- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2013

Past the flag-wavers and gyrating pep band in blue and gray polo shirts, expectation drifted through the Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall like the smell of burnt blue cotton candy.

“It’s never been like this,” one man muttered.

An hour before fifth-ranked Georgetown learned its NCAA tournament fate Sunday night, pom-poms and scarves and balloons and hoodies insisting “I bleed Hoya blue” clogged the sprawling room.

Young and old gobbled free hot dogs and pizza and make-your-own nachos and tried, sometimes in vain, to find a spare seat and carry on conversations amid the din.

“You better move over!” thumped speakers high above the gathering.

This felt different, same as the team they support.

How much different will be determined beginning Friday, when No. 2 seed Georgetown faces 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in Philadelphia. The Eagles beat Miami earlier in the season, captured the Atlantic Sun tournament, and, as a reward, face John Thompson III’s young, surging group.

To appreciate Georgetown’s remarkable journey this season, go back to last year’s Selection Sunday. Same room. Same floor-to-ceiling projection television. Same live look-ins by CBS. Same free hot dogs.

The similarities end there.

Among the onlookers was Nerlens Noel and his hi-top fade haircut. Then the country’s top recruit, Noel eventually took his shot-blocking wizardry to Kentucky (announced by the university’s logo shaved into that trademark haircut).

Georgetown lost out on the big-time center. Its leading scorer, Jason Clark, graduated. Another gifted contributor, Hollis Thompson, departed a year early to pursue professional basketball.

And somehow Georgetown improved. We’re not talking incremental, building-a-program sort of steps forward. No, Georgetown won 13 of its last 15 games, defeated nemesis Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and Verizon Center, and captured the Big East’s regular season title.

This is the sort of transformation that the endless bracket projections and avalanche of numbers March brings — ratings percentage index and strength of schedule and so on — can’t quantify.

Ten freshmen and sophomores are on the roster. Not a problem. The group has adopted the quiet poise of one of those youngsters, do-everything Big East Player of the Year and likely top-five NBA draft pick Otto Porter, and created a defense that allows just 55.7 points per game. They are a calm, workmanlike group with a star from small-town Missouri who doesn’t act like one, at least off the court.

Much of that success came without third-leading scorer Greg Whittington, limited to 13 games because of academic problems. Didn’t matter. Talented center Tyler Adams missed the season because of a heart condition. Didn’t matter.

See how the team has thrived through the losses and it’s enough to propel the belief that surged through the dining hall that maybe this March will be different. The ugly history and busted brackets aren’t far away. Georgetown hasn’t made a run deep into the NCAA tournament since the stroll to the Final Four in 2007.

You know the rest. Last year Georgetown earned a No. 3 seed, but No. 11 NC State dropped the Hoyas in the second round. The year before, then-unknown Virginia Commonwealth stunned Georgetown en route to the Final Four. Three years ago, No. 14 Ohio ended Georgetown’s season in the first round.

The list goes on.

But Sunday felt like something new, as a roar overtook the room at 6:13 p.m. when Georgetown’s destination was unveiled on the television’s big screen. The drama wasn’t if the Hoyas would make their 29th all-time NCAA appearance, but when and where. Cheerleaders hopped and a massive cardboard cut-out of Porter’s face thrust skyward and five television cameras rolled and two kids clustered at the television’s base. One clutched a stuffed animal, another a homemade sign in blue and gray.

The cheers faded. The CBS analysts blared about “corporate champions.” Thompson, Georgetown scarf around his neck and “coach of the year” placards bearing his name on each table, checked his cellphone. Students resumed their assault on platters of cookies and highlighted textbooks pushed aside for a few minutes.

This celebration was less about earning a high seed in the tournament than the anticipation of what may come.

Finally, Thompson grabbed a mic, voice calm as always. Lights flicked on. Reverential silence covered the room. The cotton candy was gone.

“We’ve got to go learn a little bit about who we play,” the coach said. “We plan on being around for a while.”