Reporting David Elfin
From 1982 through March 20, 1987, Georgetown was the nation’s No. 1 basketball program. Coach John Thompson Jr.’s Hoyas went 20-4 in NCAA Tournament play, reached three of five Championship Games and won the 1984 national title.
Heading into the 1987 Southeast Regional final against Big East rival Providence, Georgetown was 174-35 over those six seasons while winning four Big East Tournaments. The Hoyas had thumped Providence 84-66 in the conference semifinals earlier in March, but led by spunky guard Billy Donovan, the Friars stunned the Hoyas 88-73.
In 25 seasons since, Georgetown has reached just one Final Four, getting bounced by Ohio State in the 2007 national semis. That defeat came a year after coach John Thompson III’s Hoyas were edged in the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion Florida, coached by Donovan.
So there’s a little history between Donovan and Georgetown which made Florida an appropriate and formidable foe against which Thompson’s young team opened the season on Friday night. The Hoyas battled the 10th-ranked Gators to a 27-24 halftime deficit before the game in Jacksonville, which was played aboard the USS Bataan in honor of Veterans Day, was called because they couldn’t keep the floor dry.
Two days later, Georgetown re-officially opened its season with a more conventional victory over a lesser opponent, beating visiting Duquesne 61-55 behind 19 points from freshman guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.
“We definitely were sloppy on both ends of the court,” Thompson said. “It definitely felt like a season opener. We have a long way to go.”
That’s certainly the case since the Hoyas lost the top three scorers Jason Clark, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson from the team that went 24-9 last year before losing to N.C. State in the NCAA’s round of 32.
With no seniors and only four players – juniors Markel Starks and Nate Lubick and sophomores Otto Porter and Greg Whittington – who averaged as many as 12 minutes per games last season, it figures to take the Hoyas some time to develop chemistry and sort out roles. So the Florida game, rather than a defeat, became a good exhibition-like test to see how they stack up against the nation’s elite.
The 6-foot-8 Porter, last season’s rebounding leader (6.8 per game) and the leading returning scorer (9.7 points), left the Duquesne game with an apparent eye injury. The Hoyas should dispatch Liberty tomorrow night with or without the talented forward from Sikeston, Mo., but next Monday they face 13th-ranked UCLA in Brooklyn and then either No. 1 Indiana or Georgia next Tuesday. Later comes tests against powerful Big East rivals Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Cincinnati, all of whom are in the top 25,
Smith-Rivera, a 6-3 guard, headlines a five-member freshman class that also includes 7-footer Bradley Hayes and 6-10 center Brandon Bowen as well as guard David Allen and forward Stephen Domingo. Smith-Rivera and Domingo were the only ones who have seen action so far, but the neophyte big men could prove very useful for a team that doesn’t have a veteran taller than 6-9.
“This year’s team … can really get up the floor, but to run, you have to get rebounds and you have to get stops,” JTIII said. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s run.’ “
It’s a given that any team coached by a Thompson is going to play good defense. So if Georgetown, which only lost the battle of the boards by one to Florida before outrebounding Duquesne by four, can hold its own inside and Smith-Rivera proves a worthy complement to Porter, the Hoyas could outperform the expectations that forecast them for a 10th-place finish in the 16-school Big East.
If that happens, Georgetown will likely be NCAA Tournament-bound for a fourth straight March, something that hasn’t happened on the Hilltop since its 19-season streak was snapped in 1998, a year whose Hoyas postseason began with a NIT victory over Florida and Donovan.
College basketball sure is a small world, isn’t it?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin