"Georgetown had not played a home season finale with Syracuse since Patrick Ewing's last home game in 1985, and with a guest list that included Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, John Duren, David Wingate, Mike Hancock, and the second most infamous name in the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry--Michael Graham--the old guard was on hand to see the latest generation of Georgetown men make their mark upon this storied series. Emotions ran high for the game. Students began filing into the downtown arena at 9:30 am, many had stayed overnight for the first time since the epic win over #1 Duke. For these students, this was their Duke game, having been in junior high school when the likes of Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert ran alongside the Georgetown student section. ESPN College Gameday made a first time visit to the arena, and while the expected contingent of Syracuse fans begrudgingly bought Hoya Hoop Club memberships and plied StubHub for seats in the upper levels, they (for once) were no match for the loudest Georgetown crowd in a generation, perhaps back to that Saturday afternoon in Landover in 1985."
--HoyaSaxa.com, March 10, 2013
When it was 2013, it was a very good year.
One would have been reluctant to named any school other than Georgetown University as the standard bearer of the new, yet old Big East conference heading into March of that season. A regular entrant to the national poll, a program reborn in remarkable speed following the public exit of Craig Esherick a decade earlier, Georgetown stood among the top echelon of schools in the nation, and its 22 point wallop of Syracuse, 17th ranked no less, was a public vindication of its move to reform the Big East in its own image rather than slink off to the Atlantic 10 or settle in with Tulane and Tulsa in some sort of haphazard scheduling arrangement in the wake of ESPN's not so private raiding of the conference to sell its football coverage.
There was no doubt that afternoon as Georgetown collected its tenth Big East regular season title in 33 years that this was a program without limits. And yet, no one could have seen what was to come.
The Associated Press Top 10 that week was not only a snapshot of its time, but a harbinger for the years to come in college basketball. Six of the ten are ranked in this season's poll. Five of the ten would play in a Final Four over the next four seasons, two to a regional final, another two to the round of 16.
The names from that 2013 poll remain at the top of their game: Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana, Louisville, Michigan, Kansas, Michigan State, Miami, Ohio State. Of these ten, one is nowhere to be found. That team is Georgetown.
Once was the Big East standard-bearer, the Hoyas open its season Sunday as a distant entrant in a conference which has thrived in spite of its shortcomings. How did this all happen, and what lessons can be taken for its next era?
Georgetown doesn't talk about the recent past anymore. Oh, they'll talk about Patrick Ewing's past, as if the class of 1985 All-American is riding in alone to lead the Hoyas back to the top of the mountain by the sheer will of his determination. That's unfair to him and unfair to the process. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was this program.
To understand the lessons of the past is excellent preparation for the future, a future that is much, much different than that brave new world Georgetown found itself in the spring of 2013. A Big East which had defined Georgetown and all that it stood for looked to be in ruins, saved only by a sleight of hand that landed Georgetown, on behalf of seven of the eight also-rans from ESPN's marauding, the birthright it valued far more than NCAA shares or an office lease in Providence.
Georgetown bought back the name, the record book, the Garden. The uncertainty around a new conference, joined by very un-eastern teams from Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Omaha, was that a very old, familiar name was at the forefront.
Today's Big East is all about Villanova, who owns the league as UConn did in its heyday. Resurgent programs at Seton Hall and Providence give hope to the old guard as programs that chafed under the weight of the larger schools which kept them in the second division for the better part of a decade. Xavier, Creighton, and Butler bring sellout crowds to the conference, while its two most storied programs, St. John's and Georgetown, are not quite forgotten but otherwise filed away in a "better luck next year" category.
It didn't have to be this way, of course, but four traps sent the Hoyas' fortunes spinning to where it lands today. Any one of the four is recoverable, but all were not.
GEORGETOWN LOST THE LOCAL RECRUITING GAME.
No school hits a home run on every recruit, nor do they need to. For every Patrick Ewing, David Wingate, and Reggie Williams, there was Victor Morris, David Dunn, and Grady Mateen.
