A Program in Peril
Why the Georgetown Hoyas’ poor play is about more than just their on-court performance
It was just an average January Tuesday night, other than the fact that I was yelling at my TV in rage and texting my friends a flurry of curses that would make any sailor proud.
Well, it was still just an average January Tuesday night — if you’re a Georgetown basketball fan.
I had just seen the team I’d loved for years blow one of their best shooting nights of the season (11-of-24 from deep for a JT3-era team is downright filthy) thanks to an inexcusable defensive performance, allowing Creighton to post a team true shooting percentage of 62.6 (above average is considered somewhere around 55).
Pouring over the box score and advanced stats, like the crazed and often times number-obsessed basketball fan I am, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing; something was off.
From everything I was seeing, the game should have been much closer; the team should have played better, but they just… didn’t.
And it wasn’t the first time it happened during this season, either. You know what it’s like watching a pick-up game from the sidelines? That’s the team this year.
For those who aren’t familiar with what pick-up ball looks like, it’s usually a combination of a reckless yet objectively good guard chucking up contested shots, two guys trying to play smart, fundamental basketball, one guy who’s actually good but spends most of his time ball-watching, and one dude who’s just there for a good time.
Occasionally, there’ll be a stretch where the other team’s defense collapses so egregiously that the team almost has no choice but to make a play that somewhat resembles team basketball.
Albeit a crude and admittedly slightly oversimplified explanation, that’s Georgetown basketball this year.
That’s not to say that some of the team’s best offense isn’t watching senior guard and co-captain D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera go to work and take hapless defenders off the dribble, because, by God, that seems to be this team’s only salvation at times.
However, it does need to be said that Smith-Rivera (affectionately known as DSR) has taken a backseat far too often this season.
I get the Princeton offense. It’s a big man offense. It’s a reflection of what college basketball used to be. It’s Patrick Ewing facing up and wreaking havoc on defenders who could neither size up to the 7-foot behemoth nor match his deceptively quick foot speed.
But Georgetown has failed to field a team that could actually run the offense since Greg Monroe (six years ago).
Wait, scratch that. These Hoyas currently have a team that could run the offense, but freshman center Jessie Govan is sitting behind senior center and co-captain Bradley Hayes, along with his media darling of a redemption story.
Freshman wing Kaleb Johnson is stuck behind junior wing Reggie Cameron, who, despite his sweet shooting stroke, is posting plus/minus numbers that look like my Calculus final.
Sophomore guard L.J. Peak has come off the bench for three straight games as a glorified sixth man to limit his foul trouble, and it’s succeeded. Peak has thankfully only amassed four fouls in each of the last three games — better than fouling out of course, but come on.
Other sophomore guard Tre Campbell, the team’s only true point guard, starts to let DSR play off ball and help him get going, but then disappears for what seems like the final 15 minutes of each half.
Last year’s leading scorer off the bench, Paul White? Sidelined for essentially the entire season with a bum hip. And I haven’t even mentioned how sophomore forward and touted Louisville transfer Akoy Agau tore his ACL playing pick-up ball before Midnight Madness.
So that’s where this team’s personnel and rotations have gone wrong. But even with a depleted a roster, a team like Georgetown, a team that many people predicted would finish second in a loaded Big East this season and top-20 in the entire country, has to find a way to still play their best basketball.
A Numerical Approach
Smith-Rivera has taken a backseat far too often this season.
For other maligned Georgetown fans like me, it’s no secret that DSR has yet to play consistently great basketball this season. Sans 27 and 30 point performances against UNC-Wilmington and Maryland-Eastern Shore, the NBA hopeful guard has failed to crack 20 points in a game.
He’s also shooting a career low percentage from beyond the three-point line.
But I noticed a trend when searching for an explanation as to why DSR wasn’t shooting it like his old self. In games where Smith-Rivera shot well, it seemed like the rest of the team didn’t, and vice versa.
After doing some digging on KenPom.com and a little number crunching of my own, I was able to plot DSR’s effective field goal percentage versus the team’s (obviously minus Smith-Rivera’s numbers). The results were telling.
Effective field goal percentage is a measure of how efficiently a player shoots the ball, making it easy to infer overall offensive efficiency — as it weighs the value of a three-pointer accordingly since it is a more difficult shot but also more rewarding.
In games where DSR is roughly 5-percent more efficient than the team, they are 2–2. In games where the team is roughly 5-percent more efficient than DSR, they’re 3–3.
But when the team shoots within 5-percent efficiency of one another, the Hoyas are 4–1 (Monmouth).
In other words, in two-thirds of the team’s games, there has been a significant imbalance between their best player’s shooting performance and the team’s. While there is no evidence for or against causation between the two numbers, there’s a solid enough correlation to believe that if everyone is equally involved enough in the offense and shooting the ball at a similar rate, chemistry is higher.
The DSR-takeover show only works for so long before the rest of the team goes cold, and the principles of the Princeton offense suggest that a balanced offensive attack is the key to victory.
Still, these numbers lend themselves to some scrutiny. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is not a bad shooter. A career 38-percent three point shooter doesn’t become an inefficient chucker (32-percent on more than six attempts a game) overnight.
Besides, the games where he shoots far worse than his team but Georgetown still wins have to have a better explanation.
Is Team Chemistry a Problem?
A possible explanation is that balance in the Hoyas offense is almost non-existent.
The team is almost entirely reliant on DSR for shot-creation, especially in end-of-shot-clock situations (shot clock at 5 or below).
Smith-Rivera has attempted 43 shots in such situations, good for nearly a quarter of all his shot attempts on the season. Moreover, he has shot a horrendously inefficient effective field goal percentage of 37.3.
Compared to last year where DSR shot around 9-percent of his attempts late in the shot clock and shot an effective field goal percentage of 45.5, clearly things have changed for the worse. If those numbers aren’t startling enough, Smith-Rivera attempted just 33 such shots last season.
In fewer than half the games, DSR has already attempted 10 more end-of-shot-clock shots than he did the entirety of last season.
Granted, the shot clock this season is five seconds shorter, but the reduced time is inexcusable when a player like Seton Hall’s sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead is maintaining a similar percentage to last season.
It really isn’t Smith-Rivera’s fault, however. The fault is in the team’s blatant lack of execution on the offensive end.
Everyone, not just DSR, is shooting a higher percentage of their shots at the end of the shot clock this season.
While Georgetown stills operates their offense at an above average efficiency (78th in the country out of 351, per KenPom), end of shot clock scoring generally relies more on individual skill rather than overall offensive execution.
When running an offense, a good set generally takes fewer than 15 seconds to materialize, and elite offenses run their sets in seven seconds or less (in the same mold of the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns, circa 2005–2010).
While these issues go back to personnel problems and an inability to run the Princeton offense efficiently, any high-level Division I team can feed off one another and throw together some semblance of an offense when a set breaks down.
It’s kind of like what happens when you run with the same crew in pick-up ball over and over again. The reckless guard calms down, the guy just standing around starts moving off-ball and cutting, the dude looking for a good time realizes that winning is the good time, and the two friends trying to play team ball are finally happy.
That’s what should happen on a team with ten scholarship players, a supposed projected All-American (yes, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera was, in some circles, on a short list for potential All-Americans), and a supposed projected lottery pick.
But it hasn’t.
As a student at Georgetown, I hear things. I see things. I have sources that I don’t even realize are sources.
When people tell me that they never see “the basketball team,” just L.J. Peak and Tre Campbell eating at the dining hall or DSR just walking by himself, things like team chemistry become a concern.
When you hear things about the team celebrating their biggest win of the season, a home victory over old Big East rival Syracuse, individually and quietly, team chemistry concerns become more of a reality.
When you see Smith-Rivera and Hayes yelling at each other on the court, Smith-Rivera angrily gesturing because Copeland missed an easy open pass, and former Head Coach John Thompson, Jr. piping up from the stands about the team’s play, team chemistry concerns are actually quite possibly the biggest reason this team has completely and utterly failed to live up to expectations.
And it’s not like Head Coach John Thompson III is helping anything either.
Recruiting and the Future of Hoya Paranoia
Team chemistry concerns are actually quite possibly the biggest reason this team has completely and utterly failed to live up to expectations.
