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Inside Georgetown's sizeable NCAA tournament struggles

Can the John Thompson III-led Hoyas find postseason success this season's NCAA tournament? (Nate Shron/Getty Images) Can the John Thompson III-led Hoyas find postseason success this season's NCAA tournament? (Nate Shron/Getty Images)

The moment came long before the seismic final flourish. Chase Fieler may have slammed the door shut on Georgetown’s March dreams when pumped through that Brett Comer lob, but the sniff of NCAA tournament doom -- a sensation that is fast becoming a Georgetown supporters' sixth sense -- surely set in far sooner. These days it doesn’t take much to elicit that sense of fear in Georgetown circles come March, as double-digit seeds have sent the Hoyas home before the Sweet 16 in each of their last five Dances. The futility has been so profound that Hoya fans can likely find a bit of retroactive appreciation for the most underachieving Georgetown team of the last decade: a 2009 squad littered with talent (Greg Monroe, DaJuan Summers, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, among others) that bottomed out in the first round of a tournament that lacks the power to break hearts -- the NIT. With the halcyon days of a 2007 Final Four run now firmly in the rear view mirror and a confused hysteria building with every March failure, “Hoya Paranoia” has taken on an entirely different meaning. So naturally, we ask the question: Why is Georgetown incapable of March success?

At this point, even the most forgiving of Georgetown supporters would have to admit that some part of the Hoya problem comes from within. Five straight March disappointments is plenty large enough a sample size to sound the alarms. John Thompson III’s system, highlighted by a slow-tempo offense that rarely deviates from Princeton sets, is also unique enough stylistically to raise concern that the program may be resting on a fundamentally damaged foundation. Nobody should be willing to take that theory all the way, as slow-tempo teams have found plenty of March success over the years (75% of the 2013 Final Four ranked in the bottom 40% in possessions per game), but limiting possessions is an easy way to give a team with decidedly inferior talent a chance to win. It’s the same reason why underdogs will find winning one game easier than taking down a seven-game series, and just last season we saw Georgetown keep plenty of bad teams hanging around into the final minutes. Duquesne, Liberty, and Towson all ended the season outside the top 170 teams in the country (according to KenPom), but each lost by single figures to a Hoya team that would finish 301st in the country in possessions per game. That slow tempo is par for the course for Thompson-coached Hoya outfits; after finishing 70th nationally in possessions per game in Craig Esherick’s final year in 2004, the Hoyas have not ranked higher than 188th since. Let’s be real: This preference for a snail’s pace is not a sufficient answer to the question as a stand-alone, but the Hoyas rarely blow teams out (relative to other highly-seeded teams) and struggle to come back when they fall behind early -- see 2010 (Ohio), 2011 (VCU) and 2013 (FGCU) as clear examples.

The second internal reason is a more subjective one -- John Thompson III simply is not a good in-game coach. It’s hard to question his ability to build a team; he has consistently recruited well since arriving at the Hilltop, and even when elite talent hasn’t been there, he has found ways to win big -- at least in the regular season. But on a game-to-game basis, it’s hard to buy that Thompson is an elite game manager. His system and rotations are both notoriously strict, and he can be painfully reluctant to speed up game tempo; that fateful decision to step on the accelerator has too often come many minutes too late. Another source of fan frustration, Thompson’s late-game play calling, hasn’t yet cost the Hoyas an NCAA tournament game, but throughout his tenure, crunch-time decisions have lacked any sort of creativity, and more importantly, effectiveness. His refusal to deviate from the Princeton sets have left the Hoyas with few options in the playbook when it comes to quick-hitting, end-of-shot and game-clock plays -- one reason why Thompson and the Hoyas are just 11-17 in Big East games decided by five or fewer points since 2009. Ironically, the stubborn but consistent approach that Thompson has employed is likely a big reason for the Hoyas’ steady winning ways regular season after regular season. But in the dynamic win-or-go-home situation that exists in March, that lack of adaptability has only made his teams more predictable, and in the case of unforeseen chaos, far less capable of adjusting on the fly.

While Thompson’s system (and Thompson himself) may be partially to blame for the Hoyas’ annual March collapses, the biggest, and most overlooked, reason for the struggles does not come from within the program. Call it a cop-out if you must, but Georgetown has suffered a horrific run of early-NCAA tournament matchups that explains the March malaise as much as anything. Stephen Curry and Davidson sprinted through more than just the Hoyas in falling a bucket short of the 2008 Final Four; DJ Cooper’s Ohio team may have fallen to Tennessee in 2010 after knocking off the Hoyas, but the Bobcats gave UNC everything they wanted in the Sweet 16 a year later. No need to run through the exploits of the VCU team that knocked off the sixth-seeded Hoyas in 2011, and the 2012 NC State version of the Hoya beaters had the talent if not the resolve of a top-10 team. Oh, and not that you would, but don’t forget that Fieler, Comer, and the rest of the Dunk City boys went on to convincingly defeat San Diego State two days after their historic takedown of the Hoyas last March. Should you expect an elite program to win a game or two, and probably more, in that group? Certainly. But let’s not act like this quintet was your typical collection of double-digit seeds, because all proved capable of March glory beyond their wins over Georgetown.

So maybe Thompson tweaked a few things internally this offseason. Maybe the next time the Hoyas find a matchup with a double-digit seed in March they won’t prove to be world-beaters. Heck, even most of the key figures of those March failures -- guys like Greg Monroe, Otto Porter, and Austin Freeman -- are long gone. But don’t underestimate the power of the ghosts of March’s past. More than anybody, Thompson knows what it feels like when that halftime lead begins to dwindle, the unbiased crowd loses their neutrality, and a dose of tension is added to every, single possession. No matter the reason for Georgetown’s lack of March success, it’s hard to avoid the scary reality -- for Thompson and the Hoyas, each year’s March nightmare has only seemed to make next year’s dream that much harder to realize.

Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) is a Rush the Court national columnist.

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