- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

Georgetown played St. John’s last night at Madison Square Garden.

And nobody cared.

Two decades ago, Hoyas vs. Johnnies meant JT and Louie, Thompson’s towel and Carnesecca’s sweater, Ewing in the post and Mullin from the perimeter — a must-watch matchup between two top-five teams in the trembling temple of sports Mecca.

Last night’s game barely rated a slot on ESPN’s sports ticker, a teletype reference to two once-proud Big East behemoths gone basketball bankrupt.

If a GU three falls in the Garden, does it make a sound?

“It’s ugly. I just don’t think they have the talent to compete in the Big East,” said District native Craig “Big Sky” Shelton, the forward who in 1980 helped propel the Hoyas to the first of six trips to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament under legendary coach John Thompson. “Basically, the picture looks pretty bad over there right now.”

The athletic department at Georgetown is apparently looking at a different picture. After the Hoyas (13-9, 4-7 Big East) had more turnovers (18) than field goals (17) in last Saturday’s 59-53 loss to Temple, coach Craig Esherick somewhat mystifyingly stated, “There were some things we did today that encouraged me.”

This is the same coach who dubbed this season’s team the best-shooting squad he’s guided in his five-plus seasons as head man on the Hilltop. Try explaining that observation to a national TV audience that saw the Hoyas start the second half at Temple 0-for-12 before recording their first basket with 9:50 remaining.

Of course, the team’s abysmal performance against a pedestrian Temple team is simply a snapshot from a season on the blink. But Esherick’s remark after such a debacle illustrates the level of administrative denial that has accompanied Georgetown’s slide toward the bottom of the Big East in what disgruntled fans are referring to as the “Esherick Error.”

Both Esherick and athletic director Joe Lang, the man who gave the coach a contract extension through 2009 after last season’s disappointing 6-10 Big East campaign, declined multiple interview requests for this story. So others, and the facts, must do the talking.

“Georgetown has always been a real buttoned-up place, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’re not willing to talk,” said ESPN analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas in a recent interview. “They used to call that Hoya Paranoia, and back when I was in college that really meant something. Back then when they came walking down the hall and shut you out [of practices or the locker room], you really thought you were missing something. Now I think people could care less. You don’t hear about Hoya Paranoia these days because they no longer scare anybody.”

That demotion in status began when Thompson took his imposing persona and coaching prowess to the radio booth and turned the reins of the program over to former player and longtime assistant Esherick on Jan.8, 1999. Esherick has posted a 103-68 record at Georgetown in the five-plus years since. But a closer look at the numbers reveals some startling statistics:

cEsherick’s teams are 41-52 in Big East play, 11th among the 14 league members in victories during his tenure. His teams have won neither a regular-season nor Big East tournament title and have earned only one NCAA tournament bid (2001). In contrast, Thompson’s teams made 20 trips to the NCAA tournament in his last 24 full seasons.

• Esherick’s teams are 7-28 against Top 25 opponents, and the Hoyas are mired in a 12-game losing streak against ranked teams since 2002. This season’s squad, which will have to finish strong to even earn a Big East tournament berth, has looked particularly helpless against Top 25 foes, trailing at halftime by an average 23.3 points in blowout losses to Connecticut (94-70), Duke (85-66) and Providence (65-50).

After the Hoyas were whipped at No.23 Providence on Jan.26, Bill Reynolds of the Providence Journal wrote, “Remember when Georgetown coming to town could warm up a cold winter night? No more. Now the Hoyas are just an opponent, no different than Rutgers or West Virginia, Virginia Tech or Miami. Just an opponent, and not a very good one at that.”

• Poor recruiting and defections have been a double-edged dagger during the Esherick era. Four players and two assistant coaches, including Ronny Thompson, John’s son, have bolted. Last season’s exodus that included Thompson, assistant coach Chip Simms and the starting backcourt of Tony Bethel (N.C. State) and Drew Hall (Gonzaga) was the most startling. Thompson headed to Arkansas and took prized recruit Darian Townes with him. The only consensus Top 25 recruit Esherick has lured to the Hilltop, Frederick, Md., native Harvey Thomas, transferred to Baylor after one tumultuous season with the blue and gray (2001-02). Such instability is rarely a hallmark of well-captained programs.

• Equally worrisome is the fact that only one scholarship player currently on the roster, reserve forward Amadou Kilkenny-Diaw, is from the region; local talent was a staple of the program during its glory years. But with the lone exception of Mike Sweetney, who committed before Thompson resigned, Esherick has failed to capitalize on one of the most obvious resources at his disposal — the wealth of Beltway basketball riches at the prep level.

“He needs to recruit more local kids,” Shelton said. “Look at [District native] Delonte West up at Saint Joe’s. He’s an All-American. How did he get away? Coach Esherick has got to reach out to former players like myself and area high school coaches and ask for our help in making kids aware of the incredible opportunities at Georgetown. He needs to make the program part of this community again, because that’s gone.”

cAnother glaring problem is the schedule. A substantial portion of Esherick’s winning record has been built by crushing cupcakes. Thompson was noted for his soft non-conference schedules, but his protege has taken the practice to new lows. Georgetown’s schedule has become progressively weaker under Esherick, ranking in the bottom third among Big East teams each of the last four seasons (see chart) and a tragicomic 143rd nationally this season.

Virtually every Georgetown fan has been stung by the annual sarcastic query of whether Esherick and Co. are gunning for the MEAC’s automatic bid.

“I don’t know why he constantly plays all those MEAC teams,” said Shelton in reference to this season’s trio of opponents (Delaware State, Norfolk State and Howard) from what is traditionally one of the weakest Division I conferences. “Does he really think that’s going to prepare the team for Big East play?”

The standard university response is that such forgettables appear on the schedule because they are willing to play Georgetown without demanding a home date in return. Financial concerns are paramount on the Hilltop these days, given the school’s recently reported $700million debt. But the men’s basketball team lost more than $800,000 last season (see chart) using the MEAC scheduling mentality.

In part, that loss can be explained by the sparse crowds at 20,600-seat MCI Center, which is an expensive rental when you average 7,411 fans. The Hoyas had the lowest percentage of home capacity in the conference last season and rank next-to-last (35.97 percent) in the category this season. Georgetown has sold out once since moving to the arena before the 1997-98 season. That sellout came earlier this season against top-ranked Duke, perhaps suggesting that a much tougher schedule could be part of the Hoyas’ financial solution.

“They used to draw well at [Capital Centre], and that place was way out beyond the Beltway,” Bilas said. “But the bottom line is that Washington area fans will support a winner. I still think Craig is a good X’s and O’s coach, but his record hasn’t been what you would expect given their talent level in recent years.”

With Sweetney gone to the NBA a year early, the Hoyas find themselves at a low ebb on frontcourt talent. But that, too, is Esherick’s responsibility. And with traditional powers like Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul set to join the Big East next season, competing in the league is only going to become more difficult.

With that challenge in mind, perhaps it’s time for the Georgetown administration to recognize the diminished state of the program and make a change at the top. Perhaps it’s time for the administration to recognize that while Esherick has done a commendable job maintaining the program’s exemplary academic record, he hasn’t come close to matching his mentor’s success on the court.

Nobody claims it would be easy to find an affordable coach with the vision and talent to return Georgetown to the top. But those who say you can’t build a consistent winner without a bevy of blue-chip talent or at least a 5,000-seat on-campus arena need look no further than Philadelphia, where unbeaten Saint Joseph’s (22-0) is proof that there’s still room for an athletic program with forgettable facilities and a minimal budget to be a major player on the national landscape.

The biggest difference between the No.2 Hawks and the nether-dwelling Hoyas is coach Phil Martelli. Thirty years ago, Georgetown found its Martelli at now-defunct St. Anthony’s High School in the District. Somewhere out there, there’s another John Thompson simply waiting for his shot.

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