This post got a lot longer than I planned and turned into much more of a stream of consciousness, but I had a lot rattling around today and had to get it down somewhere.
Like many of you, I spent the weekend trying to make sense of another season-ending loss to a much lower-seeded team and, probably also like many of you, I mostly came up empty. Why does this keep happening to us? What was it about FGCU that made what had been one of the top 2 or 3 most consistent teams of the JTIII era look so lost? What happens if Markel doesn't pick up his second foul when we were up 7 in the first half? How am I supposed to feel about this season that vastly exceeded expectations, but ultimately ended in another disappointing exit from the NCAA tournament?
I really don't have much in the way of answers. This season was an incredible roller coaster of nerve-wracking close calls against the softer parts of our non-conference schedule, awesome performances against the best of the best of the non-conference schedule, an incredibly stressful start to the Big East season, and, ultimately, an unexpected 14-2 run through the rest of the Big East season en route to a share of the regular season championship in the last season of the Big East. That run included two of the most satisfying wins I've experienced as a Georgetown fan (the two against Syracuse obviously) and really cemented Otto Porter's status as one of the Hoya greats. To say that this season did not exceed even my wildest expectations would be an understatement.
This was a team that, for the second straight season, lost it's top three scorers from the year before. They were picked to finish 5th in the Big East and even that felt high (to me at least). They struggled mightily offensively out of the gate, then got obliterated by Pittsburgh in their second Big East game, and followed that up by losing their second-leading scorer and rebounder. They won a couple over lesser opponents, but blew a winnable game at USF and, at this point, the expectation (hope) was that the Hoyas could find their way to .500 in conference play and get into the field. If they were able to do that, most people would have considered the season a success.
Then the streak started. Every tough game that followed, the Hoyas showed up, played defense, and found ways to win game after game. After the first win against Syracuse, our expectations had officially changed. We were all expecting to close out the Big East regular season title, challenge in the Big East Tournament and grab a top 2 seed in the tournament (and pulling for the top line, weighing our resume against the wide open field for the top line). We had emerged as a National Championship contender. All of a sudden, the delusion train was rolling. The UConn miracle and predictable close win against Rutgers fueled the fire and following up the stumble at Nova with the championship-clinching drubbing of Syracuse only served to cement this team as contenders and one of the most-suited to tournament play in JTIII's time.
We know how the rest played out. Losing to Syracuse in MSG was deflating, but winning the BET wasn't the goal this time around. This time it was all about tournament success. We were disappointed to miss out on a #1 seed, but our eyes were on the prize. We were a 2 seed and this team was finally going to make a run. Then FGCU happened and our tournament woes continued for another year. It sucked. It was a gut punch in the worst way. FGCU beat us up and down the court. The Hoyas looked completely out of their comfort zone that they'd spent two months creating and playing within. We knew FGCU wouldn't be scared, but this was beyond that. And it felt terrible.
How do we as fans cope with increased expectations? How do we measure success in a year where expectations shifted as much and as many times as they did this year? I know that I didn't handle the increased expectations well at all. The beginning of the winning streak brought fun wins and excitement. I took it all in stride and had a lot of fun watching this team play. By the Syracuse game I had tightened up a little bit, anxious that we'd be exposed in the Dome. That proved unfair as Otto turned in an incredible performance and the Hoyas shut down the Carrier Dome. I spent the three games in between the two Syracuse games a nervous wreck, desperately wanting to win that Big East Championship at that last meeting. It got worse with each game and the tournament loomed.
For the record, I realize how crazy this all is. I'm sure I'm not the only person here who experienced this range of emotions, but it's still out there. This is way too much emotional investment in a game. But there I was reading every morsel of information I could about FGCU in the days leading up to a game we were favored to win by 14. The shifting expectations had completely consumed me and despite the joys that this team had brought me throughout the year, the success or failure of the season depended entirely on how far we were able to go in the tournament. And that is unfair.
That loss sucked. A lot. Questions should be asked of our coach about our lack of success in March and adjustments need to be made so that the trend of losing in March doesn't continue. But we shouldn't allow that to overshadow all the glory that this season brought. It was a truly phenomenal season that ended in the worst way, but it was still phenomenal. Otto Porter joined the ranks of the Georgetown elite and might win National Player of the Year. JTIII finally got his due as a top coach in the Big East. We smoked Syracuse twice. The Stonewalls are creating something at the Verizon Center. It was a lot of fun and it is important to recognize that. I know I've really struggled to do that in the past few days and I'll continue to have trouble weighing the success of the season based on our early exit this weekend.
But, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that we saw great things this year and have a group of players, even without Otto Porter, capable of contending in the new Big East and, hopefully, capable of reversing our terrible trend of early exits. I wish next season started tomorrow (mostly to get the awful taste out of my mouth, but still). Really, I wish it were Friday again and we were getting another chance at FGCU, but next season is the best we can do.
A couple of other thoughts to end the season:
- That loss on Friday really did me in. I used to love the tournament and everything about it. Even when the Hoyas lost, I was able to enjoy the spectacle of the tournament. Not this year. It's going to take a couple of Georgetown wins in the tournament to allow me to enjoy it like I used to.
- JGD and I talked a lot about this this weekend, but I worry that sentiments like mine permeate through the program. As fans, we're terrified to lose and we all tighten up come tournament time. I'm sure this is "crazy fan" talking, but I do have fears that this thinking has made it's way into the minds of the coaches and players, forcing them to play tight.
- There has been and will continue to be talk about JTIII's future and that he should be on the hot seat. Putting aside for a second that I think that view is just plain wrong (for about ten different reasons), even having the conversation this year seems like a waste of time to me. He's almost certainly not going anywhere this year. I think we can ask questions about what he needs to change in order to get out of this extended tournament funk, but he's going to be our coach next year so the "Fire JTIII" talk that I've seen around the internets might as well stop.
- I'm an unabashed JTIII homer so keep that in mind, but I really think he's going to fix this. He's adapted much more over the years than he gets credit for and found ways to win each regular season of his tenure (save 2009). He's won the Big East regular season championship three times. He's rebuilt the program after losing his best players year after year (and even midseason in some cases). He knows that the tournament is his last obstacle as coach. I expect him to adapt in the face of these recent failures and improve going forward. At any rate, it can't get a whole lot worse, tournament-wise, than losing to a 15 seed. We're going to rebound. We're going to get better moving forward.
- This won't make us feel a whole lot better, but it's pretty clear now that FGCU was no 15-seed. They can play and their coach can coach. This is a real team that probably should have been seeded a little higher talent-wise. They whooped us on Friday. They followed it up by whooping San Diego State too. They can play. To be clear, I still believe that we should have won, but the Eagles are a talented, confident team.
- I'm really going to miss watching Otto Porter play in a Hoyas uniform. He's probably the player I've had the most fun watching as a Hoya. I'll be watching and rooting for him in the NBA, but will miss watching him carve up Big East defenses.
- At times like these, I absolutely hate how much I care about sports. It takes years off my life probably.
If you've actually made it this far, I'm sorry. It was a long weekend and I had a lot of thoughts. Hoya Saxa to ya' you guys.