WASHINGTON — It seemed appropriate that John Thompson III was fiddling with a stopwatch as he stood in the lobby of Georgetown's on-campus gym, speaking about a Hoyas team that has ventured far off-script. Time is running out in a season in which "start," "stop" and "reset" became more than just buttons to press during a practice drill.
"Right in the middle of the season, you almost have to reinvent yourself," Thompson said Wednesday. "We've had to do it, and we're still in a position where we can play our way into the (NCAA) tournament. But we're doing things much differently now than we were at the start of the year."
If the new Big East hasn't exactly caught college basketball by storm, Georgetown can be blamed for a failure to supply at least part of the thunder and lightning. Picked to finish second in the preseason coaches' poll, the Hoyas (16-11, 7-8) have been so inconsistent that, if the regular season ended today, they would be one of the four bottom-rung teams forced to play an extra game in the conference tournament.
Creighton and Villanova, both nationally ranked in the top 10, are the class of the rejigged conference, while Georgetown is one of five teams floating precariously around the NCAA tournament bubble. One of Thompson's primary goals this season was to end a string of early-round NCAA exits — missing the tournament altogether wasn't supposed to be the solution.
But 6-foot-10, 350-pound UCLA transfer Joshua Smith, a major cog in Thompson's plans, played only 13 games before he was ruled out for the season for academic reasons. Junior forward Greg Whittington, who had academic problems last season and then knee surgery, never suited up at all. Jabril Trawick missed five games with a broken jaw.
The result is that Thompson is trying to figure out his team in February and into March, instead of November. He has a group who can lose a big lead as fast as it can build one, and vice versa. Simply put: There have been too many times when guards Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera carry a disproportionate share of the load, leading to nights like a 22-point loss at St. John's and a 15-point loss at Seton Hall.
"We can't win with just those two," Thompson said.
Complicating matters has been a new schedule that was put together under less than ideal circumstances as the conference rushed to relaunch itself. The Hoyas routinely play two games in three days.
"We've had more one-day prep games than anyone in the league," Thompson said. "I think the scheduling aspect will be better (next season). I think there's a lot of inequities with how the schedule was put together this year."
And, while the Big East's trademark physical style of play still exists, the league has a different vibe.
"You definitely miss the teams like Louisville, Syracuse, UConn," Trawick said. "But at the same time I think the Big East is the still the Big East. It's still a good conference. You've got great teams, great coaches. You can see — we lost some games we didn't think we were going to lose. You can never take the Big East lightly, especially with the team we've got right now."
The Hoyas boarded their bus in the parking lot to start their road trip to Milwaukee for Thursday's game against Marquette. The Golden Eagles beat the Hoyas in overtime in a messy game last month, an outcome so disheartening that Thompson afterward declared his team in a "funk" and joked that his players would have to keep his spirits up, instead of the other way around.
"It was definitely a point where we were a little frustrated," Smith-Rivera said. "That was a game we feel like we should've won, or could've won. It was definitely a tough loss, so this game is definitely big for us."
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