John Thompson III is a polarizing figure. Well, he was last season when the Hoyas avoided losing to a double-digit seed in the tournament for the first time in seven years.
Now he’s just what every critic and fan points to as the program’s training wheels — the very thing holding them back from entering the modern era of college basketball.
Sure, the team may very well have chemistry issues, but that’s on the Head Coach to alleviate, not to mention having flexible and adaptive rotations — both in-game and game-to-game. It took Peak fouling out four times in six games for Thompson to think of bringing him off the bench.
Govan has definitively outplayed Hayes in two straight games while also offering the best three-point shooting percentage on the team. I know I’m not the only one wondering how long it’s going to take for JT3 to insert him into the starting lineup.
And it’s not like Peak and Hayes are bad players, either. They just perform better in short spurts and offer less flexibility; thus, they’re better served as bench players who can effectively play starters’ minutes on a game-to-game basis.
But Thompson III is just coming on to this idea, as Georgetown’s season goes from Sweet 16 hopeful to hopefully hosting a first-round NIT game.
9–6, 2–1 in Big East play, 3 losses to small-conference schools at home. This definitely isn’t your daddy’s Georgetown. But that’s okay.
Generational big men are few and far between these days, and it’s not like Georgetown is still a recruiting hot bed for premier big man talent (see: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, Jahlil Okafor).
There is, however, a multitude of guards looking for that perfect fit where they can showcase their game and hopefully climb up draft boards. But what can Georgetown offer other than the post-based Princeton Offense and the expectations of carrying on a tradition future recruits weren’t even alive for?
The last guard the Hoyas sent to the NBA was a guy named Allen Iverson. That was 20 years ago.
With guards Jagan Mosley (2016) and Tyler Foster (2017) committed, Georgetown will at least have some guard talent coming in to try and fill Smith-Rivera’s shoes after this year.
However, this season is looking more and more like a lost cause. Sure, the team may get it together and beginning running Thompson’s system to the T, but with a tournament resume like the Hoyas’, it’s a far cry to expect them to earn an at-large bid, barring an improbable 15–3 run through Big East play. And there’s no way in hell this team can win the Big East tournament without some serious luck.
So why not revise the gameplan and let the players’ play to their strengths.
Isaac Copeland excels at finishing at the rim and drilling catch-and-shoot threes, so why is he shooting over a third of his shots from mid-range (where he shoots a horrid 30.4-percent)?
L.J. Peak loves taking it to the rim, so why is the lane clogged for most of his drives?
Govan can absolutely drill open jumpers, so why not put DSR and him in a high pick-and-roll and make the defense pick their poison?
The answer to these question is sadly, not “why not” but rather, “why?”
Why should Thompson change when he has no incentive to? The university all but worships his family, and with the Thompson Athletic Center, the school’s shiny, expensive new athletic facility and recruiting toy, set for completion in late 2017, it would take a Paterno-level scandal at Georgetown to upset the status quo.
But the status quo is clearly making fans miserable. For a school that already struggles to hit 50-percent attendance at games, the team isn’t helping that. And while JT3 and the coaching staff is definitely a large part of the problem, the players alone are the ones who can turn their season around.
Then again, if team chemistry truly is an issue, then it likely stems from the team’s leader: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. And regardless of who is in the right and who is in the wrong, a team cannot and will not band together for a leader they do not respect.
While chemistry issues at this point are generally speculative, one thing is clear: ten of the thirteen players on the team have more to play for beyond this season. Senior guard Riyan Williams is a walk-on and lifelong bench player, and Hayes spent his first three years essentially in Williams’ position. So only Smith-Rivera is playing out a traditional swan song.
With the way this season has started and with how loaded the Big East is, the rest of the team may already be looking towards next year, another year out from making the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This team was supposed to be a “special group,” in the words of last season’s seniors, the team that would finally break the Hoyas’ nearly decade long Sweet-16 drought. But this group couldn’t be further from special, and neither could the basketball program.
For a team once mentioned alongside the nation’s blue bloods, Georgetown is all but gone. And for its fans, it’s only a matter of time before hope follows suit.