Georgetown comes to the crossroads of its season desperately in need of a dose of leadership.
Until Thursday night's 75-58 loss to unranked West Virginia at Verizon Center, all of the team's losses were understandable, if not predictable. Before the Mountaineers eviscerated the 12th-ranked Hoyas (12-5, 3-3 Big East), Georgetown's record was blemished only by a stretch-run swoon against a higher ranked team in the third game of the season (Tennessee), two losses to then-No. 3 teams (Duke and Pittsburgh) and a six-point setback at Notre Dame, the program with the nation's longest homecourt winning streak.
But it's difficult to dismiss a 17-point drubbing from an unranked team with no size and an injured point guard on your own floor. Given that the Hoyas have lost just five games by double digits to unranked teams since John Thompson III arrived on the Hilltop five years ago, the meltdown against the Mountaineers stands as one of the worst performances of the generally glittering Thompson III era.
Thompson described the game as a "blip." And given that it was the team's first double-digit home loss to an unranked team since Nov. 19, 2006 (Old Dominion, 75-62), it's impossible to argue with that assessment. In terms of intensity, there's little doubt that Thursday's flat showing was an anomaly. However, the West Virginia game highlighted a number of fundamental issues which have plagued the team in both wins and losses this season: suspect rebounding, poor outside shooting and a lack of on-floor leadership.
As the Hoyas embark upon a three-game road trip that begins Sunday at struggling Seton Hall (9-9, 0-6), that final chronic issue is the most troubling. When the Hoyas lost four-year starting point guard Jonathan Wallace to graduation, along with three other seniors in Roy Hibbert, Patrick Ewing Jr. and Tyler Crawford, growing pains in the leadership department were expected.
The team returned only two scholarship upperclassmen (senior guard Jessie Sapp and junior forward DaJuan Summers), but perhaps nobody realized just how deeply Wallace's departure would be felt during the grinding marathon otherwise known as the Big East season.
"We had a core group that provided leadership for four years," Thompson said. "We've got guys in new roles. And yes, there has been an adjustment period and some searching in terms of leadership. It's time for everyone to step up."
Leadership, however, is often an individual endeavor, and the Hoyas need a take-charge performance from their logical on-court leader. On this season's young squad, which too often abandons Thompson's patented patience and precision on both ends, that player is Sapp, whom Thompson has often described as the guy who knows what his coach wants more than anyone else on the team. Sapp is mired in the worst shooting slump of his career, making only eight of his past 33 attempts from 3-point range.
But the New York native brings the Hoyas a combination of experience and edge, a competitive hardness that no other player on the roster possesses. Even in the midst of his scoring drought, Sapp contributes in all the intangible and hustle categories. He's second on the team (to Greg Monroe) in plus-minus value (plus-23) in Georgetown's 10 games against major-conference opponents. He's among the league leaders in steals (1.5) and he's the most instinctive rebounder on a team.
While it's clear freshman Jason Clark (who has taken many of Sapp's minutes) is the team's high-energy combo guard of the future, his multitude of miscues played a major role in Georgetown's consecutive losses to Duke and West Virginia. Sapp is the present, the blue-collar bridge between Georgetown teams past and present.
"It's a group process, but we need Sapp's toughness right now," Thompson said. "We had a couple of very good practices [after the West Virginia game]. We'll see how that translates at Seton Hall."