Georgetown's John Thompson III stood at the interview podium after Saturday's 78-72 loss to Marquette and admitted with a cracking voice that the ill-fated Hoyas' current season had been the toughest of his career.
"Period, not just at Georgetown," Thompson said. "But we will get through this. Yeah, it's trying. But we're going to go to work tonight. These guys are going to come to work tomorrow. And we're going to prepare for Monday. We're going to do what we do. We're going to work. We're going to prepare. And we're going to get better from the top on down. Is it difficult? Very, obviously."
Unfortunately for Thompson and Co., time is about to run out on this season's edition of the blue and gray. Unless the Hoyas (14-11, 5-9 Big East) pull off a minor miracle and string together four consecutive stretch-run victories beginning Monday night against No. 7 Louisville (21-5, 12-2), the Hoyas aren't headed for a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
The problem hasn't been talent; Georgetown features three McDonald's All-Americans, a preseason All-Big East selection in junior forward DaJuan Summers and a senior guard in Jessie Sapp who started on teams that captured back-to-back Big East regular-season titles and took a trip to the Final Four in 2007.
And while the team has some structural deficiencies, the primary issue isn't depth or rebounding.
Georgetown's obvious shortcoming this season has been a chronic inability to deliver in the clutch. The Hoyas simply cannot close.
Much like Thompson's first team on the Hilltop in 2004-05, which was notorious for its inability to finish games with a winning punch, this season's squad enters Monday's game in 12th place in the Big East because it has withered down the stretch in close game after close game. Consider this damning statistic: The Hoyas have led in the second half or overtime in each of their last six losses.
Saturday's game against No. 10 Marquette provided a perfect microcosm for the entire season. Georgetown swapped shots with the high-octane Golden Eagles (23-4, 12-2) for 32 minutes... only to stagger down the stretch to a 78-72 defeat. Take away the meaningless buckets the Hoyas scored on their last two possessions, and Georgetown came away with points on only three of 11 possessions after taking a 59-58 lead with 8:32 remaining.
According to Thompson, the principal culprit is experience.
There's certainly a good deal of validity to that claim. The Hoyas presently start one junior (Summers), two sophomores (Chris Wright and Austin Freeman), one redshirt freshman (Nikita Mescheriakov) and one true freshman (Greg Monroe) with a bench consisting primarily of one senior (Sapp), one sophomore (Julian Vaughn) and two freshmen (Jason Clark and Henry Sims).
According to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, Georgetown's roster ranks 314th among 344 Division I programs and 14th in the Big East with an average of 1.12 years of experience. Given that Pomeroy credits Mescheriakov with a season of experience, Wright with a season (though he was injured throughout league play in his freshman campaign), and seldom-used walk-on Bryon Jansen with a season, Georgetown is even younger than 1.12 years suggest.
The primary difference between this season's squad and last season's Big East champion team (28-6) is the disparity in close games. This group is 1-5 in games decided by six points or fewer or in overtime, while that group was 6-1 in such games thanks to the presence of three key seniors (Roy Hibbert, Patrick Ewing Jr. and Jon Wallace).
Not only is the nucleus of this season's team much younger, neither of the team's two upperclassmen has elevated his game to lead in the crucible. Sapp has struggled so much that he has lost his starting role. And Summers, while leading the team in scoring (14.0 points), has completely vanished in the clutch.
In Georgetown's last three losses (vs. Cincinnati, at Syracuse and vs. Marquette), the Hoyas have had a combined 29 possessions in just over 13 minutes of playing time between their last lead and the conclusions of the games. Staggeringly, Summers has committed four turnovers while not scoring a single point in those 29 possessions with games - and indeed the season - on the line.
Given how much the Hoyas have to learn about focusing their talents and finishing off opponents, perhaps a lengthy run through the National Invitation Tournament would serve the program's future better than a mercy bid and immediate exit from the NCAAs.