The early John Thompson III recruiting classes had their shortcomings (Cornelio Guibunda, Josh Thornton, Octavius Spann) and some questionable calls (Marc Egerson) but more often than not, recruited the core of championship material: Wallace. Sapp. Summers. Green. Hibbert. Four graduates, three NBA veterans, contributors all.
Throughout his first decade as coach, Thompson maintained the bloodlines of a local recruiting base that made Georgetown the prime destination for its All-Met teams. Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, Julian Vaughn, Jason Clark, Mikael Hopkins, and Greg Whittington kept the home fires burning and with it, the level of core talent that allowed Georgetown to survive and thrive in the heavyweight era of the Big East. From 2006 to 2013, GU finished in the top half of the division six times in eight seasons, with three regular season titles.
Throughout its recent history, as local talent went, so went the Hoyas. So what did Georgetown do in the 2010's? They lost sight of the core.
In 2012, not a single area recruit was signed by the Hoyas, the first time since Craig Esherick's final recruiting class which featured Matt Causey, Sead Dizdarevic, Ray Reed, and Ken Izzo. In 2012, the names were different, but only one provided any core to the post-Otto Porter teams to come:
- - Brandon Bolden, an overmatched forward who became the first scholarship recruit in over two decades who was unable to score a point his entire season. He scored a total of 11 points as a transfer to Kansas State until he received a medical discharge from that team.
- - Stephen Domingo, whose college career was ruined when Georgetown convinced him to leave high school a year early and spend two years on the GU bench. Domingo migrated back to California, where his scoring touch never developed beyond that of his high school days. In two seasons, he scored 29 points.
- - David Allen, once the leading scorer in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, was relegated to one minute dribble-out-the-clock routines that accompanied walk-ons not named Wallace or Caprio. The recruited walk-on scored eight points in three seasons.
- - Bradley Hayes, who, were it not for his heroic effort to save the 2015 NCAA first round game versus Eastern Washington (Georgetown's only NCAA win in the last five years), would have been labeled a bust, with 30 points through his first three seasons.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was all that was left from that class. Like Kevin Braswell before him, DSR carried the load for four seasons without earning the plaudits so many teammates of the past once did.
One bad class for Thompson may have been salvageable. Three classes were not.
The class of 2013 saw Reggie Cameron, who never reached his potential, and the chronically underachieving Josh Smith, whose lack of effort on and off the court did Georgetown no favors.
The class of 2014 featured five promising high school prospects, and one makes it to his senior year. The departures of Paul White and Isaac Copeland exposed the thin state of the GU bench, while L.J. Peak left early and Tre Campbell decided he could keep a year of eligibility and be a student instead rather than sit on Patrick Ewing's bench. The only returnee, Alonzo Mourning III, has scored a total of 37 points in three seasons.
What did all these classes have in common? Just one - Campbell-- was a local product. Where were the local kids? Well, ask Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, all Phil Booth, who followed Jay Wright to the Main Line and right to the NCAA championship.
If the 1985 Villanova Wildcats won its title from the New England kids Dom Perno missed out on, the 2016 Wildcats won its title from the DC kids John Thompson III let slip away.
"I don't know if I'm different from everybody else, but there's really only two things to me that are really, really important - recruiting good players in the program and developing those players once they get here.' said Alabama football coach Nick Saban. In his later years, John Thompson III did neither.
GEORGETOWN LOST THE ASSISTANT COACHES' GAME.
Any head coach worth his salt will tell you: assistant coaches make all the difference. A head coach doesn't have enough hours in a day that provide the one on one coaching to 15 different athletes in 15 differing stages of maturity. If he has a staff capable of greatness, greatness follows.
And in the ascendant years of the Thompson III era, he had a cadre of assistants that were not only peers, but understood the nature and nuance of the offense that Thompson executed like a symphony conductor.
Robert Burke and Sydney Johnson were hugely underrated as part of the mid-2000's renaissance. Burke played high school ball at Gonzaga and served as assistant coach at Princeton alongside Thompson. Sydney Johnson, 10 years younger, also came up through the ranks at Princeton. Together with Thompson, they proved the Ivy ways could thrive at the highest levels of the sport.
