games.
But after that? Ugh.
It’s a tough end to the Hoyas’ Big East schedule, with Xavier (and productive big man Matt Stainbrook), then Marquette (with productive big man Davante Gardner), then Villanova (featuring productive slashing forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell), and finally Creighton (and inside-out matchup nightmare Doug McDermott).
"We’re a different team now than we anticipated coming into the year," Thompson said. "We’re a different team now than we were in the first half of this year. I don’t want to say this group won’t lose confidence, but this group won’t lose faith in each other."
Is it hard to manage morale when your team has been so close but fallen short so often?
"This is not a group that you walk out of here and you say, ‘The heck with it, on to the next one,’ " Thompson said. "No. It hurts. It hurts. But at the same time, we go back to the gym, we go back to the film room, and we’ll try to figure out how to get out of this hole. There’s a lot of season left to be played. We’re at the halfway point of conference play. We’re going to figure it out."
It depends what figuring it out means, I guess. If it means securing an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, I don’t know. At this point, that feels out the window. Thompson’s only missed the NCAA tournament once in the past eight years. And it’ll take an insane coaching job to turn this shorthanded team from not quite right into all right again.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.