5 Issues Georgetown Hoyas Basketball Needs to Address Before the 2014-15 Season
In 2008 the Hoyas rode an experienced and talented roster to a No. 2 seed, only to be bounced by the No. 10 seed Davidson Wildcats in the round of 32.
Georgetown missed the NCAA tournament in 2009 but stayed consistent by losing in the second round of the NIT. It then lost in the NCAA tournament round of 64 in 2010 and 2011 and the round of 32 in 2012. Not much to speak of there—just flat-out upset by inferior teams. But a disturbing trend to be sure.
All of those upsets were pretty incredible, but none compared to the shellacking the No. 2-seeded Hoyas received from No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in the 2013 round of 64. FGCU did it by throwing alley-oops, AND1 mix-tape moves and more swagger than the Hoyas could handle as the favored squad. A demoralized and frustrated Georgetown team promised better for the 2013-2014 season, its first in the newly revamped Big East.
In an interview last November with Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk, senior point guard Markel Starks spoke of how he wanted to leave his mark this season; how he wanted to be remembered at Georgetown:
I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ve had fun, through the good and the bad, and I want this senior year to be a good one. But when I think of guys that I really looked up to, the guys that came before me: Roy Hibbert, out in the second round. Chris Wright, out in the first round. Not to take anything away from their career, but I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave on a positive note.
Deep in the Big Dance. That’s what it’s about.
That simply didn't happen. Navigating eligibility issues, injuries, inconsistency and an atypically porous defense, the Hoyas yet again struggled to a disappointing record at 18-15, including 8-10 in the new Big East. Despite all this, due to some important victories over Michigan State, Creighton and VCU, the Hoyas found themselves on the bubble entering the Big East tournament. That lasted all of one half.
This team showed how awful it can be by losing in the first round of the conference tournament to a DePaul Blue Demons team that had not beaten the Hoyas in 15 attempts and had won all of three Big East games during the regular season. As has been the alarming trend for the better part of six seasons, when the Hoyas needed to play their best they instead played their absolute worst.
This culminated with another early exit, but this time in the NIT tournament. The Hoyas defense made every Florida State Seminole look like Stephen Curry as FSU shot over 68 percent for the game and hung a century on the Hoyas, sending them home to chew on a 101-90 loss and one of their worst defensive performances in years.
So what does this team need to do to get back to the upper echelons of the new Big East? To regain prominence in NCAA basketball? To gain some momentum and credibility back as a storied and winning program?
There a a few things that need to be done, but fortunately, there is also some help on the way.
Defend Without Fouling
The Hoyas have always played a physical brand of basketball, but this past season they crossed over from physical to physical assaults. Hoya games often resembled the basketball equivalent of the Red Wedding such was the carnage, and it didn't help the team in the win-loss column naturally.
Georgetown is typically a bit of a fouling squad—from 2010-2013 it averaged 17.67 fouls per game, good enough to put it right in the middle of the pack at around 129th in the country, as per NCAA.com statistics. However...
Those same statistics show an exponential leap in the amount of muggings Hoyas put on their opponents this season. They dropped a whopping 171 spots from 152nd in the country at 17.4 fouls per game and 22 disqualifications in 2013 to an embarrassing 323rd in the country with 22.1 fouls and 26 DQs.
Mugging was a way of life in the paint and the backcourt for Hoya opponents who made the bullies pay by going to the line a whopping 27.1 times per game, per Teamrankings.com. They didn't just go to the line though; they made their free throws, an average of 18.8 of them for a 69.3 percent clip. That's an additional 19 points per game simply by not moving your feet and getting a little handsy. Jabril Trawick, Mikael Hopkins—we're looking at you.
For a little perspective, Teamrankings.com show the Hoyas themselves attempted 23.6 free throws, sinking 17.0 for a 72 percent success rate. This means that although they were the 323rd ranked team in the country in committing fouls, they only gave up 1.8 points more to their opponents as they were 98th in the country in free throws attempted and made.