Burke and Johnson were long gone by 2013. So were David Cox, matt Brennan and Kevin Hunter. The assistants from 2014-17 were not up to the standards set by their predecessors. Three seasons of Tavaras Hardy and Kevin Sutton yielded diminishing returns, while a major refresh of coaches in 2016-17 with Anthony Solomon and Akbar Waheed yielded few if any changes.
Of John Thompson III's 13 assistants from 2004 to 2017, five became head coaches, but all but Kevin Broadus were gone from the program after 2013.
For fans who grumbled about the failure of the Princeton offense in Thompson's later years, was the problem the offense, or the teachers? If the later teams of this era couldn't execute the offense, and Thompson didn't adjust, that's on the coach. But the offense didn't have the assistant coaches vital to the education needed for its proficiency.
GEORGETOWN LOST THE SCHEDULING GAME.
One of the things Georgetown did very, very well during the John Thompson III era was understand how strength of scheduling prepared and propelled the Hoyas for national prominence.
From scheduling #1 Illinois his opening season, Thompson made it clear that Georgetown would not hide behind the long-held perception that GU avoided meaningful pre-Big East competition. Opponents like Michigan, Vanderbilt and Oregon burnished the strength of the schedule, which made the 2006 win over Duke even more powerful. That game was not an upset, it was a validation.
One of the things a competitive schedule requires as well is to know that while you can't win them all, you have to win the games you are required to. Excepting Old Dominion, a program which has had Georgetown's number of the years, few if any of Georgetown's non-conference losses from 2006 to 2013 raised alarm bells: Oregon, Memphis, Tennessee, Kansas, Indiana. The concurrent strength of schedule boost from playing quality opponents made Georgetown a top 20-30 team even if it didn't have 25 wins every year.
But the rule of competitive scheduling is that while it's OK to lose to a highly ranked team now and then, a team has to win against the teams it is expected to. This began to crumble over the past four years, which not only exposed foundational flaws in the program but began the questioning of the John Thompson III system as being unprepared for teams which were more aggressive than they were.
Events over the last four seasons provided evidence that when a team played Georgetown to toe, the Hoyas were not always prepared to respond. In 2013-14, Northeastern came out of nowhere and handled the Hoyas in a tournament in Puerto Rico. A few years later, the Hoyas came out flat against Radford. Then Monmouth. Then UNC-Asheville. Then Arkansas State. Individually, they were not tipping points. Collectively, they confirmed a growing unease about the JT III system among the fan base which dates to a seminal date in Georgetown history: March 22, 2013.
Armed with a #2 seed and the hopes of its reborn conference in their hands, a confident Georgetown program was humbled by the likes of Florida Gulf Coast University, a school which we said at the time "was better known for the ex-model wife of [coach Andy Enfeld] than the caliber of its athletics." It was only the seventh loss of a #2 seed in the first round in NCAA tournament history, and it set ablaze the perception that Thompson's system was unprepared for post-season competition.
GEORGETOWN LOST CONFIDENCE IN ITS COACH
Much like the Georgetown game which seven years earlier had set an upward trajectory, the humbling loss on prime time television to FGCU set the course for Thompson's slide over his next four seasons.
From the aforementioned recap:
"As the coach, as the head of the program, you go through introspection, and we'll take time, and I'll do that. As I said in the opening statement, I said this -- a lot will be discussed about this group and what they have and haven't done in the postseason. We'll evaluate that." But that was a quote from two years ago, and it bears yet another look. In his first nine NCAA game appearances, John Thompson III was 7-2. Since then, 1-5. 'I wish I could, trust me, more than anyone on this earth I've tried to analyze it, think about it, look at it, think about what we should do differently, and I don't know," Thompson said Friday night. Because a year from now, some team from the Horizon League or the Southland Conference is going to see the name "Georgetown" up on their bracket and think to themselves, "yeah, we can win that game." And why not? Because this staff, this team, and this annual pratfall in NCAA play gives no good reason to think otherwise."
