Some teams might be cowed after being stunned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Florida Gulf Coast and losing Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter to the NBA after just two seasons on campus.
But being cowed isn’t the way that Georgetown rolls, not after soaring from preseason afterthought to Big East regular season champion a year ago and finishing 25-7 while beating 11 straight conference foes including eventual Final Four participants Syracuse and NCAA winner Louisville. The Hoyas have averaged 23 victories during coach John Thompson III’s nine seasons on the Hilltop.
“I don’t think we relied on [Otto] to be our saving grace,” said captain Markel Starks, an All-Big East selection who returns for his final year as the Hoyas’ point guard. “He deserved all the accolades I got, but at the same time, this team did a lot to help him get those individual accolades and we have a lot of those teammates back. Losing Otto Porter is a big, big deficit, but this team is mature. Last year, we didn’t have any seniors. This year, we have a couple of seniors and a lot of juniors. We have a lot of upperclassmen who played a lot of minutes early [in their college careers]. We’re going to play more as a unit.”
Thompson said that Starks is the key to making that happen.
“Markel and I are at that point where he knows exactly what I want,” Thompson explained. “He knows not only what I need from him, but what I need from everyone else.”
With junior forward Greg Whittington having morphed from academic casualty last spring to likely post-knee surgery red-shirt this season, everyone else includes senior forward Nate Lubick, junior forward Mikael Hopkins, and junior guard Jabil Trawick with sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera as the instant offense-like sixth man.
However, there is one big change other than Porter’s absence. And it’s literally a big change in the person of 6-foot-10, 350-pound behemoth Josh Smith. A transfer from UCLA, Smith averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds as a part-time starter for the Bruins as a freshman in 2010-11 and 9.9/4.9 in 2011-12.
“There’s not much like going up against Josh,” said the 6-8, 219-pound Lubick. “He’s the least fun person I’ve ever boxed out in my entire life.”
Trawick warned the rest of the revamped Big East – which lost founding members Connecticut and Syracuse as well as Cincinnati, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and South Florida while gaining Butler, Creighton and Xavier – about Smith.
“Josh is arguably one of the best big men in the nation,” Trawick said of the Hoyas’ new man in the middle. “It’s hard to guard a guy that’s 6-10,  down in the post. He’s very skilled. He can pass. He has good feet for a big guy. I think it’s going to be very hard for us to be beaten.”
Despite the departure of Porter, who led Georgetown (25-7) in scoring, rebounding and steals and was second in assists and blocked shots, enough Big East observers think that the Hoyas will be hard enough to beat that they were picked to finish second behind Marquette, which reached the Elite Eight last March.
“We’ll be a different type of defensive team,” Lubick said of Georgetown’s strong suit for most of the last four decades. “Last year, we were so long and so versatile. We might not have as much of that, but we’ll be a little feistier and grittier. I think you’ll see us pressure the ball a little bit more.”
Starks and Lubick feel a different kind of pressure in the wake of the NCAA opening-round losses to VCU and Florida Gulf Coast sandwiched around a second-round defeat to N.C. State during their first three seasons. A victory over Belmont in 2012 isn’t much to brag about when there are four Final Four banners, including an NCAA championship one, hanging on the wall of McDonough Gymnasium.
“I’m sick of looking at up at those banners and not having [one of our own],” Starks said. “For me as a leader of this team, it’s heartbreaking. We just have to get out of this NCAA hole. Finally trying to get over that hump is the main objective of this year.”
Lubick, last year’s most accurate shooter and Georgetown’s leading returning rebounder, said the Hoyas are using the loss to Florida Gulf Coast as motivation for this season which begins on Friday against Oregon in the Armed Forces Classic in Seoul.
“It left a sour taste in our mouth,” Lubick said. “I don’t think I or Markel will completely get over it until we set foot on the court in Korea … and we have a new season, a new challenge ahead of us.”
While the annual Big East tussles with Syracuse and UConn are history, Thompson bulked up the non-conference schedule with Kansas and Michigan State. And Oregon is a much tougher opening opponent than recent first game foes Duquesne and Savannah State or his father/predecessor once removed’s favorite patsy, Hawaii-Loa.
“We had a very, very good year last year,” Thompson said. “We won the league. Most of our fans were happy many more nights than they were unhappy. But we continue to analyze why we ended like we did. Our schedule is part of that process.”
Part of the process in achieving a happier ending, one that won’t occur until April if Starks and Lubick go out the way they want.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.