In other words, if they return to their averages of 2010-2013, they'll gain about four points per game on their opponent simply in foul-shot attrition. For a team that averages 71 points per game and gives up 68.3, a mere 2.7-point differential, that extra four points is paramount and would likely have led to one or two more wins this season and a potential NCAA berth.
Improve Frontcourt Depth and Consistency
From Mike Sweetney to Jeff Green to Roy Hibbert to Greg Monroe, the Hoyas have always recruited big men with an eye toward them facilitating in the high post and creating mismatches. The backdoor cuts and baseline screening used in the Hoyas offense run by John Thompson III (JT III) depend on a big man at the top of the key who has vision, patience, hands and ability to make a quick decision and decisive pass in one fluid thought to motion process.
Josh Smith showed some promise in that area after coming over from UCLA but was suspended for academics 13 games into this past season. Moses Ayegba was more of a bull inside, working hard for garbage buckets under the basket and using his strength for rebounding, but he's graduating so the point is moot. He didn't have the skill set needed anyhow.
The closest thing the Hoyas have on the current roster is Mikael Hopkins, and he turns the ball over far too often—1.6 per game in only 20 minutes of play—and fouls far too much to be relied upon in any consistent sense.
Hopkins shows flashes of talent, but he also shows flashes of confusion and awkwardness. The encouraging thing is, so did Roy Hibbert and we all know how that turned out. Hopkins doesn't have much time left but is a hard working kid with a good attitude. Expect cleaner play next season.
The Hoyas are hoping to have Smith back, but his conditioning and effort have never been consistent. It's tough to count on much production—and any will be a bonus. Still, someone who scores in double figures and shoots the ball extremely well at 65 percent will be a welcome addition if he can get himself on track.
So enter Paul White and Isaac Copeland, two long and lean forwards who will be able to facilitate that free-flowing offense from not just the high post, but the wing as well. More on them in Slide 4, but suffice to say they are an improvement in size, talent, scoring and facilitation and give the Hoyas their best recruiting class in a decade.
In fact, the Hoyas helped lure White to Washington by showing him highlights of Jeff Green and comparing their skills. They told White how much Green improved while at Georgetown and that if he worked hard he could be even better.
”While on my visit here it made me realize this is the place for me. I felt that comfort level I was looking for with the coaching staff, the players and the environment here. It’s a wonderful school with a great basketball tradition and atmosphere. This was the place I could easily see myself going to school and playing," White said in an interview with Joe Henricksen of the Chicago Sun Times.
Add small forward L.J. Peak, an above-the-rim-type scorer who was South Carolina's Mr. Basketball in 2014 and is incredibly aggressive on both ends of the floor.
That gives the Hoyas four 4-star recruits, according to 247 Sports, that definitely add depth and talent to the frontcourt at a time when the Hoyas need it the most. If Smith returns, Hopkins can play a little more under control and JT III can get the best out of his youngsters. What was a weakness this past season could turn into a strength in 2014-15.
Ensure They Aren't Letting Another One Get Away
JT III's offense and defense are very regimented and require a very specific type of player to succeed. In recent history, there have been a few very highly recruited players that have found themselves unable to thrive in this regimented play-calling and moved on to greener pastures.
The most prominent that comes to mind is Vernon Macklin, a former 5-star recruit from Hargrave Military Academy who had the length and athleticism to be a superstar—he just needed the right coaching and opportunity.
After playing in 68 games his freshman and sophomore season without starting a single one and averaging a mere 11.7 minutes despite shooting 70 percent from the floor and ripping down boards and blocking shots when he was in there, Macklin decided he needed a change to realize his potential. He decided to transfer to the recent back-to-back NCAA champion Florida Gators, who needed a big man after losing Joakim Noah.
Good move for Macklin.
He stepped in and started from Day 1, starting all 71 games he played for the Gators and thriving in post offense and defense. He helped to lead the Gators to the Elite Eight in 2010, his senior season, while watching his former teammates get upset by No. 14 seed Ohio and their constant scoring in the paint—something Macklin could have helped to prevent.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because it's happening again as we speak. Vee Sanford, the point guard for the surprising Elite Eight bound Dayton Flyers, played his first two seasons at Georgetown as well before his lack of playing time and future prospects caught up with him and he also transferred.
Again, good move for the player. Sanford now starts for the Flyers, who rotate about 11 players, and he has been instrumental in handling the ball and facilitating offense in upsets over Ohio State, Syracuse and their Sweet 16 victory over Stanford, which was never really close.
Domingo's path, pedigree and stats are a good cross-section of both Macklin and Sanford. His pedigree as a top recruit fits right with Macklin, but his playing time and performance with the Hoyas more with Sanford. Although he hasn't lit the world on fire when he has played, he hasn't had much of a chance to do so. It would not be the least bit surprising to see he is transferring to a free flowing offense where he can shoot to his heart's content.
This would continue a trend of talented players leaving Georgetown for other opportunities due to a lack of playing time or proper usage. In addition to Macklin and Sanford, there's Jerelle Benimon, a highly recruited yet underutilized player who actually put up multiple triple-doubles for his new team, the Towson Tigers, this past season. Lower competition to be sure—which he dominated in full.
Domingo's performance thus far doesn't indicate he'd be a big loss—but neither did Sanford Macklin, or Benimon's. That is, until they thrived on their new teams while Georgetown has struggled. Domingo has the pedigree and background to potentially be another that got away.
Out with the Old, in with the New
Starks' stated desire to leave a legacy was a great sentiment, but unfortunately his career was one of disappointment. Not through any fault of his own, though. He played fantastically throughout his career, was consistent both as a scorer and teammate and always did whatever was asked of him for the team.
He will be missed by Hoya fans and coaches alike.
As will Nate Lubick, who unfortunately seemed to regress a little in his senior year but nonetheless was a great teammate and high-energy player who thought the game well.
Aaron Bowen showed against Florida State that he's got pogo sticks for legs, which Hoya fans knew already. He also showed why he didn't play more often—poor judgment and lapses in concentration where he had to foul to defend and at times a glaring lack of interest in the game. Fun guy to watch when he wasn't frustrating as hell.
The aforementioned Moses Ayegba has an NBA body but NAIA talent, but with few big bodies down low he will be very sorely missed, especially in the early going.
Not to fear too much, though. Cue Georgetown's recruiting class of long, athletic and versatile players suited to play their style and bring the Hoyas back.
The gem is Paul White, the 6'8" silky-smooth operator and subject of this slide's video who can play either the 3 or stretch 4 and match up defensively with pretty much anyone from guard to center. He has length, athleticism, intelligence, clutch ability and incredible vision.
The other gem is Isaac Copeland, another 6'8" hybrid forward with length and athleticism who should be able to step in with his versatile skill set and defend and score at a high level. He won a championship at Brewster Academy in the notoriously tough New England Prep league, so he is used to playing high level competition.
LJ Peak is a scrapper, an Allen Iverson type of all-out player that Hoya fans love and respect. Peak will get after it offensively and defensively, and his ferocity on the defensive end is only matched by his aggression on the offensive end where he likes to attack and play above the rim. His main weakness is outside shooting, which at 6'5" makes him more of an undersized 3 than a shooting guard at this point.
Peak, Copeland and White are all 4-star recruits, and White and Peak were teammates as high school juniors before Peak moved back to South Carolina as a senior. That familiarity should be a huge boon when the two join each other in practice in the fall.
The most important loss for the Hoyas is Markel Starks, their point guard and leader whom everyone looks to for guidance and during crunch time. Fortunately, the Hoyas have 4-star recruit and pure-pass first point guard Tre Campbell, a first-team all conference selection in Washington's tough WCAC conference. While Campbell will not light the world on fire with his scoring ability—and nor will he try to—he is a modern rarity: a pass-first point guard who excels at breaking the press and handling the ball under pressure.