The slow and ongoing decline of Thompson's invincibility as a coach began that night and Georgetown was institutionally slow to recognize it. His responses after losses increasingly included "I don't know" , as if he really didn't know what to say or do. By 2016, the decision not to announce his name in the starting lineup was being picked up by fans as a sign of weakness, and the jacking up of music at halftime and game's end was seen by detractors as a means of avoiding catcalls over some of the Hoyas' middling performances.
John Thompson III's final year was a crisis of confidence in both the coach and the program. Institutionally, it appeared Georgetown did not know what to do with a coach it was paying millions of dollars to carry it to regular runs of the Final Four, yet had won just three NCAA tournament games in the prior ten. But any coach cannot long excel if the base itself does not place its hope and faith in him.
For a decade, John Thompson III earned the trust and support of a University through teams that were among its very best. And yet, for many reasons and no one reason in particular, he lost it. Can he reclaim that intangible that for so many years, defined his program? As a coach, that's a point of reflection and one which I suspect JT III is still asking himself about. If he goes back into coaching, it will be a question others will ask as well.
It's also a question that will follow his successor into 2017-18.
When I posted the title of this article to HoyaSaxa.com, there were those that seized upon it as being untoward to all Georgetown is trying to do to rally support in 2017-18. Georgetown's fervent effort to sell Patrick Ewing as the man who will restore all that is good to Hoya basketball is a must after the program deflation of the last few years, but is illusory if the program itself does not fix the problems that got John Thompson III in the mess he was in within the first place.
Make no mistake: the hiring of Patrick Ewing is a statement. Put aside what you think about his NBA assistant coaching experience, how he got the job, or what his career trajectory is by getting into coaching at 55, if it works, Patrick Ewing will turn the college basketball coaching formula on its head and defy all conventional wisdom that a prior college experience is not a requirement to succeed at the highest level. Returning Georgetown back to the pinnacle of success will do for Ewing what his contemporaries like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson were not able to do--and that Chris Mullin has yet to do--that Ewing alone owns the mantle of a championship level player who grew into a championship level lead coach.
That being said, Ewing cannot go it alone or assume that he can defy that prevailing wisdom by sheer force of will. If he does not, or thinks he can avoid it, it will be a bumpy ride for his dream job.
The four areas of this discussion that set the course of Georgetown basketball over the past four years are guide posts to a recovery, and not too dissimilar to those faced by a 38 year old John Thompson III when he arrived at Georgetown to pick up the pieces from another coach unprepared for his public denouement as a coach.
Thompson fixed the local recruiting gap, and in doing so, made Georgetown a destination for the best players from the national capital region.
He invested in assistant coaches that knew what to do, when to do it, and provided him the ingredients of preparation that contributed to team wide success.
He build a schedule that needed no snickering, no claims that Georgetown was picking up cheap wins as it did under Craig Esherick and in many cases, with John Thompson before that--though it must always be said that the competitive landscape in the John Thompson era did not revolve around the RPI and Thompson understood that the quantity, not necessarily quality of wins sufficed.
He rebuilt confidence in the job of head coach. Yes, Georgetown was paying him a lot of money, and he delivered.
What, therefore, is Ewing's recipe for success?
RESTORE LOCAL RECRUITING PRIMACY.
The first year of Ewing's recruiting were frankly to fill a lot of open roster slots. His only local recruit of note to date, Jamarko Pickett, was available only because he had backed out of prior commitments with Tennessee and TCU. Going outside the region for recruits is fine, but the case must be made within the AAU, within the WCAC, Interhigh, the major Virginia and Maryland programs, and with local coaches in general that Georgetown is here, it is here to stay, and it wants their kids to attend.
And let's be clear: places like Villanova or Duke or a school in the Big Ten should never be a considered a substitute for a local kid to play at the highest competitive level in college in place of what Georgetown University has to offer.
Recruiting diamonds in the rough is fine, but it leaves you with more rough than diamonds. Local talent, the kind of talent the coaches can learn about and not rely on Internet video or second hand recommendations, will escalate Ewing's rebuilding effort.
