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The Decline and Fall of the Hoya Nation

How a sports dynasty dissipates: From Ewing to booing, the decline of Georgetown basketball.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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CALL IT wishful thinking (or the fact that I attended the school), but I was sort of hoping that the Georgetown Hoyas would do to Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse what they did to a foreign team in an exhibition game last November. Back then, the mighty Hoyas crushed Latvia Select like the Red Army dismantling, well, the Latvian Army. The score was 132-58. Today the Hoyas are 11-11, 3-8 in conference, and have yet to beat a ranked team.

The story of how they went from there to here is the story of the decline and fall of a basketball empire.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL is at its headiest in February. Teams across the country play critical conference games that will determine who gets into the NCAA tournament come March. Such games matter little to Georgetown since they will not be going to the big dance this year. It is worse than it looks: Georgetown has made the NCAA tournament once in the past four years.

That's right. Once. This, from the legendary program that brought us Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson. This, from the university that just six years ago had more players in the NBA than any other school save North Carolina. Today seven schools have more alums playing professionally (North Carolina, Maryland, Arizona, Michigan, Duke, Connecticut, and Kentucky).

For an alumnus of any school with a storied sports program, seeing your team in decline can be upsetting. After the great Dean Smith left North Carolina, Tar Heel fans were ready to tar and feather his successor, Bill Guthridge--who only took the team to two Final Fours in three years.

The Hoyas haven't been to the Final Four since 1985. Not that they've lacked for talent. Take the 1995-96 team that included Allen Iverson, Jerome Williams, Othella Harrington, and Jahidi White. That's four future NBA players on one college roster (somehow they only made it to the quarterfinals). The 2002-03 team boasts a sure-fire NBA standout: power forward Michael Sweetney, who is the Big East's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.

So why, then, is Georgetown at the bottom of the Big East, facing the possibility of not even making the conference tournament, let alone the NIT--let alone the NCAAs? The Hoyas have lost 9 of their last 12 games. Many of those games were decided by narrow margins (three games were lost by a point, one in overtime, and another in double overtime). Could the problem be . . . the coach?

MOST SPORTSWRITERS are wary of criticizing Hoya coach Craig Esherick. And for good reason: If Esherick clings to power after you say he's lousy--there goes your access. (Since I've never spoken to the man, I've got nothing to lose.) And, to be fair Esherick deserves some credit. In 1999 he was left with an 0-4 team (in league play) after his predecessor John Thompson departed in mid-season.

And Esherick is certainly no novice. He spent 17 years as an assistant to Thompson and even played for the Hall of Fame coach in the 1970s. In two areas he has improved the Hoyas: (1) They shoot better from the free-throw line (currently around 73 percent--and junior swingman Gerald Riley is 19th in the nation). (2) Their non-conference schedule has been beefed up, with games at Virginia and Duke this year, and the Blue Devils coming to Washington next year.

That said, Esherick's teams are now 38-41 in the Big East and 6-24 against ranked opponents. The Hoyas are 11-11 and 3-8 in the Big East despite having Sweetney, who is 16th in the nation in scoring. (Sweetney, a Consensus All-American, committed under Thompson following his sophomore year in high school. There is a good chance he will turn pro after this, his junior year.)

Without crying j'accuse, some sportswriters are beginning to point the finger Esherick's way. As Tony Kornheiser put it in the Washington Post, "The Hoyas' season seems to be characterized by their inability to make a play late in games. That's what did in Norv Turner with the Redskins." I asked renowned sportswriter John Feinstein if he agreed. "There's no question who's at fault. That's on the coach," he said, "especially when looking back at the last two years now." (Last season, Georgetown lost two games by a point and four in overtime.) "There's a pattern. Remember, Georgetown isn't an offensive team. Thompson was a terrible offensive coach. He was much better at defense. And Esherick learned to coach from Thompson."

Midway through this season there was grumbling about Esherick's performance. Then word leaked that the university was discussing extending his contract to 2009--in the middle of Georgetown's worst season since the Nixon administration--and all hell broke loose.