Many scouts are high on Campbell and anticipate he should be able to step in and fill at least the ball-handling and facilitating duties lost in Starks. He is not the scorer Starks was but all indications are that his leadership qualities and understanding of the game are off the charts.
The Hoyas have pulled in a great recruiting class that specifically fills voids in their roster and gaps in talent, and it's easy to see them riding that back to the NCAA tournament next year. Youth is not as callow as it once was in college hoops, and expect these four freshmen to have prominent and significant roles in the Hoyas' return to success.
Embrace or Even Consider Change
The "Princeton" style offense is so connected with JT III and the Hoyas that it hardly needs to be mentioned at all. Because it is every single time a Hoyas game is broadcast. Anytime. Anywhere.
Legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril is mentioned in connection with JT III almost as much as the coach's father, John Thompson Jr, and the Hoyas are well known for the backdoor cutting, screening, movement based offense that requires cerebral players with unselfish natures and good passing instincts first introduced by Carril at Princeton.
That was a way for Carril to ensure less athletic and talented players could hang with their superstar counterparts in a half-court setting. It was successful at times, most notably when Carrill's No. 13-seeded Tigers upset defending national champion and No. 4 seeded UCLA in the first round of the 1996 tournament.
The Tigers also won multiple Ivy League titles and tournament berths, and ironically almost became the only No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed when they nearly took out the Hoyas in the 1989 tournament.
Georgetown escaped that game 50-49 in what is still the closest No. 1 versus No. 16 game ever, and it served notice that the little guys could hang with the big boys, especially if you didn't prepare. And you didn't prepare, because nobody outside of their own conferences knew what to prepare for. Princeton's performance in that game was so transcendent that Sports Illustrated called it "The Game That Saved March Madness."
When JT III took over Craig Echerick's debacle of a tenure at Georgetown in 2004 after coaching Princeton for four years, he immediately introduced the offense taught to him by his mentor Carril.
Georgetown's fluidity confounded opponents, and the backdoor cuts, screens and constant motion worked that much better with the better athletes on the Hoyas. They made a drastic improvement in his first year, winning 19 games and going to the NIT. The next two following years, the team had even more success, culminating in a 30-win season and Final Four appearance in 2007.
But since then, they've not had any postseason success and teams have become increasingly wise to their tricks. Big East teams and teams they play often give them fits, even lesser teams, because they cannot and do not surprise anyone and haven't for some time. When the offense is clicking, it's excellent.
Efficient shots, free-flowing passing, high field-goal percentage. Those are the staples. But those numbers have dropped consistently the last three years as per NCAA.com stats—and it's due in large part to adaptation by other teams and JT III's seeming unwillingness to build any kind of creativity into his regimen.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera is a volume scorer, but he gets his points within the flow of the offense. That's great, but not everyone can do that. Some players, like Markel Starks, have to force things on occasion. When it works, it's wonderful. When it doesn't, it's disastrous. And the latter is far more common than the former.
Macklin, Sanford, Benimon—they're all athletic players fully hamstrung by the rigidity of Thompson's philosophy. All of them transferred and thrived in a more free-flowing system that embraces, not stifles, creativity.
With the recruiting class coming in and the scoring abilities of Peak and Copeland in particular, Thompson would be wise to consider adapting to his players, rather than the converse. White is a perfect fit for the offense, but Peak in particular may do his own thing a little more a la Victor Page, and Thompson should let him at times.
If not, the Hoyas may continue to stagnate—and he may drive off another talented player frustrated with having his skills neutered by pre-established coaching ideals that at times do not let players be themselves. JT III is a great coach in many ways, but his stubbornness has cost the team in the past both on and off the court and the Hoyas cannot afford for that to continue.