Think of it this way: of the 30 uniforms on that NBA wall in the Thompson Center, twenty of them hailed from a high school in DC, Maryland, or Virginia. This region was, and remain, the home from which the building blocks of a program ultimately reside.
INVEST IN ASSISTANT COACHES.
Ewing's choices of assistants are tempered by his need to get a staff up and running. The jury is out whether Louis Orr will thrive as an assistant following an undistinguished run as a head coach through Siena, Seton hall, and Bowling green (career record: 201-201). Akbar Waheed is holdover from last season with little public recognition, Robert Kirby is a career assistant known more for recruiting, while Jonathan Wallace sits out there as the "Special Assistant to the Head Coach", for whatever that is, and the specter of Ronny Thompson seems to remain despite Georgetown's protestations to the contrary.
Assistant coaches are vital to Ewing success and he must push them to excel, and not follow the NBA model where some assistants are essentially position coaches and take a deep back seat at games. Ewing cannot succeed without his assistants and he must not lose eight of what it will take, and who it will take, to get him there. maybe it's politically incorrect to say it in an off season where it's all about The Man, but The Man can't do it alone.
COMMIT TO BETTER SCHEDULING.
No more need be said about the atrocious non-conference scheduling employed by Georgetown in 2017-18--the efficacy of it will be played out in the weeks to come. Anything short of 11-0 will raise more questions than answers, but that's someone else's call, so let's put that to rest.
And if the Hoyas arrive at Christmas at 11-0, Ewing must avoid the temptation to let perception become prologue when it comes to a scheduling philosophy. Soft scheduling will not carry Georgetown to national prominence, nor will the very 1980's-like approach of ignoring local opponents as if they weren't there.
There's still a team on Route 1. There's still a team in Foggy Bottom, as the second question of his inaugural press conference reminded him. To no surprise, nothing was done about it--GU may sooner play the Bayi Rockets than George Washington in this climate. There's a school in Fairfax Georgetown has played once ever, in 1985, and it has its own arena.
More to the point, let's see the 2017-18 schedule as what it is, nothing more, and set higher expectations for the future.
INSTILL AND MAINTAIN CONFIDENCE.
Make no mistake, Ewing's first season will be a rough one. Even the most fervent optimists out there will concede that Jagan Mosely is not Josh Hart, that Kaleb Johnson isn't the next Kelan Martin. and that Chris Sodom isn't Dikembe Mutombo. This team has some learning ahead of it and some painful lessons await. The near unanimity of writers and coaches penciling in Georgetown at the bottom of the Big East food chain isn't a sign of ill will to Ewing, but a reflection of what he has to work with in 2017-18, which is to say, not much given the relative strength of its peers.
A ticket out of the basketball wilderness is no sure thing, even for the biggest of programs from days gone by. St. John's has been wandering in the desert for the better part of two decades. UNLV has missed the last four NCAA tournaments. Since its win over Virginia in the 1984 national semifinal, the University of Houston has not won a single NCAA tournament game since, and has only been invited once in the past 25 years. This is not a peer group Georgetown can long afford to follow. With change comes expectations, and those expectations must be met--not now, but within range.
To fans, do not lose hope. Three straight losing seasons was absolutely unthinkable in the salad days of March 2013 , but let's see 2017-18 for what it is, as a reconstruction, not merely a rebuilding effort. If we're back here in a while talking about five straight losing seasons, that's for another time and topic. For now, think long term.
To the players, do not lose heart. Each of the young men on this team come from a foundation of success in high school--if they were anything less, they wouldn't be here, so the prospect of getting tossed around the Big East like DePaul will not be easy. Learn from adversity, but don't be overwhelmed by it.
To the coach, do not lose confidence. Those press conference in the waning days of the JTIII era showed a coach who had lost his way. Stay away from the coachspeak and make your case with authority on this team. Leave the doubts inside the Thompson Center and show strength to everyone else that the Ewing era has one speed and direction, and it is full steam ahead.
This is Patrick Ewing's mission. With success, Ewing would be more than a legend, and with it, a remarkable era awaits.
And here we go.